A Nativity Maker's Workshop in Miniature

Glencairn Museum News | Number 12, 2018

Figure 1: R. Michael Palan being interviewed in his basement workshop.

Figure 2: R. Michael Palan and Karen Loccisano pose by the Christmas tree and eighteenth-century Neapolitan Nativity scene at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. Photo courtesy of R. Michael Palan.

For the sixth year in a row, Glencairn has been fortunate to exhibit an original Nativity scene by R. Michael Palan and Karen Loccisano. New this year is Palan's Nativity Maker’s Workshop, a miniature diorama that highlights the creative process. Going behind the scenes, it shows in exacting detail the influences, tools, and materials employed by a Nativity artist as he works. The diorama exhibits many tiny examples of Nativity traditions from around the world. In this interview with Palan for Glencairn Museum News, the artist shares some of his thoughts about this remarkable work of art.

You have been making Nativity scenes for many years now. Why did you want to create a miniature Nativity maker’s workshop?  Is it meant to represent a real place?

“It isn’t a real place, but what I imagine my dream studio would look like. The most important thing is that it’s full of ideas and projects—the signs of a busy artist with a fertile imagination. I wanted the Nativity Maker’s Workshop I created to have a rustic, old world charm.”


Figure 3: R. Michael Palan's Nativity Maker’s Workshop on the workbench in his basement workshop.


Figure 4: R. Michael Palan's basement workshop with several projects underway.


What are some of the Nativity traditions that are represented in this workshop?

“On top of the cupboard is an Italian presepio, with Roman ruins that signify Christianity's triumph over the pagan world. By the window is a szopka, a cathedral made of paper and foil with a Nativity inside—a tradition from Krakow, Poland (Figure 5). To the left, on the wall, there’s a gold-covered Nativity icon from Russia (Figure 6). In the middle of the room, on the big red table, is a Nativity scene in the Spanish tradition called a Belén, which is Spanish for Bethlehem (Figure 7). To the left of that, on a little table, is a Nativity that takes place in a cave (Figure 8). In the foreground is a Nativity triptych by Gerard David (ca. 1460-1523), an Early Netherlandish painter (Figure 9). (The original is in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.) There are also many traditional wooden stables; some are finished, and a few are works in progress.”

Figure 5: A cathedral-shaped szopka, a colorful Nativity tradition from Krakow, Poland.

Figure 6: A gold-covered Nativity icon from Russia hangs on the wall.

Figure 7: The Nativity artist featured in this scene, made by Karen Loccisano, bears a striking resemblance to her husband, R. Michael Palan.

Figure 8: On the table is a scene representing the Grotto of the Nativity, a cave where some believe Jesus was born.

Figure 9: On the floor is a Nativity triptych by Gerard David (ca. 1460-1523), an Early Netherlandish painter.

Figure 10: A box on the floor contains a paintbrush, a pencil, and other art supplies.

The Nativity artist featured in this scene (Figure 7), made by your wife Karen, bears a striking resemblance to you! What is it like to be part of a husband-and-wife artist team?

“My wife Karen and I have very different skills. As pleased as I was when I was getting close to finishing my workshop, it wasn't until I placed the figure Karen made of the Nativity maker (me!) in the scene that it really came to life. Karen’s work is exceptional. I work to the best of my ability to make a nice place for Karen’s figures to live. We rely on each other to get the job done, and our individual success drives each of us to do better work. It’s also helpful to have another set of eyes look at your work when you’ve been looking too long, and too hard, at something you are making.”

Figure 11: Sketches and Nativity figures in progress.

Figure 12: Heads for Nativity figures, and a completed figure of a small child.

Figure 13: A young girl runs through her Italian village; a figure by Karen Loccisano. Note the small Nativity on the bench.

Figure 14: The Nativity of Jesus Christ depicted as taking place in a snowy, 16th-century Flemish village. R. Michael Palan and Karen Loccisano have included an angel with Down syndrome in this Nativity, standing near the Holy Family. Photo by R. Michael Palan.

Could you tell us about a few of the personal touches you have added to the scene?

