Things are not always what they seem

At one time or another, you've probably looked at a cloud and seen a face, a ship, or an animal. But Joan Steiner can look at Christmas cookies and see ... chair cushions. When she sees a roller skate, she imagines a farm wagon. Tubes of oil paint look like clown pants to her.

Ms. Steiner creates realistic scenes from such things as crackers, pencils, barrettes, and soda straws. To make a miniature construction site, she turned a mustard bottle into a cement mixer, a CD holder and a carpenter's folding ruler into skyscraper skeletons, and a transistor radio into a crane operator's cab.

To find out how she crafts these miniature masterpieces, we paid a visit to her studio in Hudson, N.Y., south of Albany. Her workspace is well out of public view, above an antique store, but her creations have received wide exposure in "Look-Alikes" (Little, Brown and Co., 1998) and "Look-Alikes Jr." (1999). "Look-Alikes Christmas" was just published.

"I think it's my little gift and specialty," Steiner says of her unusual talent. "I'm sure other people have it too. I just happened to have pursued it."

After bouncing around from job to job in New York City, she decided to try her hand at making one-of-a-kind wearable art pieces. A gallery owner agreed to carry her whimsical purses made to resemble boom boxes and ice skates, a muff that looked like a toaster (with satin toast slices), and a hat shaped like a fishing boat with a veil for a net.

The items sold well but didn't provide much income. So Steiner shifted to doing three-dimensional illustration, hoping it would help pay the bills. In doing her illustrations she would occasionally slip in a look-alike element, such as a button that doubled as a wheel.

It began as a new kind of puzzle

Her big break came about 10 years ago when she approached Games magazine, looking for freelance work. The editors told her that if she ever thought of a good game or puzzle, let them know. Twenty minutes later, she was on the phone proposing a puzzle in which an entire scene - the interior of a general store - was filled with things that look like something else. Among the items: A hand grenade posing as a potbellied stove; toothpaste caps doubling as lampshades; and a toenail clipper looking like an upright vacuum cleaner.

Sesame Street magazine soon contacted her about doing similar scenes.

Doing a book was the logical next step. "Look-Alikes" has 11 scenes and took several years to produce. It contains more than 1,000 hidden everyday objects.

Steiner says it takes from six weeks to several months to do a single scene. The objects in a scene might cost a couple hundred dollars. It's hard work, she says, and requires a lot of concentration. That's why she moved her workspace from home to a spacious, rented studio. Not only are there fewer distractions, she also doesn't have to worry about pets eating her art. (Food is often incorporated in her scenes: broccoli for trees, a peppermint candy as a lamp base, and dog biscuits as building blocks. "There's a lot you can do with dog biscuits," Steiner says.)

She also gets good mileage from peanuts, pencils, crayons, clothespins, and candles. She doesn't like repeating herself, but she doesn't consider using favorite materials in new ways to be repetitious.

When ideas come to her, she writes them on sticky notes. A row of them, stuck to a window frame, are an idea bank for future projects.

A whole scene may be built around a couple of strong starting ideas. A stately living room grew out of the fact that a fake autumn leaf (when lit from behind) looked like a flame, and lasagna noodles looked like draperies. "A fireplace," she thought, "with elegant curtains."

To kick-start her brainstorms, Steiner keeps a lot of raw materials on hand. They are nicely organized in cardboard boxes and plastic storage containers.

One is devoted to snack foods, another to fabric, and still others to office wares, nuts and beans, pet food, flat printed items, toys, and fabric. Pasta, cereal, and pretzels are stored together, as are various housewares. Lids, cupcake papers, salt shakers, and small containers are grouped, as are soap, baby items, cocktail items, and corks.

Steiner hunts through these items, looking for objects that match her inspirations. She may sketch her vision for a chair or door, then spend a day at a grocery or Wal-Mart, looking for more things to complete a piece.

She buys a "ton" of mostly inexpensive stuff that doesn't get used. It all winds up in her collection. "I may have had to buy 15 Cheez Doodles when I only needed one," she explains. "Things shape the ideas, and the ideas shape the things," she says. "It's kind of back and forth."

Sometimes pursuing an idea requires considerable effort. She drove 40 miles to buy - of all things - human hair. After repeated, messy failures to dye it a golden color for a theater curtain, she took the hair to a hairdresser to get the desired result. It took several trips to a scrap yard to find the right stove-burner ring for a stained-glass window in a cathedral scene.

Steiner especially enjoys having really large objects "disappear" in a scene. Readers focusing on details may not notice that a trench coat serves as a circus tent or a wooden chair forms the back wall of a "Santa's workshop" scene.

Gluing dog biscuits isn't easy

Getting ideas is the first step. Then there's making the scene itself.

"Trying to glue two dog biscuits together is not that easy," Steiner says. Then there's rigging up ways to keep things in place long enough to take a picture - to "make them behave," as Steiner puts it.

Whole scenes have to be packed up and reconstructed at a photography studio because it's so complicated to shoot them. Each scene must be carefully lit with as many as 20 lights and a forest of reflectors. Numerous clamps and braces keep the many parts from wobbling or falling over. Each object must be meticulously arranged so it's clearly visible and identifiable in the final image.

Steiner carefully inspects the photo before the scenes are disassembled. "I look at the transparency very carefully," she says. "If something gets by me it's going to be something very small."

Most scenes are stored in pieces. They are too fragile to sell, and many contain food items that will rot. Besides, Steiner wants to do a museum show someday. (She's gotten a few nibbles.)

Could anybody learn to do this? Teaching people how to glue X to Y, or how to line things up so they look right in the camera is one thing, Steiner says. But teaching them to see look-alikes? That's another story.

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