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Out of the misery of the pandemic, the joy of Tiny Tony Shore and his Instagram adventures | COMMENTARY

It turns out that the award-winning artist Tony Shore always wanted to do this. He always wanted to create a mini-he, an action-figure version of himself, a one-sixth scale doppelgänger. And so Tiny Tony — a beer-chugging, stoop-sitting, happy-to-be-here Baltimorean — was born in Shore’s gifted hands during the pandemic.

I’ve become a Tiny Tony follower. He seems like someone I’d be happy to have as a friend. Someone to look down to.

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Tiny Tony makes regular appearances on Instagram — hanging out at his rowhouse with his dad, visiting a rocky waterfront in Baltimore County, riding his bike, taking a spin on a Vespa or a drive on a red Ducati, even breaching the class walls for a visit to the Maryland Hunt Cup.

But he always seems to come back to his rowhouse and his cheap plaid couch.

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This is not merely Tony Shore having a little fun. It’s a genuine artistic narrative for the digital age, the continuing adventures of a blue-collar action figure on a social media platform. Tiny Tony represents an extension of the narratives Tony Shore created for years with acrylics on black velvet, the images inspired by his boyhood neighborhood of Morrell Park, on the southwest side of the city.

And, yes, black velvet is correct. That’s been Shore’s canvas, so to speak, since the early 1990s when he was close to graduation from the Maryland Institute College of Art. (At 49, Shore is now chair of MICA’s painting department).

The first time I met him, real-life Tony was 22 and had a show of his black velvet paintings at a gallery near Hollins Market. The images were remarkable, populated by regulars from a Washington Boulevard bar called Skeeter’s. Shore grew up near the place. He knew the men and women who drank at Skeeter’s and competed in the bar’s darts league. They became his subjects.

The work was sincere and empathetic; it never felt like some phony celebration of the common man. In fact, the black velvet was a tribute of sorts. The people Shore knew while he was growing up considered kitschy images of celebrities and wild animals on black velvet to be cool works of art. Using black velvet honored his roots.

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Shore’s work took a provocative turn about 15 years ago when, still painting on velvet, he depicted acts of violence — brutal beatings and gang attacks. That series of dark paintings displayed Shore’s skill with light and took his work from the garish and even comic to the very real and richly Baroque, with flashes of Caravaggio.

So now, it’s Tiny Tony, and back to the kitschy part of the artist’s journey.

“I’ve always gone through different stages in my life,” Shore said when we met in his cluttered funhouse of a studio the other day. “You know, I was into punk, and I was into break dancing, and then skateboarding.”

And then, as a young artist, black velvet (though I doubt he’s finished with that stage), and now action figures.

Shore’s long-held interest in creating Tiny Tony blossomed around the time the coronavirus caused MICA to switch to online classes. As he started building the Tiny Tony universe, erecting and furnishing a rowhouse for him, Shore realized he could use the figures and settings to demonstrate some techniques to the students in his narrative painting class. “I found it was good for explaining lighting and perspective and camera angles,” Shore said, rearranging the couch, end tables and lamps he made for Tiny Tony’s tiny living room.

So, while Shore’s Lilliputians might serve a useful purpose, they are mostly, from my perspective, just wonderfully good fun, totally in the spirit of his earlier work depicting corner-bar Baltimore and rowhouse family life.

When Shore started looking at action figures and accessories for sale online or in thrift stores, he discovered a whole world at one-sixth scale — characters from movies and television shows, military figures, superheroes, villains, singers and skinheads.

He took the head of a Gene Hackman action figure — “A bad Gene Hackman,” Shore noted — and, using an epoxy putty and paint, turned the face of the Hollywood actor into his Baltimore dad, the late Harry Shore.

Some action figures are blank slates, essentially tiny mannequins with interchangeable parts; hobbyists shape and dress them to create models of soldiers, historical figures or monsters. Tony Shore transformed a generic male into Tiny Tony, sculpting its head and hair to match his own, painting the hair and outfitting him with blue eyeglasses like those worn by the artist. He also found clothing similar to Shore’s — T-shirts, flannel shirts, jeans and boots, a stylish cap, and even riding breeches.

And that’s another Tony Shore stage — his interest in steeplechase and fox hunts.

He joined a Maryland equine club and learned how to jump horses. So it followed that Tiny Tony would go along for the ride. Shore outfitted his mini-he with jodhpurs from a General George S. Patton action figure and a riding coat from one of Winston Churchill. With that, plus a mount, Tiny Tony was ready to join the Elkridge-Harford horse set and continue his fabulous journey.

Look for Tiny Tony in still photographs and short videos on Instagram in two places: tonyshorepainter and tinytonysthriftstorefinds.

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