Playing with Trains
Paul Busse is having fun making a career out of creating whimsical miniature worlds—and visitors love it
When Paul Busse looks at the dried, curved leaves of a wisteria bush, he sees the blades of a windmill. To him, a blue-green eucalyptus leaf is a sliver of oxidized copper roofing. The rutted base of a palm leaf is corrugated metal.
Since he began creating large-scale garden railway designs entirely out of natural, plant-based materials more than 25 years ago, Busse has come to see the world through his passion. It’s a world where nothing is ever only what it seems, and every acorn or pine cone or piece of bark he finds along the roadside may become a windowsill or cupola or shutter on his next signature piece.
“I know I’ve been successful,” says the soft-spoken Busse—who at 57 can often be found wearing his signature railroad suspenders and a T-shirt that says “Still Plays with Trains.” “When people look and say, ‘Oh, there’s such-and-such a building.’ And then they say, ‘Wait, those are acorns!’ When they don’t see the plant materials at first. Then we’ve crossed that threshold of making it feel right.”
Bringing Still Life to Life
With Mother Nature as their palette and some hot glue and resin to solidify their vision, Busse’s team at Applied Imagination, his company based in Alexandria in northern Kentucky, has produced stunning likenesses of iconic American structures like the U.S. Capitol, the Brooklyn Bridge, the Statue of Liberty, and Cape Hatteras Lighthouse for annual garden displays at the country’s most elite botanical gardens since 1991.
Forming the 8-foot-tall U.S. Capitol replica from twigs and bark and an ideally shaped gourd for the top of the rotunda took Busse’s team more than 500 hours—a daunting amount of work, but still far less than what it would take to make a true-to-scale architectural model, he says. Plus it’s much more fun his way.
“We make the basic shape that people think the building looks like, and we use the plant materials to fill in all the details,” Busse explains. “It’s like Van Gogh’s paintings are like strokes of color. If you isolate part of it you probably wouldn’t be able to recognize what it is. But if you step away, it’s amazing the intensity that it has. And the plant material kind of does the same thing. Your eye is told that all the details are there. But if I had to build a scale replica of a tile roof, it would be tedious.” Instead, with a few pieces of pine cone, he can get the same effect.
Busse’s knack for creating awe-inspiring miniature versions of a city’s most famous landmarks has made his displays holiday traditions for residents across the country—especially in New York, where Mayor Michael Bloomberg has called Busse’s annual exhibit at The New York Botanical Garden one of the city’s top five holiday attractions.
This year, Busse’s 15th in New York, his display will feature more than 140 structures emblematic of the New York skyline mixed together with creative whimsy—Yankee Stadium may sit across the street from Rockefeller Center, while the Empire State Building finds itself next door to St. Patrick’s Cathedral—across 1,000 feet of track and nearly 6,000 square feet of space. At 29 feet long and 14 feet high, Busse’s replica of the Brooklyn Bridge may be the most easily identifiable landmark of the entire display.
“Not only are Paul’s creations enjoyable and inspiring, but he’s also a very fun guy,” says Todd Forrest, vice president for Horticulture and Living Collections at The New York Botanical Garden. “He installs these wonderful creations in and around our permanent tropical plant collections and incorporates them into the design—and they are the better for it.”
This year the botanical garden expects 160,000 visitors to Busse’s display, which features new additions and is laid out differently every year between November and January.
In Cincinnati’s Krohn Conservatory each holiday season, Busse’s smaller Music Box display is no less inspiring, with replicas of the city’s Dayton Street row houses, the Immaculata Church, Mt. Adams buildings, Union Terminal, and the Krohn Conservatory itself.
Busse incorporates dwarf evergreens, poinsettias, ivies, and mosses, as well as tunnels, waterfalls, and bridges, amidst his buildings to make the miniature cities seem all the more real. And all the while, large-scale model trains known as “G-scale”—with each car about the size of a loaf of bread—weave in and out of the cityscapes, lending a sense of life and movement to Busse’s creations.
“I look at a garden as a still life,” Busse explains. “Even though it’s living, it’s a still life, but the trains sort of put a time and motion on it to bring it to life. . . . (The trains) bring the human life to it. Suddenly it’s active, and something’s going on. It’s the three-dimensional movement through the landscape that really excites me.”
“My favorite part is how excited he gets when it all starts coming together,” says Busse’s wife, Margaret, who works with him at Applied Imagination along with Paul’s son, Brian, and nephew, Jason.
