When Cindy Johnson tells people what she does for a living, there's usually a lot of explanation involved.
That's mostly because she's one of the few people in her line of work.
For the past 20 years, Johnson has worked as an artist at Applied Imagination, a small company that specializes in architectural models and structures set to scale for botanical train displays using natural elements found in the woods.
"I loved this stuff from the first time I laid eyes on it and I still do," Johnson said.
It's the only company that specializes in this kind of artistry. They have clients all over the country, including the Chicago Botanical Garden, The Biltmore, New York Botanical Garden, United States Botanical Garden and most notably to those who live in Cincinnati, the Krohn Conservatory.
Go behind-the-scenes with the artists at Applied Imagination in the video above.
Applied Imagination has been an integral part of Krohn Conservatory's holiday show for nearly 30 years, depicting Cincinnati neighborhoods and buildings in model size structures.
This year a new piece is on display that Johnson spent weeks crafting in honor of the conservatory's 85th anniversary. It's also one of the biggest projects she's ever completed.
In the beginning
Landscape architect Paul Busse started Applied Imagination in 1991. Busse, an avid train enthusiast, was installing private train gardens as a side job in the backyards of homes around Cincinnati for several years. Then he decided to make it a full-time job.
"Applied Imagination was born from the culmination of my father’s love for architecture, landscape architecture, gardening, plants, as well as trains," Busse's daughter, Laura Dolan, said. Combining all those mediums turned into the Applied Imagination that we know today."
The Krohn Conservatory heard about Busse's work and hired him to make an installation for their holiday show. Busse gathered natural materials from the grounds of the conservatory and made an elaborate 10 x 5 foot music box. It became an iconic part of Krohn's holiday show that lasted for nearly 15 years.
Applied Imagination's installation continued to grow over the years.
"It started slowly with a piece here and a piece there and now it fills the entire room. And it’s just remarkable," Krohn Conservatory assistant manager Mark House said.
The conservatory was the first company to commission Busse in his new endeavor. Ironically, it's also where Johnson would get her big break a few years later.
During a visit to Krohn Conservatory's holiday show, Johnson was admiring that same music box installation when she ran into Busse as he was working on the train garden. As an artist, she admired it's detailing and knew she had to introduce herself.
"I asked for a job on the spot," Johnson said.
Two decades later, Johnson is still working her dream job.
"I haven't lost that enthusiasm yet," she said. "I love seeing these things come together."
Over the years, Applied Imagination's involvement with Krohn Conservatory has grown not only in size, but also popularity.
"It was very important to our annual holiday show, as important as the poinsettias I would say," House said.
Busse's involvement with the holiday show has dwindled over the years since his diagnosis with Parkinson's disease. In 2017, his daughter took over ownership of the company.
"It's something that’s so incredibly special to the family and everyone involved who works here and of course the visitors that see these installations year after year," Dolan said. "I felt it was very important to carry on the business for as long as I can and hopefully someday I can pass it on to someone special."
Busse lives within steps of his company's workshop in Northern Kentucky, so when he's able to meet, his former employees still seek his input.
"I don’t think he necessarily expected to retire, but unfortunately life sometimes throws us curve balls," Dolan said.
A 'new' Krohn for Krohn
Applied Imagination primarily works on holiday displays, which means planning begins nearly a year in advance. By the time the displays are set up for the public to view, hundreds, sometimes thousands, of hours are put into the creation of a single model.
"At any given time we’ll have two to three to four different clients’ work going on," Johnson said. "It’s organized chaos. That’s what it looks like year round."
Over the past 27 years, Applied Imagination has created models of several iconic Cincinnati structures like Procter & Gamble, Mt. Adams incline, the "Painted Ladies" of Columbia Tusculum, the Western & Southern building, The Roebling Suspension Bridge. They've also included National Park structures as part of this year's exhibit.
But in light of Krohn's Conservatory's 85th anniversary celebration, both companies wanted to do something special. They decided to make a new and improved model of the conservatory that was bigger and better than previous ones.
The task wasn't easy to start.
"We had to invent ways of holding up the structure and making it out of transparent material," said Johnson, who also created the last model more than a decade ago.
This project was very different than others because of the need for it to be transparent, like the conservatory itself. After finally locating a flexible plexiglass, Johnson created an inner and outer skeleton for the structure so visitors would be able to see through it as though they are looking into the windows of the conservatory.
Johnson incorporated the branches of a dead orange tree from the conservatory and used it for the detailing of the outer decor.
Johnson's favorite feature of this new model is the stained glass entryway in the front.
"This one is way cooler than the old one because we have more room to work," Johnson said.
It took her hundreds of hours and lots of late nights to complete this project on deadline. But the chaos isn't anything new for a veteran like Johnson. She thrives on the constant flow of creative energy in the workshop all year round.
"When we’re all working on something different and there’s just something fabulous on everyone’s desk, you can’t beat that feeling," she said. "I don’t understand why everyone doesn't want to do this."
Starting in January, she and her coworkers will be ready to start the process all over again.
If You Go...The Krohn Conservatory's annual holiday show runs through Jan. 6, 2019. Tickets for adults are $7 and children (ages 5-17) are $4. Children 4 years old and under are free.