December 12, 1988 12:00 PM

On a spring day in 1971, Charles Simonds packed several pounds of red clay into the steel box on his delivery bike and set out through New York City’s SoHo district. He had spotted a gutter curbstone there that he thought would make the perfect site for one of the tiny clay villages he had been building around town. As the artist pedaled up to an intersection, he passed three of his former art students standing on a corner. “One girl stared at me and said, ‘Mr. Simonds?’ ” he recalls. “I nodded and waved. Suddenly she burst into tears. She thought I’d been forced to start delivering groceries.”

In fact, Simonds was embarking on the first stage of a grand artistic vision: constructing the archaeological remains of an imaginary miniature civilization. At first, the “Little People” dwellings, as Simonds called them, cropped up in vacant lots, on doorsills and beside curbstones around New York’s Lower East Side. By the mid-’70s he had begun erecting his elfin dwellings abroad: in the nooks and crannies of Paris, Berlin, Venice, Shanghai and—where else?—Dublin. These days collectors pay up to $30,000 for the pyramids and signal towers of his personal mythology, and the tiny towns have long since moved from abandoned doorways to fancier quarters like the Whitney Museum in New York and the Kunsthaus museum in Zurich.

At the start, though, Simonds’ work was strictly for the streets. He would arrive at a site in the morning and begin building his ruins with tweezers, gluing together the tiny, unfired clay bricks that he had made beforehand. “Working outside, as I did, I got immediate response to my work, particularly from the children,” he says. “Since they’d never had a gallery experience, it was not like ‘art seeing.’ They entered it right away as fantasy.”

The through-the-looking-glass effect was exactly what Simonds was after. His own imagination had been nurtured early by his parents, who were both New York psychoanalysts. They could afford the best private schools for Charles and his older brother, John, and on Saturdays the boys were packed off for special lessons under two Italian sculptors. “They specialized in cherubs and angels. I got pretty good at those,” laughs Simonds, who remembers the period as “a dreamy, wonderful time.” In 1967 he graduated from the University of California at Berkeley where, among other things, he learned welding, and then went to Rutgers University for a Master of Fine Arts degree. His schooling completed, he settled into a teaching post at Newark State College, commuting five days a week from Manhattan.

“I wore a suit and went out on the train every day,” he says grimly. “But there was no continuity. Each term there was a whole new group of human beings, and I had to energize myself about work that wasn’t even mine. Finally, one Friday I picked up my paycheck, and I never went back.”

Scraping by on money he had contributed to the teacher’s retirement fund, Simonds chose clay as his artistic medium. It was cheap—free if he dug it himself at an abandoned brickyard in New Jersey, as he still does. Next he went in search of sites for his Lilliputian towns. Part of the significance of his work then, he says, was its temporariness. “In the streets it was guaranteed to be destroyed,” he observes. “The point was the energy of it, the doing-ness. Afterward, I usually felt no interest. When people did try to protect them, it was usually very sad because eventually the dwellings got broken. But the destructive act can be creative. It’s reality.”

It has been four years, however, since Simonds last built a tiny town on the open streets. Now interested in more elaborate, permanent creations, he works in a spacious Manhattan loft that he shares with Bella, his French-Swiss wife of three years, and their 18-month-old daughter, Lia. The rear half is filled with galvanized garbage cans packed with clay, cement and scraps of wood, and on one side tall windows provide a spectacular view of the Empire State Building across town.

These are comfortable times for the onetime street artist. This summer, Simonds flew to South Korea to oversee construction of a new, full-scale fantasy environment titled Refuge for Seoul’s Olympic Park—a sunken stone rotunda bounded by earth mounds and a 10-foot brick tower. Elsewhere, collectors from Amsterdam to Easthampton, Long Island, are commissioning him to craft his miniature villages in the very walls of their homes. Simonds, who once touted the impermanence of art, suddenly seems on the brink of becoming a permanent institution. “My friends in Europe tell me they won’t sell their house now,” he says in disbelief. “The guy in Easthampton is moving, but he’s taking the wall with him.”

—Susan Reed, and Martha K. Babcock in New York

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