Abigail Goldman makes minuscule murder scenes. She assembles them from model train sets, minus the actual train. The people—often dismembered, sometimes by a lawn mower or chainsaw—are about the height of a dime, arranged with the help of tweezers and a magnifying glass. The blood is cheap acrylic paint. Itsy-bitsy beat-up cars, dusty desert landscapes, graffiti-marred buildings and weatherworn trailers are backdrops to the tiny worlds of mayhem, where the carnage contrasts with the preciousness of the medium. It’s all contained in a Plexiglass box, and called, appropriately, a Dieorama.
At 34, Goldman, with her curly golden hair and wholesome countenance, has long been drawn to dark subjects, or, as she refers to it, “oddity and tragedy.” In her early teens, growing up in Northern California, she remembers coming across a worn-out book of vintage crime scene photos. She couldn’t resist it. “It was one of those books that absolutely everyone in the bookstore had flipped through many times, so the pages were weathered and torn and no one dared to buy it,” she says. “And I came forward and bought the one gross, manhandled copy.”
This proclivity toward morbid matters continued in her career and personal life. Her wedding announcement, which ran in the New York Times in 2009, describes how she and her husband—both of whom used to be reporters in Las Vegas—encountered one another: first covering a double murder, next working at the scene of a suicide.
Following her reporting job, Goldman was hired as an investigator with the federal public defender’s office in Las Vegas, where her job revolved around digging up new information on old criminal cases—primarily sex offenses, murders and assaults—that were up for appeal.
It was around that time, in 2011, that she remembers looking at a series of photos of elaborate, pleasant model railroad scenes, complete with whimsical figurines and lush landscaping, and thinking, “I could do that same thing, but just get rid of the trains and add murder.” She figured it would be a funny gift for friends, or to have around the house.
A cat-sitting gig gone awry prompted the first. When she got swatted by her friend’s cat—to which she was allergic—Goldman’s mind went back to the mini murder scenes. “Probably in some sort of sublimated rage, I decided I was going to make a diorama,” she says. The resulting tableau: a man on a park bench, sitting next to a human head. She left it on the friend’s coffee table, with no explanation, no note. “She loved it,” says Goldman.
The hobby grew and in 2012 her husband posted photos of the scenes she’d made on Reddit. His “My wife makes dioramas” post quickly garnered more than 400 comments and 40,000 views (today it’s up to more than 900 comments and 4.7 million views), landing itself on the site’s home page.
Word got around, and a friend (the one with the cats) talked to a Las Vegas art gallery owner who approached Goldman to participate in a show. To Goldman’s shock, the 10 dioramas sold out within hours. That success led to more shows and art fairs in Las Vegas, New York and Miami.
In 2015, Goldman moved from Las Vegas to Bellingham, Washington, and wound up working in crime prevention, as the sex/kidnapping registration coordinator at the Whatcom County Sheriff’s Office, where she monitors the whereabouts of sex offenders.
Goldman says her art hasn’t consciously changed as she’s moved from crime beat reporting to the world of criminal justice. In fact, she’s never portrayed real-life cases in her craft, which veers towards scenarios that she describes as more “fantasy” and “speculative” than gritty reality. “My dioramas have packs of marauding clowns with AK-47s. Or bodies in trunks and people making out next to the bodies,” she says.
What has changed since the early creations are her artistic abilities and attention to detail. She might spend hours pouring miniature cement onto a miniature driveway and making miniature cracks in that driveway, or painting a teeny car so it looks old and distressed, or building and painting an entire cityscape. Covering the Styrofoam base with dirt takes a matter of days, as she layers paint and fixative and solvent and lets it all set. She still gets the dirt from Las Vegas, sometimes transported by visiting friends, and then bakes it to kill any bugs. “Something about that fine, sun-baked dirt is the best,” she says.
Four years after the Reddit post went viral, Goldman is still surprised at the popularity of the Dieoramas. “This was something I had been doing for friends, I didn’t think anyone would ever see them,” she says. “And then the next thing I know, suddenly, it was almost a feeling of being exposed in a way. And I’m still getting used to it. I still feel weird about the whole thing.” In August, her work will be on display at Hashimoto Contemporary gallery in San Francisco.
Last month, her husband posted photos on Reddit for the second time, and the response, again, was overwhelming. So far, there are nearly 100,000 views and over 130 comments, which vacillate between admiration (“Tell her to make more! I could look at these for hours!”) and horror (“Sleep with one eye open sir.” “Seek therapy and shelter.”).
Goldman has grown to expect the raised eyebrows. She says she compares the reaction to her work to our fascination with car wrecks—neck craning and all. Like it or not, she says, humans are perversely drawn to shock and awe and horror.
“The secret’s out,” she says. “Everyone’s creepy.”