“Whisper!” Over the phone, there’s silence, then a low, burbling growl. “Oh, that was good! Did you hear it?” Karen Anderson asks. I laugh, and in that moment, the anxieties of daily life melt away.
That’s because when you talk to Karen (or her dog, Max), you’re immediately transported to her world—a world filled with chatty pups and small doors and petite accoutrements like books, shoes, and sweaters.
Tiny Doors ATL began in 2014, when Karen and Atlanta native Sarah Meng founded the project, which installs 6-inch doors in strategic places throughout the city like the Krog Street Tunnel and the BeltLine. “It’s a dream job,” Karen says. “I will never say it’s not a dream job, no matter what happens.” Currently there are 13 doors that are public, accessible, and free to visit throughout the city, and 5 doors in both of MailChimp’s Atlanta-based offices.
We talked to Karen to learn a little more about what it’s like to create small-but-powerful art—and to be living her dream as Tiny Door’s Principal Artist and Director.
She has a lifelong admiration of miniatures.
When Karen was a kid, she had a metal dollhouse filled with furniture and people. After giving away the house’s insides, she remade everything using clay. “I didn’t care about the drama of the people in the house. I just wanted to know how the bed was made,” she says. “My love was for replicating the world around me.”
And has always been involved in creative pursuits.
As a teen, Karen went to an arts-focused high school and even taught art at a summer camp. After graduating, she played bass guitar in a jazz/punk band. “I was a musician for 5 years and toured the country, and I gained this really deep appreciation for community, and community artwork, and the power of art to bring people together,” she says.
After touring, Karen returned to school and received a degree in visual art from Rutgers University in New Jersey. After volunteering as Applied Arts Director for Girls Rock Camp ATL during college, Karen decided she wanted to stay in Atlanta. But her penchant for creating didn’t end there: She made sculptural custom cakes and dabbled in public speaking.
Karen grew up with Ann Arbor, Michigan’s fairy doors, which is a series of small doors throughout the city. When she moved to the South, Karen knew she wanted to bring a project to her new town that had an equally whimsical feel—but that also represents the city’s neighborhoods.
“It’s a love letter to Atlanta. It’s a conversation with Atlanta and I love that about it,” she says. “It’s my job is to create the most exciting blank canvas for your imagination.”
But what’s behind the doors is up to you.
“I think sometimes people have asked me questions before about the fantasy world in my head. I’ll tell you right now: There’s not one. The world in my head is very reality-based, with the element of surprise,” she says. “I’m fascinated with interrupting your day with something curious, with something that makes you think.”
One of the Indigo Girls has written music for Karen.
“Emily Saliers from Indigo Girls wrote a soundtrack, so whenever you see a Tiny Doors video, she wrote it for Tiny Doors ATL,” Karen says. “It’s written here in Atlanta by a homegrown rock star!”
She uses social media to keep tabs on her doors.
Since most of her art is public, Karen has gotten used to occasional vandalism, but she doesn’t let it bother her.
“It’s just fascinating to me that I have that huge advantage to use social media as a tool to help keep track of my art,” she says. “I give out my number and ask people to text me photos of the doors if they ever see damage, so my heart skips a beat when I get a text photo from a number I don’t know, because it’s always damage. But when I can see it, I know how to fix it.”
Because she’s always on call, she travels to her doors often, tending to them whenever they need a touch-up. But she also gets a lot of joy out of checking her hashtag, especially with so many furry visitors.
To create her public doors, Karen works in reverse.
“I think about all the bad things that are going to happen, like rain, flooding, heat, and sun. Every single thing,” she says. Then she gets to know the neighborhood so she knows what to highlight. “And so I make them based on the architecture and the spirit of the neighborhood.”
Karen also takes comfort that, of the tens of thousands of people who walk past her art, only a handful of them have tarnished the installations. “I feel like it’s a dream job even on the hard days.”
Her latest commission for MailChimp was the Plaza Theatre.
“Honey, we shrunk the Plaza Theatre!” reads her Instagram post of MailChimp’s latest Tiny Door. Other doors in the offices include a tiny newsstand and bodega.
“I’m thankful to MailChimp for being the first to reach out and to see the potential for this project to be more than just street art.”