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  • Writer's pictureStephanie Lewis

Joanne Elizabeth Martin

Updated: Nov 7, 2023

October 30, 1938 - November 2, 2023

a miniature stuffed bear on a wooden rocking horse in front of a miniature banister
A close-up of a miniature in Joanne's 1-inch dollhouse.

When I was a child, there were two activities I loved: one was going down to a lake during our summers to a property that my Aunt Joanne owned and the other was attending the holiday meals that she would prepare just about every year I knew her. Down at the lake, there were all sorts of fun things to do. It was one of the few times I was around a campfire. My aunt was a Girl Scout leader, and as a result, she knew a lot about camping. We would either sleep in the trailer on the property she inherited from her father or in a tent outside, weather permitting. There was an outhouse that she maintained. There was a little structure that had sort of a counter where she would prepare food outside, and a picnic table nearby where we would eat. I remember her washing dishes in the trailer. She was sassy and intimidating and if she told you to do something, you did it. If she made food you didn't like, you ate it. But even with that she showed us how to make fruit pies on the campfire, and she had this trick that was magic to us, in which she would insert rubber hoses into copper pipes, and then we’d throw them on the fire, and the flames would turn a rainbow of colors as the rubber melted inside the copper. She showed us how to light a stick on fire, blow it out and then draw in the air with the burning red tip. Of course, we’d roast marshmallows and make s’mores. During the days, we'd go down to the lake to fish. There was a field on the property where we'd play badminton or lawn Jarts. At the time, the experiences had at the lake were some of the highlights of my childhood and I still look back on them fondly.

A long-haired blond woman with two long pigtails in her hair in a gingham pattern halter top.
Joanne at the lake in the 1970s.

Two young girls and a man at a picnic table in front of a van.
(L to R) Me, my elder sister, and my father in front of the family van, eating at the picnic table at my aunt's lake property. (ca. 1974)

Woman stands in front of a large pile of branches in a jacket and jeans.
Joanne at the lake property in the 1980s.

The holiday events at which she prepared meals were just as fun. At Christmases, back when we were children, we would make the rounds to family members’ homes and/or they would come to our house and all the children would receive gifts. The rounds would typically culminate at my Aunt’s house at about 2:00 in the afternoon when the meal would be served. At Thanksgiving, she prepared Turkey, green bean casserole, mashed potatoes, stuffing, rolls, sweet potatoes, and what you would expect and a Thanksgiving meal. She would prepare pies, usually pumpkin pie and a pecan pie, and would serve them with Cool Whip. At Christmas, she usually prepared her brisket, instead of turkey, which I now have a recipe for and make on occasion. The side dishes were usually similar to Thanksgiving’s sides, but at Christmas, she made cookies. Some were traditional American cookies like Toll House chocolate chip cookies, but as a third generation American, she's still had recipes from Germany. It was the first time that I had anise cookies and pfeffernüsse. If a dessert had alcohol, she never skimped. Her amaretto cookies were soaked in it. Her house was generously decorated with raccoon- themed art and crafts. She had a picture wall in her dining room populated with historical family photos stretching back to the 1800s. Indeed, I had long considered her the “family historian” because she seemed to know all the family stories and shared them often and with a great deal of levity. She had some miniatures decorating her home, but not as many as she did when I got to know her better as an older adult myself.

Several children stand in front of a Christmas tree in the 1970s.
From a Christmas gathering, 1975. (Top row, left to right) My elder sister Vicki, my little sister Denise held by my cousin, Beth (Joanne's daughter), and my cousin Dennis (Joanne's son); bottom row (L to R) my cousin Dean, Me, and my cousin Holly

I continued to go to the holiday meals long after we didn't go to the lake anymore. Sometimes I would bring boyfriends or friends, but whether or not I brought a guest with me, I tried to go every year to either her Thanksgiving or Christmas meals. When I went away to college, the main reason I would come home at the holidays all the way through grad school was to see her, and to have those family meals. When I started dating my husband, I think I brought him to at least one meal before we got married, and after that, we attended most of the Thanksgiving meals. Over the years, she amassed even more miniatures and she had a giant 1-inch dollhouse in her dining room which she had received in 1986 from her family as a Christmas present that she was gradually filling with miniatures. In 2010, I got the idea to have

Woman stands next to a dollhouse.
A still from the film "Joanne Martin: A Life in Miniature" of Joanne with her 1-inch dollhouse.

her come as a guest speaker to my art club at the college where I work to talk about her experience in the world of miniatures. It was probably the first time I had seen her in her element outside of family meals, and I found her to be witty and charismatic and highly knowledgeable, as well as entertaining about her subject matter. The students really loved her talk, and we kept company the whole weekend. My husband always got along with her. He loved her and was very interested in her miniatures as an artform. I remember going out to dinner with my aunt, uncle, and husband the weekend she presented to the art club, and I told her that my mother, her sister, always compared me to her. We compared notes on each other at the time and then after they left to go home that weekend, my husband quipped, “it was like having two of you around.” I could see the similarities for sure. We shared a similar intensity, stubbornness, and wit. Because of our similarities, I really wanted to develop a deeper connection with her. At that time, I wished I could capture this interesting woman's life story, but hadn’t a clear vision for how that could be accomplished.

