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A Black woman in her early seventies looks out beyond the camera. She wears silver hoop earrings, red lipstick, and a checkered top with a paper beaded necklace and a jade pendant. The white, angular planes of the King Memorial sculpture in Compton, CA, rise up behind her.

Photo by Chris Merchant.


Karen Collins

She // Her // Hers

Narrative Miniaturist

Compton, California

I enjoy researching history and creating something out of nothing with my own hands but my real fuel is the impact my work has on the next generation; it feeds our youth’s sense of self and identity as well as their cultural awareness.”

Karen Collins is a self-taught narrative miniaturist — a creator of small objects — who learned by trial and error. Collins was born in 1950 in Indianapolis and raised by a single mother of five. Her family struggled but were close-knit. Collins is also a product of the civil rights movement, witnessing and participating in marches, sit-ins, and Black Panther community meetings and has carried this practice of activism into her adulthood. These experiences, including being jailed during a school walk out, taught Collins about the struggle of attaining civil rights as well as the value of community, which continues to influence her creative practice. In 1971, after graduating from high school, she moved to Inglewood, California and has called Compton home for over twenty years. From 1974–1987, Collins was a stay-at-home mother of two. Her journey in the arts began later in life.

Deeply informed by the African-American tradition of making something out of nothing, Collins would find miniatures and take them apart to see how they work. This is how she learned little tricks and became a maker rather than a consumer. For the last twenty seven years, she has honed her craft and has been documenting and telling Black history and culture through dioramas placed in shadow boxes. Collins’ art started as a way to deal with grief due to the incarceration of her son. She believes this art form saved her life, giving her a renewed sense of purpose. Through her artistic community engagement, she has worked to bring clarity and vibrance in the storytelling of Black history and to contribute to her community’s knowledge of self. Collins has created more than 100 dioramas to date.

Donor -This award was generously supported by Windgate Foundation.

This artist page was last updated on: 07.11.2024

A diorama with four stylized miniature sculptures of Black cowboys riding four horses. While the cowboys look hand-crafted, the horses appear to be store-bought and machine-made. Behind the figurines is a white fence and multicolored dots representing faces in a crowd. Hovering at the top of the display are glittering gold letters that read, "Compton Cowboys."

Karen Collins. Compton Cowboys, 2022. Commissioned by the Autry Museum of the American West for Imagine West: Black History in the American West.

Photo courtesy of the Autry Museum of the American West.

A diorama of a fortress on a cliff surrounded by two palm trees and two black cannons. Far below the cliff's edge is a large ship with many sails approaching the harbor. The back of the diorama is painted to look like a blue sky with wispy clouds.There are also framed images, paragraphs of text, and shackles hung in the background.

Karen Collins. The Middle Passage, 1995.

Photo by Jacob Hurwitz-Goodman.

A “trilogy box” of three dioramas. The left diorama depicts Trayvon Martin wearing a hoodie and carrying ice tea and Skittles; behind him are images of Black men that have been killed by police and a protest march. The center diorama depicts a funeral with a Black family burying their child. The mother holds a picture of her daughter. The right diorama depicts a street protest with signs that say “I can’t breathe — George Floyd,” “Sandra Bland — Say Her Name,” and “No Justice No Peace."

Karen Collins. Black Lives Matter, 2018; updated 2020. Commissioned by the Los Angeles Public Library.

Photo by Ryan Schude.