Peek Inside One Kansas Artist's Tiny Tribute to the World's Largest Things
It's a roadside attraction… about roadside attractions.
Scattered along the plains and prairies of America, you'll discover a sea of concrete dinosaurs, eerie ghost towns, mysterious caverns, and abandoned rest stops. The railroad industry may have built this country, but its our quirky assortment of roadside attractions that made the US the stuff of road trip legend.
Case in point? Smack-dab in the center of Kansas sits the largest concentration of roadside attractions in the known universe, including dozens of versions of the world's largest objects. And they're all crammed into one average-sized room: The World’s Largest Collection of the World’s Smallest Versions of the World’s Largest Things.
Twenty years ago, Erika Nelson was wrapping up her MFA at the University of Kansas, teaching animation and textiles—and quietly suffocating within the confines of academia. To keep herself sane, as she puts it, she’d venture out on road trips, where she soon discovered an affinity for roadside attractions and artist-built environments.
Her favorite outposts were usually devoid of gift shops, so she started taking photos and making miniature models as a kind of DIY souvenir. Then, shortly after September 11, Nelson found herself at an impasse, finally ready to commit to her true passion. So she went all in.
"At that point, it was like, are you gonna go on this track that everybody set out for you?" Nelson muses. "Or are you gonna do what you’re really passionate about?"
Instead of pursuing a tenure-track position like so many of her fellow MFA grads, Nelson sold everything she owned and moved into a bus. For the next two years, she lived on the road, working on what would eventually become World’s Largest Things, Inc., home of the World’s Largest Collection of the World’s Smallest Versions of the World’s Largest Things. Say that five times fast.
The first WLCoWSVoWLT Mobile Museum—AKA Nelson's bus—set out on its inaugural cross-country tour in April, 2003. Her journeys took her all over the country, and even landed her a spot on Conan in 2010 after she caught the producers' attention with her replica of the World's Largest Cow Hairball (made out of cat hair, naturally).
Today, Nelson’s Mobile Museum units—both the original bus and a newer "Jeepalope"—are based in Lucas, Kansas, a tiny, folksy town that punches way above its weight in terms of artistic oddities. In 2017, she opened a brick-and-mortar dubbed the Roadside Sideshow Expo to much local fanfare.
As for the traveling operation, each stop is treated a different array of her pieces. She curates her Mobile Museum collection to appeal to the residents of wherever she’s driving, usually displaying about 30 items at a time. The project even has its own theme song, a rollicking country-tinged anthem perfectly calibrated for life on the road.
The process of creating each miniature usually ranges from a few hours to a few days, but that's nothing compared to the time it takes to identify and procure materials that will sufficiently comply with the scaled-down proportions. Ever the artist, Nelson is, to put it very mildly, a stickler for details.
The World’s Largest Ball of Twine in Cawker, Kansas, for instance, is made of sisal twine. "The replicas they were selling at the gift shop were like, normal-sized twine around a golf ball," Nelson says. "Like, this is crap! This isn’t right!"
Nelson painstakingly re-created her world’s smallest version of the World’s Largest Ball of Twine (.5 inches in diameter) with twine-colored embroidering thread. "You still get that difference in scale of the material itself, but also that obsessive winding," she adds.
Miniaturized Carhenge (24 inches by 24 inches by 4 inches) took one week to complete once all the necessary supplies were gathered. But it took years for Nelson to track down die-cast models of the same exact cars featured in the real automotive Stonehenge tribute in Alliance, Nebraska.
For Wilmington, Delaware's World’s Largest Rubber Band Ball, she contacted a dentist and ordered braces bands so that the miniature version (.5 inches in diameter) would be made up of similarly miniature rubber bands. For her spin on the World’s Largest Penny—the pride of Woodruff, Wisconsin—she found a tiny penny, painstakingly scratched off the date, and replaced it with the date stamped on the original giant.
The World’s Largest Baseball Bat in Louisville, Kentucky was fabricated by a water tower manufacturer. Nelson subsequently fashioned her miniature bat (4 inches by 2 inches by 3 inches) out of wood before hand-painting all the detailing so it matched perfectly. Finally, she bought a downtown facade from a model railroad kit and painted those to match the buildings standing behind the towering Louisville Slugger.
Nelson estimates she’s built around 300 of these miniatures over the years, though only maybe 200 are ready to go at any given time. Sometimes the big inspiration gets taken down, rendering the little rendition obsolete. Other times, she just doesn’t find one interesting anymore.
And sometimes, in the case of clay models, they explode. The extremely not-temperature-controlled Mobile Museum window displays cause the clay models to expand and contract in the heat. Acrylic paint, however, is not breathable, so the casing that encapsulates the clay doesn't expand along with it. Inevitably, the pressure becomes too much.
"You’ll go out one day and the model is fine, but then the next day the clay has burst through the skin," Nelson says ruefully. "So you get this thing that used to be a badger, with some black and white paint, but all of its innards just kind of squirting out."
The world’s smallest version of Birnamwood, Wisconsin's World’s Largest Badger (1 inch by 1 inch by .75 inch) is a labor of love, and her most explosive creation. Nelson has tried remaking it out of different kinds of clay, but nothing’s lasted more than two years before bursting through its britches.
"There’s no pre-produced thing that can replicate the same way, so it always has to be sculpted," Nelson said. "But I just love the badger so much, I can’t stand to not have it in the Mobile Museum... even though I know it’ll kill it eventually."
In an extremely meta turn of events inside the world's most meta tribute to roadside America, Nelson is simultaneously creating her own World’s Largest Ball of Chewing Gum and its accompanying miniature version. For every stick of gum she chews for the big one—some untold hundreds, perhaps even thousands—she chews a Mini Chiclet for the smaller version. This is a somewhat burdensome process, mostly because she doesn’t actually like gum.
"It just gets bigger and bigger," Nelson marvels. "I’d like to see how far it can go. At some point it’ll get unwieldy or maybe a health hazard—I’m sure there’ll be a logical stopping point, but I haven’t predetermined it."
Chiclets were discontinued in the US in 2016, so she hasn’t been able to work on the miniature since her stash ran out in 2017. After our conversation, I emailed her upon discovering that Chiclets may have popped up in 2019 from a manufacturer in Mexico. I also asked why someone who by her own admission "kind of hates gum" had landed on a project that required chewing inordinate amounts of gum.
"Thought it'd be funny," Nelson wrote back. "And achievable."