Knowing he’s found the perfect way to blend his passions for plants, architecture, and trains, Busse is a man who smiles easily and chuckles often when he talks of his work.
“My real bottom line is that I’m doing a job where the product is really a lot of happiness,” he says. “The medium is trains and landscape—scenery and all these plant materials and everything. But the actual product is tons of happy people.”
The More Creative Option
Walking into Busse’s workshop in Alexandria, you understand what he means when he refers to the “creative chaos” that inspires their work there. Everywhere, old coffee cans and plastic bins are brimming with scavenged bits of nature—from everyday pine cones to more exotic specimens like contorta, the Australian plant kangaroo paws, pepper berries, and lichens.
Paintbrushes and glue guns and pieces of foam lay scattered across well-worn work stations, and the din of constant sawing outside and hammering inside makes clear that some of the hundreds of feet of track needed for each display are coming together.
Amidst all the bustle, Busse stays calm and carefree.
“I’ve sometimes had the thought that if places like New York and Washington knew how not worried I was about what I was doing, they’d probably be worried,” says the father of two grown children and grandfather of two. “But if I started worrying about how, gee, 200,000 people are going to come see this, I’d probably be worried all the time. Instead, I take the stance that, ‘Oh, don’t worry about it, we’ll get it done.’”
Much of Busse’s peace of mind may stem from knowing he wouldn’t rethink any of the choices he’s made in charting out this rather unique career of his.
Having graduated in 1972 with a degree in landscape architecture from Ohio State, Busse had the option of taking a more traditional, stable landscape design position with the Cincinnati Parks System. But during the interview, the employer showed him a schedule of his vacation time through the next 20 years. Then and there, Busse knew the job wasn’t for him, much the same way he knew a traditional architecture program—with its talk of “air conditioners and engineering”—wasn’t for him in college.
“If I had continued as a landscape architect, if I’d done more routine stuff, I probably could have made more money, and had a big nursery by now. But that never interested me,” Busse says. “I don’t just want to run a business. Whenever it came to a choice in life, I’ve always taken the more creative option.”
Taking the creative path helped Busse find his footing in the garden railway design business in the early 1980s. He had first discovered G-scale trains in 1972, and went on to create his initial exhibits for the Ohio State Fair and window displays for downtown Cincinnati businesses. Since then, his career has taken off, taking him all over the country. This past summer, he created a new display at the Bellagio Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas to much acclaim, and he will design a new Union Pacific Railroad display in Omaha next year. There’s even talk of creating a PBS documentary about his annual New York exhibition.
Whatever happens next, Busse knows he’s one lucky guy. Especially in those precious moments setting up for a new exhibit, when “you can see the magic just start to mellow into the whole thing,” he says. “I’m certainly enjoying the ride.”
BUSSE LOVES BIRDS, TOO
In addition to trains, Paul Busse also harbors a passion for bluebirds and is an active member of the Kentucky Bluebird Society. He’s even designed his own unique bluebird nesting box complete with camera so that fellow bird enthusiasts can enjoy watching the inner life of their bird box inhabitants around the clock on their home TVs. He calls it The Kentucky Cam Bluebird Nesting Box, and it’s available for around $200. Contact the Kentucky Bluebird Society (www.biology.eku.edu/kybluebirds.html) for more information.
WHERE TO SEE PAUL BUSSE'S EXHIBITS
A photo gallery of Paul Busse’s past garden railway creations is available on his Web site at www.appliedimagination.biz. Or you can catch his exhibits in person at the following locations:
Krohn Conservatory at Eden Park
1501 Eden Park Drive, Cincinnati, OH
Through January 1
The New York Botanical Garden
The Holiday Train Show
200th Street and Kazimiroff Boulevard, Bronx, NY
Through January 7
The United States Botanic Garden
100 Maryland Avenue, SW, Washington, DC
December 2 through January 7
Stan Hywet Hall and Gardens
714 North Portage Path, Akron, OH
Through December 31
The Chicago Botanic Garden
1000 Lake Cook Road, Glencoe, IL
December 2 through January 7
The Morris Arboretum
100 East Northwestern Ave., Philadelphia, PA
Through December 31
KEYWORD EXCLUSIVE: MAKE YOUR OWN GARDEN RAILWAY
To find out about building your own garden railway, click here: Garden Rail