Tuesday, August 29, 2006

The outlaws

I'm working away on the grizzly bear section of my new drawing, but my mind is not on grizzly bears. I'm a little obsessed with the rock hyrax.

Rock Hyrax

I saw one in a glass cage at the Smithsonian Zoo last year. It stood above me on a plastic cliff with alert look on its face that said, "Give me a reason..." It looked absolutely intelligent, probably vicious, and not at all intimidated. Which makes sense given what I found out yesterday about its relationship to the manatee. The rock hyrax is basically a small furry elephant. It's not a rodent. It has a long memory, sophisticated vocalizations, fangs, and sweaty suction cup feet that enable it to ping pong between sheer rock faces in what must be a very engaging manner. It also named Spain. (If you don't believe me, believe the BBC.)

If you want to know why I'm obsessed, check out these facial expressions:

And these fangs? They're tusks. Prehistoric rock hyraxes were once as big as elephants. (That image seems to refuse to show up in some browsers. Sorry.)

Thom's mother calls the spouses of her in-laws the outlaws. And since I've become acquainted with the rock hyrax, I thought I'd take a minute to introduce a few outlaws. These are creatures who look like they belong in the family, but don't.

The Amami Black Rabbit

The amami rabbit is either nature's argument against conservatives who think women are naturally meant to be stay-at-home moms or the ultimate latchkey kid, depending on how you look at it.

The female amami black rabbit digs a den in which to give birth. Once her baby is born she nurses it for a while and then carefully closes up the door to the den with dirt, patting it with her feet. She hops off and does her thing for a couple days and then shows up, breaks down the door, nuzzles her baby for a while and then feeds it. Scientists think her milk must have an extra high fat content- think baby ice cream- in order to allow the baby to survive for so long between feedings. When she's done she seals the den shut again and hops off. This goes on until the baby rabbit gets to be about 54 days old at which point she lets it out of the den and the baby hops away forever. So she burns down the house. I mean fills in the den, never to use it again. The next time she gets pregnant she digs a new den.

This is the Volcano Rabbit. It only lives on the edge of volcanoes. In Mexico. And it's immune to regular rabbit diseases. So it's basically the rabbit equivalent of nomadic Mongolian horsemen. Super tough, but small. It's the second smallest rabbit going. And it's been isolated from its Japanese cousin, the black amami rabbit, for so long that they're barely even considered related.

I can't wait to be done with the drawing I'm working on so I can dive in to this twisted family tree.

This one's for my sister Chessie

They've named the manatee who swam up to New York Chessie, and she's gone to Cape Cod. They've also discovered a few things about her. Some of them I knew, some but I didn't.

For instance, she's closely related to this guy, which I didn't know.

But she's smarter than people thought, which I did know.

Manatees apparently get a bad rap because they're bulbous and like to bump into things, but that's only because they can't find their glasses. Manatee vision is 20/420. Which is better than mine, uncorrected.

Final line of today's New York Times Article? "They’re too smart to jump through hoops the way those dumb dolphins do."

This picture of a Rock Hyrax might make the family resemblance clearer.

Rock Hyraxes are also called Rock Rabbits, or Dassies. What I want to know is why I'm not already in a band called Rock Hyrax.

Sunday, August 27, 2006

Racoon karma

This weekend Thom and I visited friends who live on Cape Cod. We were bouncing along in the back of their four wheel drive car looking at beautiful scenery, enormous houses and islands that are restricted to rich people when I lapsed into very bad house guest behavior and started begging for a detour.

I had spotted a sign for Edward Gorey's house on the side of the road. Our hosts squealed the car around and followed signs to the house- which was easier to find than it might have been because the Edward Gorey Dracula Blood Drive was happening next door. In which nurses dressed as raccoon-eyed Gorey vampires drew blood.

I love seeing the houses of my heroes. I've been to Melville's house and Edith Wharton's mansion, and although this is only my third house so far, there's always something wonderful. Edith Wharton had very racy statuary all over her house, and there was something great about seeing the bathtub used by Henry James. Melville's house had a little doodle of his wife and kids trooping up a hill while he was away. And there's an amazing story about one of his windows that I'll get to later.

Edward Gorey's house is a small place in a fairly crowded neighborhood. The house is dwarfed by an enormous magnolia tree that looks like- well, an Edward Gorey magnolia. It looks like it's eating the house. The inside has been fitted with cases to display his drawings and his stuff, which is pretty awesome. He has the same amazing pig box that I do, which of course means we are soul mates, or at least both... um...possessors of a neat box. There's also a picture of him, beard flowing, with a sign that explains that he got the photo in the mail and said, "Why are they sending me a picture of a grizzled old sea captain figure...oh, it's me!"

