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Botanical Architects

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A miniature American West, filled with doll-size buildings crafted from tree bark, tobacco-leaf tepees and even a teensy stagecoach fashioned from a gourd, awaits visitors at the Eiteljorg Museum's holiday model railroad display, Jingle Rails.

Along 1,200 feet of track installed on platforms in what is normally the museum's banquet hall, seven trains travel from a tiny twinkling replica of downtown Indianapolis at Christmastime westward to wee versions of California's Yosemite National Park and the Golden Gate Bridge. On the way, they pass a miniature Eiteljorg, made of cork bark cut into blocks with a 3/8-inch bandsaw blade, over willow-twig bridges and through tunnels made of hollowed logs.

MIKE POTTER
  • Mike Potter

Created to offer visitors a fantasy western vacation, the museum display will have been viewed by almost 200,000 people throughout its four-year existence when this year's incarnation closes Jan. 19.

"We have children and parents and grandparents coming in huge numbers," says John Vanausdall, Eiteljorg president and CEO.

By the time spectators arrive to see Jingle Rails, though, the small crew of artists who pieced the show together will be back in their Alexandria, Kentucky, workshop. Doubtlessly they'll be taking a well-deserved breather.

Most of the time, the employees of Applied Imagination are as busy as Santa's proverbial elves.

Woodworking tools in hand and drawers stuffed full of botanical materials--nuts, berries, rocks, bark and the like--about 10 artists assembled the Eiteljorg's locomotive layout in the Applied Imagination's workshop, near Cincinnati. The largest part of the display was built there four years ago, but additions include a tiny Indiana State Fair last year and this year an Aspen, Colorado, ski scene.

Construction of the Indianapolis scene and a string of others continue year-round. Then, especially during the holidays, the crew packs its artistry into trucks and crisscrosses the country, installing layouts in indoor and outdoor displays. Dressed in company T-shirts, sweatshirts and comfortable shoes, they hoist, staple and screw their artwork together and meticulously position buildings and landmarks.

It took four days in November to install Jingle Rails.

"You know Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas?," says Cindy Johnson, who has worked for Applied Imagination for more than a decade. During the holidays, she and her colleagues sometimes sing songs from the film's soundtrack for fun while they work. "We just got finished singing Making Christmas."

MIKE POTTER
  • Mike Potter

Applied Imagination was founded in 1991 by Paul Busse, a landscape architect with a childhood fascination for model trains. Since then Busse and his troupe have built now-famous displays at Krohn Conservatory in their hometown of Cincinnati, New York Botanical Garden in The Bronx, The United States Botanic Garden in Washington, D.C. and the Eiteljorg's, among others. They even crossed the border for a layout at the Royal Botanical Gardens in Ontario.

These days, Busse, who at 64 suffers from Parkinson's disease, delegates most of the work to his employees. But, ever the company patriarch, he visits the workshop often--he can see it from his home's windows--and travels to oversee installations as often as his health allows.

"My whole career has been a gift," he says. "I have fortunately been able to combine everything I love to do."

As a child, Busse was fascinated with trains. He has a photo of himself as a toddler, riding on his neighbor's miniature railroad. And his staffers know the stories of Busse's college days at Ohio State University in the 1970s, when he and his roommate used to chase trains in a Volkswagen Bug and camp next to tracks for fun.

"He hasn't gotten too far from his beginnings," says Johnson.

But the tracks for Applied Imagination weren't laid until 1975 when Busse was working as a self-employed landscape artist and discovered garden trains. They are model trains that run inside or outside, and their cars are each about the size of a loaf of bread. Thinking of adding some of them to his landscapes, Busse decided to build one.

That's all it took.

MIKE POTTER
  • Mike Potter

The experiment in a friend's hobby store caught the attention of the local media and the then-Ohio Governor Jim Rhodes, who asked him to construct a model railroad for the 1982 Ohio State Fair. That was a hit, too, and by 1984 Busse added garden trains to his repertoire.

Now, with 10 full-time employees who refer to themselves as "botanical architects," Busse says, "I feel like my hands have been multiplied."

Busse's "extra hands" have a variety of backgrounds. But almost all have one thing in common: They asked him for their jobs after becoming fascinated with his work.

Johnson, a 60-year-old former mental health technician who also worked off-and-on as a wallpaper hanger, started at Applied Imagination in 1998 after stopping Busse at Krohn Conservatory while he fussed over one of his displays--a larger-than-life music box with waterfall and train features.