“On the wall, on the right side, is a tiny blue pendant of the Virgin Mary (Figure 15). This was my Mother’s when she was very young, something that Catholic school girls added to their rosary beads. On the right-hand side, sitting on the floor, is my Grandfather’s St. Christopher medal (Figure 16). St. Christopher is the patron saint of travel; it has a little magnet on the bottom, and always sat on the dashboard of his car.”

Figure 15: The wise men, an incomplete stable, and a blue pendant of the Virgin Mary. The pendant once belonged to R. Michael Palan’s mother, and was added to her rosary beads.

Figure 16: A bowl of milk for the cats is on the floor. The St. Christopher medal on the right once belonged to R. Michael Palan’s grandfather.

This workshop seems to be overrun by cats! Why did you decide to include them?

“They add life to the scene. Once, when our work was on exhibit somewhere, a woman approached me and asked, ‘Where are the cats?’ I was a little confused by the question; I didn’t realize that I was obligated to include cats. But after that I always made sure I added a few cats to all of our scenes, and there is always a bowl of milk for them. After all, I really just want to bring people a little joy when they view my work. I accidentally broke the little flower pot in the front center of the scene (Figure 17). Rather than throw it away, I figured a broken pot would be something likely to happen with all those cats hanging around. One of them is to blame! We recently brought home a shelter dog, Mr. Buddy (Figure 18). He’s a good dog! He never gets into anything because he’s always asleep. He will definitely find his way into future Nativities.”

Figure 17: A cat, a ball of string, and a broken flower pot.

Figure 18: Mr. Buddy, a shelter dog rescued by R. Michael Palan and Karen Loccisano. Photo by R. Michael Palan.

Figure 18: Mr. Buddy, a shelter dog rescued by R. Michael Palan and Karen Loccisano. Photo by R. Michael Palan.

What do you think is the smallest detail that you have included in your Nativity Maker’s Workshop?

“I am very proud of the tiny Adam and Eve figure standing under the apple tree (Figure 7, at the left side of the table). There is a super tiny serpent wrapped around the trunk of the tree. I separated the plies of a piece of string and split the end to create the serpent’s mouth. Everything in my Nativity Maker’s Workshop is small, but the serpent answers the question, ‘Just how small can you get with a miniature?’”

Tell us about “The Art of Making Nativities,” a workshop you conducted recently in Glencairn’s Medieval Gallery.

“A Nativity is a three-dimensional representation of the ancient story of the birth of Jesus Christ. Making a Nativity retells the story and gives it a new and current energy. In our workshop we talked a bit about how different cultures interpret the Nativity and make it their own. It's not surprising that a few people who attended the workshop decided to not just copy the Nativity that we made, but to give it their own personal touch; they made the Nativity their own. People always want to know what materials we use to make our Nativities. There were at least 30 small elements that went into the little Nativity we made in the workshop, including wood, cork, two kinds of clay, glue, and glitter (Figure 19). Also eight paint colors and wood stain. We wanted the Nativity we made to be a bit of a challenge for everyone, but still simple enough that everyone would be pleased with the outcome. The finished Nativities all looked great! The workshop was a great way to find the spirit of Christmas early in the season.”

Figure 19: R. Michael Palan and Karen Loccisano recently conducted a workshop in Glencairn’s Medieval Gallery: “The Art of Making Nativities.” Photo by R. Michael Palan.

Figure 20: A Nativity project completed by one of the workshop participants.

Figure 21: A example of a completed Nativity ornament, designed to be made by workshop participants, hanging on a Christmas tree. Photo by R. Michael Palan.

Figure 21: A workshop being led by R. Michael Palan and Karen Loccisano in Glencairn’s Medieval Gallery: “The Art of Making Nativities.”

Thanks to some CGI special effects, the official promotional video for Glencairn’s World Nativities exhibition this year features the real-life (but considerably reduced in stature) R. Michael Palan inside his miniature Nativity Maker’s Workshop. (Click on video below.)

A complete archive of past issues of Glencairn Museum News is available online here.