With whimsical art, Stoddard's Sean Flemming resettles into the Monadnock Region

·7 min read

Jul. 30—Slavic folklore tells of an evil old witch who lives in a house with chicken feet and either eats, imprisons or helps those who happen upon her magical hut in the woods. Her name is Baba Yaga, and she's the inspiration for a Monadnock Region creative who crafts miniature witch huts, fairy houses and mushroom sculptures.

When you're off to meet artist Sean Flemming at his home in Stoddard, it's easy to imagine you're meeting Baba Yaga herself. Tucked away in a private community along Island Pond, Flemming lives on his own in a cottage akin to the ones he makes in a smaller building next door that serves as his workshop.

"I have a Russian background, so I knew about the Baba Yaga story," Flemming, 58, said. "But at the very beginning of COVID, I was looking through Pinterest and saw this little craft-made fairy house. I thought I could do something like that because I needed to occupy my time."

So, he made his own version, then turned to Baba Yaga-esque structures. And as the retired audio engineer made more and more miniatures, the idea evolved into a hobby and eventually a full-time art business. Under the moniker "Glückspilz Gifts," Flemming builds the enchanted forest models to sell at Hannah Grimes Marketplace in Keene and a curiosity shop in Littleton named Baba Yaga.

"Glückspilz" is German for "lucky mushroom," Flemming said, adding that it's in reference to the amanita mushroom, an iconographic species internationally recognized for its red cap speckled with white spots. Many of Flemming's handcrafted mushroom models replicate this mushroom.

"I'm interested in the fact that [the amanita] is such a beautiful mushroom and that it shows up in all kinds of fairy tales," he said. "I have a Pinterest page with all my research about this mushroom, and it shows it used to be very popular in the 1920s and 1930s on New Year's Eve postcards."

To some degree, building the miniatures is a way for Flemming to reconnect to his Russian heritage. Those roots are in his maternal great-grandparents, whom he said immigrated to Boston in the wake of the Russian Revolution, which lasted from 1917-1923. While he never met them, he considers his work a tribute to their hardships in fleeing their home country.

"The story of Baba Yaga is not always a horrible ending," Flemming said. "You're confronted with this challenge by the witch, but you can overcome it and become a stronger person."

His crafts are made up largely of natural materials he forages from the land around his home like pinecones, acorns, stones and woodchips. Flemming also incorporates small crystals and faux moss and lichens he purchases to include a mystical touch and add to the natural look without using materials that deteriorate.

He said much of his work is improvised though some planning goes into what he wants the finished product to look like. He tends to cycle through creating different types of miniatures as to not grow tired of his work, he noted.

"I get my inspiration from something I see in nature like the shape of a piece of wood, the color outside or a piece of bark or texture, and that kind of forms an image in my mind," Flemming said. "Sometimes the work I do is deliberate, like if I'm getting low on mushroom crafts and I need to make more, or if I haven't made a gnome house in a while."

A native of Keene and Peterborough, Flemming said he's been an artist from a young age when he would play with wooden blocks, draw and paint. He graduated from Keene State College in 1988 with a bachelor's degree in psychology before attending Hofstra University in Long Island, N.Y. There, he often enjoyed sculpting with clay and graduated with a master's degree in art therapy in 1990. He said he stepped away from mixed media art for many years, only taking up graphic design on occasion.

The bulk of his career spanned about 17 years when he ran a technology business, Blue Planet Studio, in Swanzey where he converted VHS tapes to DVDs before the disc medium was more widely recognized.

"I contacted companies across the United States that had large libraries and catalogs of videos and told them their customers would start asking for DVDs in a couple years, and when they were ready, I'd be their man," he said. "It was a really good business; I used to go to trade shows in Las Vegas and get tons of new customers ... [with] instructional things like martial arts or customer-service videos. I converted some movies, but nothing famous."

When Blu-Ray media arrived, Flemming retired, saying he anticipated it would be a short-lived popularity with the advent of streaming services. He moved to Washington state three years later, where he lived for about seven years with his then-partner. But when the two separated, he resettled in the Monadnock Region four years ago to look after his aging parents, Donald and Paula Flemming, who live next door to him along Island Pond.

Referencing his master's degree, Flemming said developing Glückspilz Gifts has been somewhat therapeutic for him as he's settled back into the area. He estimated he sells about half of his work online through Etsy and half at Hannah Grimes Marketplace in Keene and Baba Yaga in Littleton. And the heads of both stores say the miniatures are a hit among customers.

"All of [Flemming's] stuff is really popular, and we put some of it in the front window because we think it draws people and brings them inside the store," said Gail Shelley, Hannah Grimes Marketplace's manager.

For this year's Keene Wizarding Week, which started Tuesday and ends Sunday, the marketplace commissioned Flemming to build a wizard house on display in the store. He said he built the roughly six-inch tall house in three sections with different roofs and that he considers it the most elaborate craft he's made. But, it was also one outside his comfort zone.

"I had no idea what a wizard house was supposed to look like, and I knew it would be based on 'Harry Potter' books, but I haven't read them nor do I have any interest in reading them," Flemming said.

As for his biggest piece in size, Flemming built a large Baba Yaga house for the shop in Littleton as something of a "mascot," which he said ended up being about 1.5 feet tall. Shop owner Zach Johnsen said it's a proud display for his business, which sells printed apparel, fine art prints, stickers, pins and drinkware among other items, all of which bear similarities to the theme of Flemming's work.

"The house has a prominent spot right by the door, and I love it," Johnsen said. "A little over a year ago, [Flemming] came on my radar ... when he found me through Instagram. He reached out, and I was like, 'I'll take whatever you can bring over, my friend.' "

Flemming guessed he's made as many as 300 pieces or more since starting Glückspilz Gifts in 2020. And while it's proven a success and he said he's received regular positive feedback, he's always looking to adjust his techniques with tools he has at his disposal, like saws from Japan with sharp, fine blades.

"I have this theory that if you look at any professional, whether it be a dancer or a baker, who are masters at what they do, it looks effortless," Flemming said. "But you're talking thousands of hours of work and discipline to get to that point. As you refine who you are and your skill as a professional, you learn."

Tim Nail can be reached at 352-1234, extension 1436, or tnail@keenesentinel.com. Follow him on Twitter at @timmnail.