Lockdown has inspired many of us to take up new hobbies, but for one Middlesbrough man, the pandemic just meant more time to devote to a mammoth project already nine years in the making.
“It was business as usual,” says Steve Waller, 61, a model artist and historian known affectionately as the “Michelangelo of Middlesbrough” who has spent almost a decade recreating the town’s historical St Hilda’s district in his bedroom.
Since the project began in 2012, Waller has spent an average of 12 hours a day carving and hand-painting the model village which he calls “a labour of love and hate”.
The model features 50 municipal buildings, including Middlesbrough’s first town hall and 300 terrace houses, all hand-carved from balsa wood and glued together with resin from Waller’s local pound shop.
While Waller’s obsession predates Covid-19, it was born out of similar circumstances. Having suffered a slipped disc after diving for a cricket ball, he was unable to leave the house.
“I know lots of people have struggled for purpose over the last year, so it’s been nice to have that clarity,” he says. “I was always fascinated with my great-uncle, who was killed in the Somme. I was laid up in Middlesbrough and started thinking about the town as he’d have known it, the way the streets would have been then. I started to plot routes he’d have taken and it mushroomed from there.”
Waller says he never set out to model the entire town, but once he started – first with the town hall, and then with Ayresome cemetery (now Ayresome Gardens) – he found the process of carving and painting the models to be too therapeutic to stop.
“My magnum opus started out with a grim determination to say ‘I can do this’, and then it becomes a bit like an addiction, a drug. I have terrible days with it where I have to admit defeat but when you’re having a great day and your hands are working like magic I try and keep going because the next day you might not have the same touch.”
The model is based on exact plans from the 1830s for the now demolished district. But the scene itself is not of the town then.
“I’ve tried to make it a cross-section of different eras in Middlesbrough,” says Waller. “There’s always a measure of artistic licence with this sort of thing and I can’t work miracles, but I’ve tried my best to capture Middlesbrough the way it was so it will never be forgotten.”
Waller is retired now but for the last decade he’s worked on the model while caring for his mother full-time. She died in March 2020, just before the first lockdown, but he says he continues working on the model in her memory.
“Poor old mother didn’t live to see it finished but she knew it was going to be a winner. I said to her in the care home before she died of Alzheimer’s: ‘We’re going to be famous.’”
The sprawling project forced Waller out of his bedroom and on to a camp bed in his kitchen, but he’s excited to be getting his space back soon – the council have found him a studio in town where he can complete the project.
Waller is especially thankful to have had the support of the Middlesbrough mayor, Andy Preston, and he says he can’t wait to donate it to the council when it’s done.
Lauding the “incredible” scale model, Preston said: “When it’s finished, I would like it to be the centrepiece of an exhibition and gathering to celebrate that amazing part of Middlesbrough – an area that was so savagely demolished.”
Waller has spent 27,000 hours on the project and painted over 1m tiny cobbles and roof tiles and his dedication has invited comparisons to another old master, Michelangelo.
But while Waller’s endurance could rival the man who painted the Sistine Chapel, his ultimate aim has never been that grand. “I just got my head down and kept going. The back injury makes it hard to lie in, anyway.”