“I love finding the bizarre and unexpected that many people pass up because they don’t want to be ‘taken in’ by a tourist trap. I want to see!” So says Erika Nelson, founder and creative mind behind the wandering World’s Largest Collection of World’s Smallest Versions of the World’s Largest Things. Tourist traps are Nelson’s stock-in-trade, having navigated the country’s backroads and highways in search of the monuments to eccentricity, creativity and good-ole Americana.
World’s Largest Things is exactly what it sounds like: curated by Nelson, it is a collection of models resembling those “World’s Largest” things you see on the road when traveling. The World’s Largest Thermometer, Penny, Turkey… You name it, Nelson’s most likely seen it, not to mention created a miniature version of said thing.
Eccentric? Absolutely. But to Nelson, it’s much more than that. What started as a childhood way of navigating distance to Grandma’s house became an artistic pursuit involving many logged hours on the road, collecting stories from around the country. Nelson, who’s seen 200 of around 350 “World’s Largest” monuments, started WLT for practical reasons. “I couldn’t find good souvenirs,” says Nelson in a phone interview. “There wasn’t something I could take home, so I started making my own miniatures to commemorate my visits, which turned into a collection of miniatures of the world’s largest things.” The collection keeps growing, as Nelson is now the defacto collector and documenter of the simultaneously grandiose and mundane WLTs.
Based in Kansas, Nelson travels the country three or four times a year on road-trips, often solo, to visit new sites or to return to already visited WLTs. Nelson does not create her miniature models until seeing the WLT which serves as its inspiration. Her initial visits to the monuments are always research-based: she photographs different aspects of the Thing while also documenting its background and history. “Some of these monuments are created by a lone eccentric. When a town gets together [and builds one], it’s usually to commemorate an event or build tourism,” says Nelson.
Upon returning home, Nelson spends anywhere between a few hours to a few days recreating the monument as a miniature. Using a variety of materials and mediums, she crafts her models according to her photos, but does her best to use materials similar to the original model. For instance, the model for the World’s Largest Ball of Twine is made of embroidery floss, which Nelson shaped into a model replica as proportional to the original as possible. For models made of metal or fiberglass, Nelson utilizes plastic or clay mediums to create her models.
The point of all this? “It’s fun! [The monuments] remind you that even if you’re an adult, you’ll feel silly and like a kid next to the World’s Largest Badger,” says Nelson. To that end, Nelson revisits monuments after crafting her models, whereupon she takes “meta-photos” of the model with the original. Sometimes, she is commissioned by a town to visit their monument or bring part of the collection for special events. Her traveling and documenting of WLTs has garnered her some attention: She was recently on the Conan Show talking about WLT and her Mobile Museum, a truck she converted into a traveling museum for her collection (she’s since retired it, due in large part to prohibitive gas prices; when traveling with models now, they are part of a sideshow setup, channeling the same kitsch appeal of the monuments). On April 9, she will take part in Atlas Obscura Day 2011, which highlights “expeditions, back-room tours and hidden treasures in your hometown.”
The gigantic things Nelson visits, besides acting as beacons for tourism or hobby projects for those “lone eccentrics” Nelson is fond of, are in some way, deeply entrenched forms of Americana. Truly, “some monuments are built by people with no established art background while others are artists. Claes Oldenburg has a classic art background and creates a series of WLTs. It runs the gamut,” says Nelson. “The bulk of them, though are made by normal people with no artistic training. I hesitate to say it’s a strictly US phenomenon; it’s not just the US where this happens. Young countries like the US, Canada and Australia have the most of them,” says Nelson.
The onus of documenting and creating the models falls squarely on Nelson’s shoulders. The true definition of a Galavanter, Nelson isn’t afraid to hit the road on her own if it means visiting yet another monument. “It’s so much work to go with someone else. This way, I don’t have to stop for other people to pee!” says Nelson with a laugh. Along the way, she’s developed her “road instinct.” “I’m able talk to a wide range of people, so it doesn’t occur to me to be afraid on the road. Your gut will tell you if it’s safe,” says Nelson.
Ultimately, Nelson created her own opportunity to travel and see parts of the country people would otherwise ignore. “Just go for it. There are so many voices in people’s heads that intimidate them to not travel. You’re going to regret not doing it more than regret actually doing it, especially when it applies to what happens on the road. It’s always good to tell more stories from the road.”
To learn more about World’s Largest Things or Erika Nelson, visit the site and blog. Photos by Erika Nelson for World’s Largest Things, Inc.