Local Artist Decorates Historic 1874 Home at Heritage Park with Custom-Painted Christmas Village
Starting at an early age, Blue C. M. Dingman dreamed of assembling her own Christmas village. “I’ve always loved villages, since the time I was little, watching them get assembled for department stores in holiday movies on our families black-and-white television set,” said Dingman, the artist behind Blue’s Christmas Village at the 1874 Bradley Home this December. What started as a childhood memory signifying the holiday season quickly grew into 102 hand-painted homes, storefronts, hospitals and even a cemetery.
It began in 2000 with just three village homes that Dingman found at a local craft store, then custom painted for her personal holiday display. Finding a passion for these detailed silica plaster buildings, she began searching for other unique structures, ultimately connecting with the manufacturer that created her original three. She custom ordered an assortment to add to her tiny village, building up her collection, with over 50 hand-painted structures by 2006. It was then that she was notified that the manufacturer would be going out of business; discontinuing the array of matching homes to her collection.
To no surprise, Dingman then acquired an additional 50 village buildings, taking her set to what it is today at 102. The collection hasn’t been residing in her home this entire time though. Her friend, retired Midland County Historical Society Director Gary Skory, reached out to her about placing the entire village on display at the Doan History Center located at Heritage Park. The exhibit, which launched in 2006, was on display at the Doan Center for several years before transitioning over to the 1874 Bradley Home for the launch of the Bradley Home Holidays. The exhibit then spent a few years at the Dow Gardens, before returning to Heritage Park where it currently resides each holiday season.
It takes a village to assemble the entire collection, quite literally. Her assistant, Ann Schoren, has been actively involved in setting up the display, building bases for the various communities, organizing the materials, and even assisting Dingman in ensuring continuity between village themes. “I’m just here to help my friend,” said Ann Schoren, a humble and organized contributor to the exhibit. “I work to bring her vision to life with the exhibit, and give Blue the freedom to make Christmas magic.”
It’s not just Schoren who works to make this exhibit happen, it also takes the strength of both Dingman and Shoren’s husbands to take the entire village out of storage and load the dozens of carefully wrapped boxes of village buildings into the Bradley Home. Each village building is secured in bubble wrap and then organized in its own individual box.
At first glance, the grand scale of the entire village is breathtaking. And as you begin to look closely, you notice the delicate attention to detail in each custom silica plaster building. Dingman carefully painted each individual piece, spending between five and eight hours on each one, more than 650 hours on the entire collection.
A strong visual artist, Dingman even ventured into the literary arts when she crafted a poem to depict the emotions and intention behind this massive creation:
My Christmas spirit begins to grow
With each building and tree,
And each flake of snow.
Shops carefully painted,
And then placed just so.
For those wee holiday folks to
Have someplace to go.
I think up their stories,
The lives that they live,
Their deep Christmas wishes,
The gifts that they’ll give.
It all comes to life,
And this I believe.
For we all know the magic
Of each Christmas Eve.
When asked if the community represented in the village was real, Dingman says the village is fairly fictional, but represents her life. “You will see several buildings and residences that represent moments of my life, my family and closest friends. My husband was a police officer so you can find a police station; my son a florist so you will see his flower shop. My other son is a chef, you’ll notice his delicatessen; and I have been a longtime volunteer for the Dow Gardens butterfly exhibit, so you’ll see the butterfly house for me.” You may even notice a building called Ann’s Treasures to honor her assistant, Ann Schoren. Dingman went on to describe Schoren’s elaborate garage sales, which she always advertises in the Midland Daily News, ending the listing with the phrase, “too many treasures to list.” Keep an eye out for the sign “Too many to list,” among all of the intricate details when experiencing the exhibit.
It isn’t just smiles on the faces of attendees that makes this massive undertaking worth her time and efforts said Dingman, it’s the ways in which the detail and imagination of the display can affect the lives of others. Bringing attendees to a happier place during the holiday season, or capturing the intrigue of a teenager looking to explore and appreciate the intricate detail of the painted homes and their surroundings.
Even if you have visited Blue’s Christmas Village before, you won’t have seen this display. Dingman says each annual village is custom, arranged differently than before, and tells unique stories based on the positioning of buildings in relation to each other. “No village is the same, it looks and feel different each year” said Dingman.
You won’t want to miss the exhibit this year, as it may potentially be the last time it is on display. “It takes an immense amount of time and energy to assemble the exhibit, and I am reaching an age where I’m not sure I can do it any longer. If someone was interested in setting up the display in the future, I would love to talk with them.” Dingman estimates it takes over 100 hours to completely organize and assemble the entire display.
Guests can visit the 1874 Bradley Home for an old fashioned Victorian Christmas starting Dec. 7, for just $3 with children three and under for free. Admission to the home will be available on Saturday’s and Sunday’s through Dec. 21, 12 p.m. – 4 p.m. Celebrate the season with parlor games, seasonal music, vintage ornaments, holiday crafts and more. Docent tours, holiday music, and selfies with Father Christmas will round out the visit. This year’s theme, Twelve Days of Christmas, celebrates the popular rhyme which was published in 1780 and became popular in 1909. To learn more about the Bradley Home Holidays, visit midlandcenter.org.