Around 2013 I made a new friend named Eris, and after we were friends for a while, I shared with her that I would like to make a movie about my aunt and capture her portrait in biographic form. I've been a traditional fine artist working in two dimensions for my entire life. Indeed, another reason I wanted to make a film about her was that she and I were the only people involved in the arts in our entire family. So, the film would be an exploration of not just how we were similar, but to see how another artist in our family of non-artists thought about the world and life. Eris had significant experience with filmmaking on a local access channel and on her own, and as an artist, I was confident I could take creative risks by diving into a new medium, and direct a film knowing about composition, expression, and what it takes to create a compelling portrait. I would make the transition from static to motion art, which didn't seem like much of a leap to me. I was also really excited about getting to know my aunt through this process, and be able to capture her as I see her, and reveal that to others so they could meet her too.

We started filming the summer of 2015, and filmed some more footage a couple more times at holidays to capture those holiday meals in real time. During that first shoot, we followed her around for a week, and between filming, we got to know each other in conversation and through the process in general. From that first time she came down to speak to my art club in 2010 until about 2 years ago, she would call me regularly, and send me birthday and Christmas cards, and I would call her and write her letters. She was profoundly dyslexic and a few years ago, I discovered a font for people with dyslexia to enhance the readability of words, and began writing letters to her in the font. The first time I did, she called me shortly after receiving the letter and marveled at her ability to read it. I continued to go to holiday meals through this period as she was able to host them.

Joanne makes the paper in her role as Miniature Museum of Greater St. Louis President

During the filming of Joanne Martin: A Life in Miniature, I learned many things about her. I learned she adored Liberace, a fact I had heard second-hand when I was a child. I learned she was also a huge “Whispering” Bill Anderson fan, enough so that she was president of his fan club, and she had been a frequent audience member at the Grand Ol’ Opry. I knew she had gotten married young, but I learned she couldn’t get out of her family of origin’s home fast enough to escape the significant dysfunction she experienced there. I learned she had a complicated relationship with her religious upbringing, as many of us do, including me. I learned just how industrious she was and for how long. She started working young at a five and dime, then for a seamstress sewing curtains, and then she started her own wedding business, working on dresses, cakes, and baskets. She was a volunteer teacher at juvenile detention. She was a Girl Scout herself, and then a Girl Scout troop leader for many years. In her early mid-life, she started the Miniature Museum of Greater St. Louis with a fellow group of miniaturists and became the first president of the museum where she was in that role for a couple of decades until the 2020 pandemic. She also coordinated the museum volunteers among other duties. All the while she was accomplishing the myriad of goals and creative endeavors in her life, she loved to travel with my uncle and go to miniature conferences with friends.

Joanne and her troop in the 1960s.

Joanne and her troop in the 1970s (the cool lady in the sun glasses).

Joanne and her troop in the 1980s/1990s.

The pandemic changed everyone’s world. My husband suddenly and tragically died of a rapidly moving and aggressive cancer. My aunt had to quit working at her museum. That had to be a blow to a seasoned woman who derived meaning from her connection to her art and creative community. And, the isolation is particularly bad on seniors, and it likely hastened her descent into dementia. For the last three years, I could tell from phone calls and occasional visits that her memory was declining precipitously, and she repeated herself more frequently as time went on. Even as she was declining, at least in the early stages, she made me a box miniature scene of my own, which I have on my dresser in my bedroom. She created it from how she remembered my studio when she had visited, and populated it with miniature copies of my drawings that I had sent to her in card form over the years which she had featured on her “art wall” at home.

The miniature box of my studio that my aunt made for me.

The last time I saw her in her home was around January 2023 and I could tell it was becoming more difficult for her to function in that environment. The last semi-lucid phone call we had together was in March of 2023. She was eventually moved into a nursing home where I visited her in August. We spent a few hours together that weekend. It was clear she wouldn’t be able to remember me after this visit. We made a touching connection that I’ll never forget in which I took her hands, and said, “Aunt Jo, I love you SO much.” I thought this was the most important thing to tell her in this moment because I don’t think she ever felt or experienced any nurturance from her own mother, and I wanted to make sure I gazed directly into her eyes and made sure my words were imbued with gravity and sincerity when I said it. She returned the sentiment in an uncharacteristically soft and sweet tone with a softened childlike expression, “Aww. I love you too.” We said our goodbyes that weekend, but I’ll never forget that moment as long as I live.

Joanne in the early to mid- 1940s.

She died Thursday, November 2, 2023, in the morning. Since then, the light missing in this world is palpable to me. I set out to make a film about her, but we ended up building a stronger bond as women and family. During the last ten years, she would tell me I should have been one of her children because we were so much alike. What I saw as intimidating as a child, is just how artists look to artistic children who are never around other artists. What I saw as intensity as a child, was what I perceived when someone pours loving energy into everything and everyone in their life, many times out into the ether, unnoticed or taken for granted. It’s not about how that love is received, but that it was a life well lived with joy and generosity, that leaves a trail blazed and the influence is everywhere – the girl scouts who remember their leader, the women who had their wedding dresses made, the miniatures that continue to bring joy to who knows how many who are young at heart, and in the memories of the juveniles she may have inspired to walk the straight and narrow, and of the lonely and forgotten that she invited to all of those meals. I’m proud of the film I made about her because the project brought someone into the light for all to see and appreciate in the way that I see her, and I’m incredibly grateful I made a connection that I will cherish the rest of my life. I’m also grateful that I was able to create something for another creator and giver, and will be able to visit her any time I want as a result, through my creation.

My aunt Joanne was not just my spiritual twin, but a brilliant mind, a creative spirit, a quick wit, a fighter, a defender of underdogs, and a friend to the friendless, and the world was fortunate to be graced with her presence for the blink of time we had her around.

Joanne in her kitchen in 2017.

When my aunt came for a visit in 2017, I was excited to share in the experience of seeing our mutually favorite superheroine come alive in a feature length film for the first time.

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