Assistant professor loves small things in life

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They say big things come in small packages.

For Michaelanne Thomas, the smaller, the better.

Thomas, assistant professor of information in the School of Information, has a lifelong obsession with tiny things, and it’s manifested in a wondrous practice that she shares with her two young sons.

“I have been fascinated with tiny things since I was a child,” she said. “You know those ASMR (autonomous sensory meridian response) whisper videos where there’s something about that for certain people that gives chills up and down their body? That’s what tiny things do for me.”

Thomas said she had an active imagination as a child and could picture small animals in miniature parallel worlds to the one she was experiencing. She credits her creative and whimsical mother for helping foster and support that imagination.

A photo of a woman next to a tiny door
Michaelanne Thomas, assistant professor of information in the School of Information, poses next to the fairy door she first put up for her sons after it had been reinstalled at her new house. (Photo courtesy of Michaelanne Thomas)

As an adult, Thomas was living in Atlanta and came across Tiny Doors ATL, an art project whose website says it brings “big wonder to tiny spaces in Atlanta and beyond.”

As the name suggests, tiny doors are the project’s forte, with the first being installed in July 2014. Since then, more than two dozen have been sprinkled in and around Atlanta, and they captivated Thomas.

On the wall of her mother’s home was a display of frames she had created that wrapped around a pillar and became incrementally smaller as they approach the floor. At the bottom was a space, one that Thomas felt needed a tiny door.

Inspired by the ones she saw in Atlanta, Thomas found one on Amazon and sent it to her mother’s house.

“My son, who was 4 at the time, was fascinated by this door,” she said. “We started talking about fairies and where they go and where they live. I bought a matching door for our house. Because he had seen the door at my mom’s house, he’s like, ‘It’s a portal. We can travel in between the different worlds.’

“So then it grew from there.”

A photo of a tiny door with a ladder and a scroll
Michaelanne Thomas first installed this tiny door in her home five years ago, complete with a letter written to her son and little footprints on the floor. (Photo courtesy of Michaelanne Thomas)

There was plenty of fanfare for that first door Thomas installed under the stairs of her house in 2019. She wrote her son a letter, which she turned into a scroll by burning the edges of the paper. The letter was from “fairies” saying they had chosen the house, determining it to be a safe place to live, and had moved in.

“I put glitter on the floor from his bed all the way down to the door and put little red footprints leading up to the door,” she said. “He loved it.”

Thomas has since moved and she’s brought the tiny doors to her new place, including one outside that includes a small fence and walkway. That’s one of three tiny doors sprinkled around her home, and while she’s always scouting new locations to put a new one, she doesn’t rely on theatrical displays when a new one appears.

“I just put them up and don’t say anything. Sometimes they react to it, sometimes they don’t,” she said. “My most recent addition is in the hallway, and you can see it from the bathroom. I found the 3-year-old at the door and opening it and yelling ‘hello’ and closing it.”

While the doors evoke a sense of wonder for her children, they do the same for Thomas. Depending on her mood, some days she envisions simply a wall behind the doors. Other times, she has an image of a swirling world that will transport her to her parents’ house. And sometimes it’s entry to another land inhabited by woodland creatures.

The doors are not extravagant nor are they regularly decorated with anything, except for an occasional small wreath around the holidays. But for Thomas, the decor is not the point. What’s important is what she and her boys glean from having the doors around.

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“It’s the fact that they will engage with me in creative ways, and the fact that they can see their mother as an adult getting so much joy out of something,” she said. “My mom did stuff like this for me and my siblings and to see my mom play and go out of her way to do whimsical, weird things just to infuse our lives with some magic, I felt so loved and seen and it created our own little safe bubble.

“I can see that happening with my kids. I also know that they are the ones that will come to me with weird ideas and will get really excited about stuff, so it’s incredibly special and meaningful.”

Q&A

What memorable moment in the workplace stands out?

The most memorable moments at the School of Information come from the continuous support and care of my colleagues. As a mother of two, balancing work and family life can be challenging. My colleagues’ understanding and assistance have been invaluable, creating a supportive work environment that has contributed to my well-being.

What can’t you live without?

Community is indispensable to me. The bond I share with friends in Ann Arbor and my close-knit family, despite us living in different states, provides me with a sense of belonging and support. Additionally, my Pure Barre classes are essential for maintaining my mental health and intellectual sharpness. The welcoming atmosphere at the studio in downtown Ann Arbor makes it feel like a second home.

Name your favorite spot on campus.

Choosing a favorite spot on campus is difficult, but the study rooms in Rackham stand out for their beauty and elegance, offering a peaceful retreat for work and reflection. Outdoors, Nichols Arboretum is a cherished place where my children and I can connect with nature and each other.

What inspires you?

I find inspiration in the beauty of art, music and prose, especially when they appear in unexpected places. These encounters remind me of the creativity and depth of human expression.

What are you currently reading?

I’m currently immersed in “Cuba: An American History” by Ada Ferrer and “The Land of Open Graves” by Jason De León.

Who had the greatest influence on your career path?

My father has been the greatest influence on my career path. His passion for learning and support for my intellectual curiosity inspired me to pursue academia. His involvement in my academic journey today, from reading my papers to attending lectures at U-M, continues to reinforce my belief in my capabilities.

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Comments

  1. Jonathan Wright
    on February 21, 2024 at 5:01 pm

    Well! This is kinda funny. Michaelanne Thomas discovered the concept of fairy doors from Tiny Doors ATL. Whereas Tiny Doors ATL discovered them in Ann Arbor from Urban Fairies Operations! U.F.O. began in 2005, while the first fairy door (of the sort we are speaking of here) appeared way before THAT, in 1993.

    It comes full circle.

    https://urban-fairies.com/

    ~Jonathan B. Wright, certified fairyologist and UofM alumni (B.F.A. School of Art & Design)

  2. Mark Tucker
    on February 23, 2024 at 9:48 am

    And now Jonathan, it would appear one can purchase your original creative and intellectual property on Amazon at the click of a mouse (and not a Fairy Mouse either). Buying our creativity, and not thinking twice about it, seems to be normalized now.

    • Jonathan Wright
      on February 23, 2024 at 10:18 am

      True, Mark. Though that is *partially* my fault. I *could* have monetized the concept, but chose not to. I liked the magic of discovery.

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