The house is full of tiny Gorey touches. Bats and French bull dogs abound and there are little doll legs sticking out from under a big rock on one of the windowsills. While I was wondering if the doll had ever had a head (it's handmade, presumably to purpose), Edward Gorey's cousins' voice drifted out from the next room, saying "Yeah, well, he was always the kind of guy who would take a spider outside instead of squishing it." His cousin gives tours, but I didn't go- the house was very small, and since the upstairs was blocked off, a tour felt like overkill.

Around the corner from the rock head child there's a huge raccoon fur coat in a glass case. A very long winded sign explains that the coat was part of his "signature look" in the early part of his career but that he grew to hate it when he started getting involved in animal rights. The upstairs, the sign explains, is in fact inaccessible to tours because late in his life some raccoons moved in, and he let them live up there despite considerable damage they did to the house.

I love thinking about him in his old age, hearing the raccoons chewing up the furniture, menaced by the magnolia, laughing away as he worked on his art.

When he died he gave bequests to organizations that benefit animals. Like the Bat Conservation International Foundation.

Looking in the houses of my heroes is like looking for a secret I know I can't find, but might be able to make up. I imagine that Gorey's coat (and the raccoons themselves) functioned as a kind of muse. (An amuse?). I'm sure deceased geniuses don't actually leave their muses sitting around in their old houses, but I'm also pretty sure it can't hurt to look for them anyways.

I might have missed the idea of Gorey working in the shadow of raccoon karma had I not looked out of Melville's window earlier.

Melville's writing desk faced a window through which he could see a low sloping wooded mountain- Mount Greylock. When he was long done his last sea voyage he sat at his desk, far inland, and imagined that the profile of the wooded mountain was a whale. He wrote a bunch of his books looking at that view, and he dedicated one of his books, Pierre to "the Most Excellent Purple Majesty of Greylock".

He wrote,"I look out of my window in the morning when I rise as I would out of a port-hole of a ship in the Atlantic. My room seems a ship's cabin; & at nights when I wake up & hear the wind shrieking, I almost fancy there is too much sail on the house, and I had better go on the roof and rig in the chimney.''

Melville in 1867

Maybe muses do hide in our houses, or in my case, in my city. Coming back to Philadelphia from Cape Cod was a jarring experience, but not because I longed for the natural beauty of the Cape- I didn't- I longed for the tolerant variety of species of unnatural wildlife that lives in Philadelphia. It's a nine hour drive home, and when we got in we stopped at Trader Joe's to get some sandwiches. One of the checkers had stuffed his whole body into an enormous paper bag on which he'd drawn a menacing angry bag man face. He was stumbling around blindly making grunting noises and giggling. And I knew I was home.

(I refreshed my memory of the Melville quotes by looking at a New York Times article about Melville and Hawthorne in the Berkshires. It's here...)

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

The way things go

I sold two drawings this week! Woah! Both of them were bought by delightful people, which is a bonus. I love selling work to people I like. It's stupid, but there is a certain feeling of giving a puppy to a good home when that happens.

I don't have new art to post because I've been working on a very large drawing for a long time. I'm in one of those slow periods that prompted me to name this blog Monkey Fur- this drawing is large enough that if someone were to ask me what I did all day I'd answer something really absurd. Today, for instance, I woke up and thought, "I'd really like to finish the grizzly bear text then figure out that damselfly's cloud" and "I have to buy a new swimsuit" and "I wish I could get to the bat part" in quick succession.

When I post pictures of this new drawing that will make sense. Except the swimsuit part. The swimsuit will never make sense. Somehow this tube of stretchy fabric that wraps tightly around my midsection has contrived to insult every section of me it does not encase. And it didn't do this a year or so ago, when there was far more of me to encompass. I'm going to visit beachy people this weekend, so in addition to finishing the grizzly bear text, the bat section and the damselfly's cloud, I have to shop for less antagonistic stretchwear. I love being an artist.

Friday, August 18, 2006

Saturday, August 12, 2006

Baby the Corpse Flower Bloom Day

August 10th was "Baby the Corpse Flower Bloom Day", in case you missed it.

The Brooklyn Botanical Garden has a Corpse Flower, so named because it smells like a rotting corpse. People in Sumatra, where it grows, used to beat it up because they thought it would eat them. Which makes sense. You can smell them from half a mile away and they are as big as a person. Plus they're phallic. And sweaty. Victorian ladies were not allowed to see them. But people are lining up to do so because, did I forget to say, it's the biggest flower in the world. And it's blooming now, live, on the web.

Friday, August 11, 2006

Eat your Weeds

I had intended to make this blog focus almost exclusively on art, but I'm in the middle of a very large complicated drawing that won't be done for a while and now I've got a new off-topic obsession that I can't begin to resist. Here it is.

It's a weed. But it's so much more.

