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Art in miniature

VALPARAISO — Don and Barbara Lanier have buttons made of snakeskin and sawdust. Jade and Jasperware. Diamonds and dough. The buttons’ subject material is equally limitless. Within their collection, they have mini-collections organized by theme. People wearing ruffled collars. Greek gods. Madonnas with child. Silver buttons dug from 13th century graves in China. Glass buttons made to look like paperweights.

The Laniers, both in their 70s, started collecting buttons in the 1970s. They wanted to cultivate a hobby they could enjoy through retirement. At a flea market in San Antonio, Texas, Don spotted a jar full of buttons and asked the vendor if he could pour them out on a table. “He said, ‘It’s not gonna do you no good. The fat man’s done been through them,’ ” Don recalls.

That moment began their awareness that button collecting is a thriving and fascinating hobby, one with clubs and competitions. Don Lanier is now president of the North Florida Button Club and they are both members of the National Button Society, now in its 75th year. Don says he and his wife are known around the world for their collection.

The Laniers have never bothered to count their buttons — “thousands upon thousands” — and devote a room in their home to them. Barb says “they’re all favorites to me,” but Don’s eyes light up when he talks about a few buttons in particular, such as some centuries-old Austrian pieces he’s spearheading research about. He picks up another card, dotted with oddly shaped buttons whose colors swirl. An artist scraped up chunks of dried paint from a Ford factory, cut the chunks into pieces and ran them through a tumbler until they were shiny and smooth.

The Laniers say buttons have helped to teach them and deepen their curiosity. Through buttons, they have researched Joan of Arc, contemplated the lives of people who first wore them, fine-tuned buying and bartering skills and made friends around the world.

Now, they hope sharing their story will inspire others to join them.