"I just asked him for a job right then and there," she remembers.

Busse asked Johnson for a resume and hired her six months later.

"I honestly never believed I could make a living doing art," she says. "I get to use a part of my brain I've been neglecting for years. I couldn't have ordered it up any better."

All of Applied Imagination's artists are jacks-of-all-trades as they build the layouts. First they study photos or drawings of buildings and landmarks for a would-be layout, and then they create foam board models that are eventually covered in botanical materials.

But each person has his or her favorite niche.

MIKE POTTER
  • Mike Potter

Johnson loves the architecture of the tiny buildings. For the Eiteljorg layout, she constructed a doll-size version of Yosemite's Ahwahnee Hotel with river rocks, and she fashioned its roof out of leaves gathered from a shingle oak tree outside the backdoor of the workshop. She's also responsible for an old west-style firehouse made of beech bark and a windmill with maple tree seeds (helicopters) replacing wind veins.

The same way Johnson feels about little buildings, Applied Imagination Director Leslie Salka feels about living plants. And that's the reason Salka, a New Yorker and former self-employed Italian plaster worker, wrote Busse in 2006 asking for work. Salka's talents are key to the business because, unlike the indoor show at the Eiteljorg, most of Busse's trains travel outside as well, and make their way through public gardens.

Since Salka lived in New York, Busse first hired her part-time about eight years ago to help with installations in New York, Washington and Chicago. But after Hurricane Sandy flooded her home in 2012, Salka and her husband moved to the Cincinnati area.

She calls herself an amateur gardener, but Busse tells her that she "paints with plants."

"This is like my dream job," she says.

And it is made even more interesting because the company's staff has such varied backgrounds.

"All of us have lots of different talents," she says. "Some of us are self-taught and others have college degrees."

There's even a hairstylist in the group.

Judy Eglian, who started working for the business in 2005, still cuts select clients' hair--Busse is one of them--but she prefers working with the model railroads.

"This is so much more fun just because you get paid to create something, and you are proud of it when you are done. And the whole world gets to see it," says Eglian.

MIKE POTTER
  • Mike Potter

Her work is part of displays in Chicago, New York and Washington. But the piece she's proudest of is her replica of Monument Circle's Soldiers and Sailors Monument at Christmastime. Representing her first attempt at sculpture, the piece, made of 37 different natural materials, took several months to complete as she worked on other projects. When she was finished with her tiny version of the monument, made with everything from cloves and cinnamon to eucalyptus seeds and pine cone scales, an electrical crew added wee multicolored lights to make it look like Indianapolis' largest and most famous holiday decoration.

 "That is the coolest building I have made yet," says Eglian.

Beth Laskey, who is responsible for Jingle Rails' version of Yellowstone National Park's Old Faithful Inn, started at Applied Imagination almost five years ago. While completing a late-in-life degree, Bachelor of Fine Arts in painting, a professor pointed her toward the business, and she hasn't looked back.

"I looked at the website and I thought 'oh my gosh, I have to do this. I have to work here,'" she says.

It's unusual to hear such statements at most businesses, but they are the norm at Applied Imagination.

Perhaps that's because of Busse's approach.

He  is proud of all of his company's layouts, including those for the department stores Saks Fifth Avenue and Macy's and one for the Bellagio in Las Vegas. But the 22-year-old display in the New York Botanical Garden show is his favorite. Filled with replicas of the city's landmarks, including everything from the Guggenheim Museum to St. Patrick's Cathedral, it has become a holiday tradition for thousands of New Yorkers and attracted the attention of the New York Times.

"If I have to pick one, my heart goes out to New York," he says.

MIKE POTTER
  • Mike Potter

But Indianapolis also holds a special place in Busse's heart. It's where he found his wife of 14 years, Margaret Duke, who was working as an exhibit artist at the Indianapolis Children's Museum while he was working on its Reuben Wells steam-powered locomotive exhibit long before Jingle Rails was even a gleam in Busse's eye.

"He's got a great sense of humor," says Duke. "He came to me for supplies to play a practical joke on one of my co-workers."

The train displays, with their minute structures made from bark, nuts and berries, illustrate Busse's whimsical sense of humor too.

In fact, Busse says spreading joy is what it's really all about.

"I've always felt we are in the business of happiness," he says.

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