Miriam Karp’s home is full of fun. The Briarcliff Woods ranch house, situated in a quiet residential neighborhood, greets visitors exuberantly. The proliferation of flowers and bushes in the front yard is dotted with ironic vignettes of tiny toy figures, creating an enticing welcome. Karp’s front porch is a gallery of “enhanced” found objects, and the side entrance leads to a backyard garden with blooming plants that look like chandeliers.
Indoors, the home is filled with curiosities, art, crafts and fanciful objects. Among the displays are Karp’s paintings and drawings, her daughter’s drawings, and works from artist friends. There is a wall of Karp’s own small sculptures, textiles and other ephemera from travels around the world, intriguing animal bones and fossils in vitrines, Santeria objects brought back from Cuba, a posse of small vintage oil cans, family heirloom kitchen tools, photographs and books. Yet, among so much to admire, one is drawn to Karp’s collection of windup toys. Created as playthings, the toys are also works of art. Most of them are one-of-a-kind folk art, and each has a distinct, quirky movement routine.
Many people own one or two clever wind-up toys; Karp has almost 40 of them. “Some of my toys are on a shelf above my den sofa. Others are displayed on the fireplace mantel underneath glass cake domes (dusting them is not fun so it was a practical as well as aesthetic decision), and some are on top of bookcases. I don’t think any of them have great monetary value. I just love their quirkiness, ingenuity and their playfulness. Some aren’t actually windup toys, but they all move. The ones made from food and drink cans are handmade.”
Karp tells how it all began. “I always loved and was fascinated by windup toys and toys that move. Perhaps my first one was the simplest. It was a button threaded in the middle of a long string which you wind up tight, put in between your hands and accordion-pull the button back and forth creating a wonderful whirring noise. My grandfather made that for us when we were small, and I recently made one again.”
Karp bought most of her collection for the enjoyment of her daughter and herself. About 15 years ago a designer named Chico Bicalho made a windup toy by accident. Karp read about it and started collecting almost everything he made. “They’re available under the Kikkerland label,” Karp said, “and I have received many of them as gifts. Speaking of gifts, a good friend of mine gave me the creepiest windup toy in my collection, which is an evil cat that sings and dances when she’s wound up. I first started collecting the ones made from metal food cans at The Africa Center in New York City, and then I bought more of them in Cuba and wherever else I could find them,” she said.
“One of the things I enjoy most about my collection is showing it to little kids and seeing their delight,” Karp said. “I think everyone should have at least one windup toy around.” A visitor is invited to choose a few to see how each one moves. Most of Karp’s windup toys cannot be replaced, but they were not made primarily for display, and Karp is happy when others, young and old, play with them. She reports that some were unintentionally broken by children, but the broken ones are still amusing to look at and handle.
“One of my favorites is the first Kikkerland I bought, which now has a head that I added. That has sentimental value. I really like the windup houses that tumble around at crazy angles (a metaphor for life!) and ones that are like insane centipedes. I’m fascinated with their complicated gearing and the unpredictable motion. Another favorite is wound up by blowing on it and is a tiny replica of a Theo Jansen sculpture, fascinating because the originals of his work are huge and walk across beaches. It’s particularly enchanting and mesmerizing. And I love the little tin can toys because they’re made with whatever is at hand and show great resourcefulness.”
Karp is an artist, well known as a painter, primarily doing calligraphy and watercolor ketubah (Jewish wedding certificate) commissions. But she is known for producing almost anything anybody asks for, including bar/bat mitzvah pieces, mosaics, pet portraits that she sometimes turns into pillows, birthday gifts, and tribute pieces. She sews and has created large synagogue banners and custom tallitot (prayer shawls). She enjoys drawing and making small figurative sculptures from plant material and found objects, and during the pandemic, she started a mask-making business.
There are very few crafts Karp has not mastered, but she admits, “I haven’t made any windup toys myself, although I’ve embellished some. I’m a collector, and my collection grows any time I find a good toy to add to it.”