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Front Porch: Paintings tiny, with big effect

Her miniature landscapes and European street scenes lure the viewer with strong emotional light.

By ELIZABETH BETTENDORF
Published February 13, 2004

Especially the skies she captures with such passion.

Phyllis Kimbel's tiny, 3-by-2 1/2-inch paintings are small as Valentines and equally romantic. But their history makes the heart flutter.

In the days before photography, a miniature painting of one's true love was small enough to be tucked in a vanity drawer as a keepsake for private swooning.

According to Carol Curtiss, president of the Miniature Art Society of Florida, battlefield soldiers tucked these little portraits in their pockets as a sweet reminder of a beloved's face.

And in the 18th century, miniature portraiture rose to a new level of romantic doting: Artists captured just the beloved's eye "small and like a jewel," Kimbel says, on a porcelain pendant or ivory snuffbox.

Kimbel paints her own miniatures or "paintings in the small" from her 2,000-square-foot, 15th-floor condominium in the Monte Carlo Towers on Bayshore Boulevard. From her studio window, the view glances north and west, taking in a vast cityscape of buildings, sky and water.

Kimbel works at her father's drawing table flecked with paint and nicks from his years as a commercial cartoonist in Chicago.

Her miniature portraits depict places she lived and traveled with her late husband, Bruce Kimbel, an Air Force pilot and physician who served as the CIA's medical director in Europe and Latin America.

She paints all the places life took them: France, Italy, Greece.

A miniature painting takes her a week to complete and sells framed for $390. Two have been selected to appear in an exhibit of miniatures at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., in June.

One depicts an ocher-colored building in Italy with a red Coca-Cola sign and a black figure floating past a white door. Another captures Mount Shasta at dusk. Her son lives in a little town at the foot of the mountain. When she added a couple of birds soaring on a current, he said, "Mom, just don't paint them in as seagulls," she recalls with a laugh.

Willowy and elegant at 77, Kimbel for years painted in a size that didn't require a magnifying glass for viewing. Her still-life and abstract paintings hang amid a collection of antique furniture and good art books. Five years ago, she saw a miniature art show with a friend, thought the paintings were exquisite. She also thought: "I can do that," and promptly learned how.

Now, she works beneath a lighted magnifying lamp using a wire-slim brush to dab flecks of acrylic paint from her palette. Its bristles are narrower than pencil lead but lend themselves well to the precision required to paint diminutive scenes. She holds up a portrait of the Tampa skyline at dawn. You have to peer through the magnifier to take in all the details: the car headlights the size of pinpricks, the dark shapes of distant buildings.

In the background, the sky is a wave, a tiny tsunami of color: red, gray pink, orange and yellow, as if God himself had spoken. Whispered, actually.

This is how Kimbel sees it, of course, the view from her home high above Bayshore Boulevard.

The real-life painting she wakes up to.

Only smaller.

[Last modified February 12, 2004, 13:22:31]

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