Kupjack reflected in a mirror in one of his dioramas.
Kupjack reflected in a mirror in one of his dioramas. Photo: Michael Zajakowski

“Miniature art is all about power,” says Jay Kupjack, tapping the ash of his cigarette into a red ceramic mug. “It’s about having control over something tiny. You are so much bigger and more powerful, and you could destroy it.”

Whether this dark sentiment drove Kupjack’s father and brother, also renowned miniaturists — the father’s work is enshrined in the Art Institute’s beloved Thorne Miniature Rooms — can’t be known. They are both dead. Their ashes are somewhere here in Kupjack’s cluttered Pilsen workshop. He can’t find them. “We have a dog that was cremated that’s here too. Quite a little group.”

With his receding mane of gray-blond hair, frizzled sideburns, and dollar-store glasses, Kupjack looks as if he were cut from the panel of a Robert Crumb comic book. The 66-year-old walks down a corridor lined with glass display cases containing small-scale dioramas of incredible verisimilitude: a Victorian playroom, a Chinese laundry on New York’s Second Avenue, a Colonial-style dining room based on his childhood home in Park Ridge, with furnishings that were shaped and polished on a jeweler’s lathe. Kupjack hunches over a Parisian street scene that his father, Eugene, made in the 1960s. Through the window of a café, an overhead lamp throws yellow light over tiny cups and saucers. On the cobblestone street, a fraying Moulin Rouge poster is wrapped around a green column. There are no figures. Their absence, a Kupjack trademark, creates an apocalyptic sense of dread. Where are all the people? It’s like they didn’t have time to finish their coffee or turn out the lights.

Each diorama can take over a year to make and fetch upward of $250,000. But there are rarely buyers. Hence Kupjack’s plan to show the work of his father and brother at Navy Pier. The exhibition space isn’t cheap. He has borrowed $30,000 from friends to rent it. The event is less than two weeks away and he has yet to sell any tickets.

Older than Jay by two years, his brother, Hank, suffered heart failure in February. By the time Jay arrived at his Lincoln Park apartment, Hank was already dead. Jay cut off a lock of his brother’s hair as a keepsake. Hank’s chisel, file, and hammer are still on the workbench where he left them, not far from a large unframed portrait of Eugene, who died in 1991.

Now Jay has been left alone with his own heart problems — in the last decade, he has had a triple bypass and 10 heart attacks or occlusions — and mounting debts. He hopes the retrospective at Navy Pier will revive the family business. And yet it sometimes seems he’s lost the passion for the art form that has both elevated and weighed down his family.

As it happens, making miniatures was never the first career choice of any of the Kupjacks. In the 1960s, Walt Disney was about to hand Eugene a commission to design rides at Disney World in Florida, but then the animation mogul died, and the offer fizzled. Hank started out as a frustrated architect who apparently irked his professors at the University of Illinois at Chicago by beating them to a contract to design an ice rink at the Marina City complex. In an act of petty vengeance, so the story goes, his professors flunked him out of the program. As for Jay, he studied engineering mechanics before dropping out to join the family business in his early 20s.

“I didn’t get to do that as a career,” he says. “What can you do then? Create your own reality that nobody can say no to.”

Working with his older brother and father brought its own stresses. None of the Kupjacks could ever quite figure out how to make the business profitable. After Eugene’s death, Hank informed Jay that he was HIV positive and that, to make the most of however much time he had left, he would be the studio’s principal artist. (According to Jay, Hank never developed AIDS in the nearly two remaining decades of his life.) Jay says that he was hurt when Hank sidelined him, but Eugene had left Hank a controlling stake.

For decades, Jay toiled in his brother’s shadow, tasked with, among other things, photographing the miniatures. It took him hours of experimentation with a Swiss-made large-format camera and a low-light process to get the images right. Looking at them, you’d swear you were seeing pictures of real, full-size rooms. He used the photographs to make 3D View-Master images of the collection and tried to sell them. They failed to take off. In another, much riskier scheme, he grew 2,000 marijuana plants inside a Lake Barrington house in the mid-2000s. He was caught and took a plea to avoid prison.

Now the family business is his and his alone. “Not to be Machiavellian about it,” he says, “but I’m the one left telling the story now.”

On the Friday evening of the Navy Pier show, Kupjack dons a tan sports jacket and a black turtleneck and brushes his hair back. He’s been up all night building and upholstering display cabinets, and he looks subdued as he takes a seat at a table near the entrance of the cavernous steel and glass space, which requires walking through two covered parking lots to reach. Some visitors have trouble finding it. Droves of harried tourists stream past with kids in double strollers, oblivious. About a dozen people have shown up so far, mostly Kupjack’s friends and family. “If I break even, I’ll be happy,” he says.

Visitors lean into the dioramas. For the Kupjacks, the mark of love is your misted breath on the glass, the smudge left by the tip of your nose. One of the marquee works on display is a version of a 1940s diner Hank created in 1987 and loaned to the Clinton White House. It boasts art deco stainless steel paneling and a “Loose Lips Might Sink Ships” poster, as well as minuscule sugar shakers, a remarkably edible-looking white-frosted cake, and a sleekly contoured jukebox. A puny officer’s hat and pair of spectacles rest on the counter, and a bomber jacket hangs forgotten alongside one of the booths. The door to the bathroom is slightly ajar, suggesting an unseen presence behind it. There’s a hauntingly lonely, lived-in feel, evincing a melancholy nostalgia.

In the end, Kupjack sells around 100 tickets but fails to recoup his costs for the show. And yet he’s thinking about starting a GoFundMe campaign to mount another one, and has contacted the Alliance Française cultural center to see if it is interested in hosting small exhibitions. “I don’t want to see this stuff end up in somebody’s basement or warehouse,” he says. “I better get it together. Somebody has to.”

Meanwhile, he has ideas for new dioramas: the interior of a flying saucer, a surrealist room inspired by the paintings of Salvador Dalí. He knows the work will be painstaking, but unlike the fate of the family business, it will be firmly within his grasp.