Ryder Henry doesn’t create art: he creates worlds. His model city “4 Lydia” stands like a scaled-down snapshot of next-century urbanity, with tiny future-cars frozen mid-commute on a horseshoe highway and each Jetsonian building detailed down to its furnished rooms. It’s a futuristic metropolis built out of cardboard and Elmer’s glue. In other corners of his studio hang Star Trek-inspired spacecraft pieced together from scraps of beer boxes. Many of the models are outfitted with lights, which makes them seem even more plausible, more inhabited.
“I’m inspired by the current urban environment and the current…fantasy/space ideas, and combining those two—combining existing conditions with fantasy,” Henry said in a recent YouTube interview with the Pittsburgh-based Healthy Artists organization. In the models, it’s easy to see familiar contemporary architecture synthesized with the space age. Buildings range from clean Space Needle towers to gritty-looking industrial blocks, from tiered tenements to old Victorians lifted straight out of Lawrenceville and East Liberty. They’re all made from repurposed cardboard, and some of the structures and spaceships betray the logos of cheap beer beneath their paint.
“There are similar cartons for soda drinks and cereal boxes…and all kinds of other products, but they don’t have the thickness of the beer box,” Henry told Healthy Artists. “I’m not buying, like, tons of beer—I just find boxes on the street. The great thing about this town is that people just throw their boxes…and leave them on the street for me to find—and I can make spaceships out of them.” While most of the material used in his models is recycled cardboard, the artist adds sawdust, model shrubbery, and paint to augment the designs. On painting, the artist says, “I generally don’t paint the buildings except for some edges—windowsills, lintels, and railings sometimes. They look cleaner with a little touching up. I paint the spaceships and planes to make them stronger. They are handled more as toys, so they need more of a durable surface.”
The East Liberty-based Emerging Artist started model-building as a pre-teen in the late ‘80s, replicating the designs he saw on Star Trek. After those early Enterprises, he stopped building models from cardboard until 2002, when a local film crew asked him to create a city. “I lost touch with them,” he says. “I don’t know if they ever finished their movie.” But he’d returned to his medium, and in spring of 2005, he began work on his megacity, 4 Lydia, which has been evolving ever since.
Though his work has been featured throughout Pittsburgh at places like The Mattress Factory, Bloomfield’s Boxheart Gallery, and Lawrenceville’s WildCard, this year will be his first to participate in the Dollar Bank Three Rivers Arts Festival. His booth at the Artists Market will be a world of floating houses and flying machines. While Henry is known for painting portraits of his model creations on canvas, he says, “Besides my tablecloth, I’m not bringing any 2-D art. I have lots of little planes, spaceships small and large, and buildings perched on floating rocks suspended by fishing line.”
Some of those buildings you’ll recognize from Pittsburgh neighborhoods; others are creations from the artist’s imagination. The beer-case spaceships draw from pop culture in their design, and his fleet feels at once familiar and exotic—a science-fiction déjà vu. See Ryder Henry’s world of models at Booth 56 in the Artists Market from Wednesday, June 6, through Sunday, June 10.