Retired doctor telling big stories on a small scale

by Renee Hunter

Dr. Noel Lawson combines two childhood interests — history and art — in creating miniatures.

Miniatures aren’t popular in the United States, Lawson says, but they have been popular in Europe for centuries.

“Kings and czars collected miniatures as enthusiastically as their wives collected Faberge eggs,” he said.

Lawson has liked history “for as long as I can remember.” His interest began early, at a time when “one childhood illness after the other” often kept him home from school.

His love of art runs in the family. His mother was a talented artist who created beautiful textiles. His sister, Vivian, taught art in the Conway School District until she retired. 

“I love to paint,” said Lawson, who has worked in both oils and watercolors. “But I got to the time in my career and with my family that I didn’t have time to sit down and paint.”

A graduate of Hendrix College, Lawson attended medical school and was a flight surgeon on the carriers Roosevelt and Kennedy during Vietnam. He was head of the intensive care staff at Ochsner Health System in New Orleans and also worked in Houston. He retired as head of the department of anesthesiology at the University of Missouri in Columbia about five years ago and returned to Arkansas. He was recently awarded a place in the UAMS Medical Hall of Fame.

Lawson began creating miniatures more than 30 years ago because they could be worked on “five minutes at a time.” Over the years, he has gradually perfected his art.

Miniatures begin as kits with pieces and instructions, much like model airplanes. The art comes in ignoring the instructions and making up “your own story.” His ideas come from his reading or his experience. Once he decides on his subject, he researches it. Then he seeks a kit that will allow him to tell the story he has in mind.

His diorama of the crucifixion, for example, is based on extensive research. The nails are through the wrists rather than the hands, and the blood from the scourging is dripping down Jesus’ back, legs and feet to the ground.

The sign atop the cross reads “King of the Jews” in three languages — Hebrew, Latin and Greek. Shock and exhaustion can be seen clearly on the figure’s face.

Lawson said he always works on the face first, beginning with the eyes because if the face isn’t correct, there is no reason to finish the piece.

A kit Lawson used to design another Biblical figure, a Roman centurion, was meant to have the soldier in a martial pose — shield held close and sword raised. Instead, Lawson opened up the shield to make the figure’s torso visible and pointed the sword downward as though too heavy for his arm. On the base of the diorama can be seen the shadow of a cross and a crown of thorns. The diorama is titled “After the Quake (Matt. 27-54).”

Unlike many modelers, Lawson doesn’t focus on one subject. Many of his miniatures are of military aviators, reflecting his naval service on the USS John F. Kennedy during the Vietnam War. One such is a cross-section of a World War II B17 bomber gunnery turret that won best of show at the Central Arkansas Scale Modelers competition two years ago.

“He’s one of my favorites because I got him right,” Lawson said. “He’s a tired, scared 19-year-old.”

But Lawson also has Native American miniatures — a Quapaw chief complete with feather headdress and an Arkansas Osage that won first place at an International Plastic Modelers Society competition — a Santa Claus, an award-winning early effort; and Western dioramas.

While working, Lawson mounts the model on a stand to keep it steady and wears a loupe. He uses acrylics as a base and oils for details because their slow drying time allows them to be manipulated over a period of days. He uses pastels for finish work. For the smallest details, he uses airbrushes — miniature paint sprayers.

There are 264 modeling clubs across the United States, most of which focus on one miniature subject. One thing Lawson likes about the Central Arkansas Scale Modelers, to which he belongs, is that its members create many different miniature subjects.

An unfinished miniature of Marilyn Monroe awaits Lawson’s return. He had finished the face to his satisfaction when he began having problems with his arm. It has been a year since he has been able to work on her, and he is looking forward to the challenge of getting back to his craft.