5 Questions With… Diorama Mama Karen Manganillo

Meet the Apex mom who turned the pandemic into an opportunity to explore a unique art form.
as told to Ayn-Monique Klahre

Like many of others, Karen Manganillo has been juggling work and caring for her children while staying at home for the coronavirus. But for this art director and marketing consultant, having a little more time with the kids led to a chance to exercise her unique talent. A longtime lover of tiny things, she already had her Instagram handle, Diorama_Mama, under way—but COVID sparked a creative challenge. Here’s what she’s been up to.

First of all: would you consider yourself an artist?

So… I came out of undergrad with a journalism degree and an art minor, but I knew I needed to get a “real job,” so advertising was a way to do both. I went to graduate school for art direction and graphic design in advertising to turn my love of art into something I could make a career out of. So I wouldn’t feel comfortable saying I’m an artist, I’m more like a designer and art director, I’m used to having a client to work for. That being said, this has been an amazing art project, I’ve been doing it just for myself, doing whatever I want to do with it. 

How did you get into making dioramas?

I’ve loved miniatures my whole life. I’ve been collecting all these random bits and pieces of dioramas and backgrounds and texture just for use on some project, I never knew what it would be for. I started the Instagram handle when my youngest was one, in the thick of motherhood. I was really making dioramas about the snark around motherhood, and it was fun, but then I came out of that headspace. I didn’t want to lead with the motherhood thing any more, I wanted to do things that were bigger than that.

So how did that change? 

Well the pandemic happened and I was sitting around with the kids all the time, trying to do art projects. And the kids really love the “small stuff”—I have these Caboodles full of my miniatures, and that’s what we call it—so I tell them if we’re really careful and delicate, we can get into the small stuff. So I just started doing it with the kids, and my friends loved it, so now I consider it a personal responsibility to keep delivering. It makes people feel good, and it makes me feel more connected to them.

It’s just a thing that we’re all going through, and there are various levels of frustration and sanity and we’re all weirdly bonded. Everyone can relate, we have this shared experience, so if there’s anything I can do that speaks to it, that can help. For example, the one of Zoom jumping the shark: in the beginning it was all about the Zoom call, the Zoom wine and talk, but now everyone’s over it. I know I’m so tired of seeing people, I just want to sit and chill and watch Ozark. That being said, it has been really great to talk to people that I didn’t talk to all the time!

What are some of your favorites?

I like the Real Housewives of Quarantine—Countess Luanne actually liked my post! In the world of stupid affirmations, I actually acheieved something. The “pant-demic” makes me laugh, I don’t think I realized how unattractive belly buttons were before then. The shoe display actually got featured on the Instagram handle Tiny Art Show; I submitted it and they picked it up in their stories. And the one of the Statue of Liberty banging her pots for essential workers… I try to go back and forth between lighthearted and day-to-day, and things that speak to the bigness of all this.

How long does it take to make them?

They’re pretty fast! And realistically, I know I only have a half hour a day to do it, so I usually start churning on the idea in mid-play, and the second my younger son goes down for a nap, I crank it out. It’s kind of the perfect art school challenge because I can’t sit and think about it. The videos are the only ones I do Photoshop on, I try to be true to it being a photograph and staying within the Instagram medium and not trying to make it a bigger thing. I was aiming for 50, and now it’s as commonplacing as brushing my hair.

Check out her tiny dioramas @diorama_mama