SEATTLE — Jhun Carpio isn't an architect. But what he builds with matchsticks and coffee stirrers requires engineering, innovation, and endless patience.
"With me, I always say one stick at a time,” he said, from his in-home workshop in West Seattle. "My favorite artist is Bob Ross, remember? You have the happy clouds and the happy trees. And these are my happy clouds. I'm like a little kid."
Maybe it's because his actual childhood in the Philippines didn't include many toys — his family couldn't afford them. Carpio learned to lean on imagination.
"One stick is very insignificant,” he said. “I find something beautiful in those things. I find potential. It can be anything you want it to be. It's the same way in life."
His collection includes everything from historic trucks to space shuttles, all made out of matchsticks and glue. He started three decades ago with something he made for his newborn son: a Filipino bus, the Jeepney.
"I grew up riding them. It's from World War Two, and the American military left all their American military jeeps over there,” he said.
A San Francisco trolley was made from memory — he’s never been to the California city. Another model of a shrimp boat is his homage to "Forrest Gump."
Carpio loved his hobby. But when the pandemic hit, he discovered he also needed it.
After 35 years working in the aviation industry, he lost his job.
"First time I'd been laid off, and I didn't know what to do,” he said. "Three months later, my mother passed away in the Philippines — I couldn't go. (Modeling) gave me the focus — I had something to look forward to every day. Like, I would wake up in the morning and — boom. Let's finish it."
He taught himself how to 3-D print designs and began making even more sophisticated models — most of them, inspired by aerospace. He built the Lunar Lander, the Hubble telescope (with mirrors and lights,) and the Space Shuttle Challenger.
The work occupied his mind and gave him purpose. And in the end, they might have helped him in one more significant way.
"A year later, I took pictures of all these projects and I took them on my job interview,” Carpio said. “And I showed them, 'here.' And I'm working there now."
Each morning before work, he commits to spending an hour in his workshop on new matchstick projects. He’s currently working on an homage to “Back to the Future.”
"The DeLorean — it's the most intense because of the details," he said.
But despite the hundreds of hours he spends on each piece, Carpio has made exactly zero dollars.
He doesn't sell anything.
Once a year, he simply displays his models at a nearby library and keeps the notes visitors leave behind. They are payment enough.
Turns out, one little stick — and all it can become — has given Jhun Carpio everything he needed.
"It's kind of like life. You keep on trying,” he said. "The best is yet to come, I guess?"