Here's the deal. A few years ago I took up gardening on the roof deck behind my studio so that I would have references for all the botanical patterns in my paintings. I discovered that I'm pretty good gardener, if you can count the kind of people who water weeds just to see how they turn out good gardeners.

I've made some great discoveries that way, though. Pokeweed, one of my first exciting weeds, has hot pink stems, lime green leaves and strings of long purple berries that I've been told get birds drunk. My first pokeweed plant was a symmetrical marvel of a waterfall of pink and purple- it was gorgeous, and birds did seem to love it. (Pokeweed is also extremely poisonous to people, although Southerners eat it after subjecting it to a careful washing process that involves disposing of the water it's boiled in a number of times.)

This badger is holding some pokeweed. In fact this image is a detail of a larger piece called Pokeweed Allegory (Grip and the Nevermore Raven With Respective Badgers).

Not all my weed experiments turn out so well. I was fascinated by a tall dramatic plant that grew straight up to the sky out of one of my flower pots a couple years ago. It got about four feet high, and when it was the least bit thirsty it would droop over as if it was about to die that very minute. I watered it tenderly until it bloomed into a vicious shoot of ragweed which has now seeded itself in every pot I own.

But this weed- the one in the picture above- this is a Weed of Redemption. It's a Weed of the Gods, and it grows wild all over Philadelphia. Purslane.

It's an herb, it's a vegetable, it's been eaten by ancient Egyptians, Greeks (who called it food of the gods), and it's still common in Mediterranean and Middle Eastern Cooking. It has huge amounts of Omega-3 fatty acids and lowers cholesterol and high blood pressure and is a general anti-inflammatory. Ancient people thought it was good for the frenzy. (My more reasonable medical claims come absolutely unverified, from this web page, and this one, too, which I choose to believe). It can be eaten in salads or soups or under fish or chicken. It's a Mexican comfort food.

And it's in the cracks between the sidewalks.

Of course I tasted it. After looking at a billion pictures of it on the internet, of course, and being very sure I wasn't about to poison myself.

It's really delicious. Not just edible- delicious. There are good pictures of purslane here, and another, better article about purslane here. There are also some recipes here. I also found some in the Gourmet cookbook, and Saveur had a great looking potato salad that uses it too. Go grab yourself a salad off the sidewalk- it's purslane, the Philadelphia free food weed.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Ground Control to Manatee Tom

There's a manatee in the Hudson river.

I thought about this today as I looked at a school of fish milling around in the shallows of the Schuylkill river. What would possess a lone manatee to go this far north? Manatees are either kinda dumb or optimistic depending on who you ask. You can swim right up to them and pat them on the nose, although you shouldn't, because this gives them the impression that your whole species consists of people who can be trusted not to run you over with a motorboat.

Was the lone manatee an exceptional individual who bucked the general trend and took off on a voyage of exploration? Did she get lost? We can't know- and we barely bother asking- because we're so used to thinking science has the answer to everything regarding animals that we can't credit them with individual initiative. That's for us. Humans make decisions, but animals have instinct. We can't imagine that Manatee X decided to go North; we imagine he was driven north by some mistake or incentive that we just haven't discovered yet.

Puny humans.

A while ago an article in the New York Times turned me on to Google Trends, a search engine that has been called the "Database of Intentions". The idea is that people search google for things they plan to do in the future- movie show times, hotel rooms- and that the aggregate of this data announces the intentions of the population that searches the database. So if everybody starts searching for, say, "Pirates of the Caribbean 12" we will have ourselves a franchise. It's a marketer's dream, and proposes the possibility that a good reader of search engine data could detect trends in advance of the general population. In advance of you and me. In advance of our conscious minds. They could take a lot of fun out of our lives by knowing, when we decided to go North, that people in general had been thinking about moving north, and that it was probably due to a higher incidence of snow cones.

I don't see how marketing can't account for most of our everyday decisions, and how, when it doesn't, we shouldn't take credit for being fabulously individuated and brave. Like, say, a certain manatee.

Google being google, they have put the database of intentions online. The real fun starts when you compare searches. So you can also see, for instance, if people are searching more often for, say, art or science, (art), good or evil or manatees or sharks(sharks).

Searching reveals intuitive truths. Sharks are way out of manatees' league, but groundhogs, say, come up about even.

(Groundhogs are red.)

Google knows what you thought you knew. It might have what we used to call intuition: a sense of the aggregate. It's a little depressing to think that all this private information is being codified and expressed commercially, but there is always an opposing force.

The Alamo Draft House in Austin (which is a place already dear to my heart since it serves beer and cheeseburgers at the movie theater) has sponsored a "Blanks on a Blank" movie contest that turns "Snakes on a Plane" into a much better joke than it was already. If my friend Wes Kim's "Aardvarks on a Tank" wins the contest, he will get to go to premiere. And he really, really should be there. It will strike a blow for something. You will agree with me if you watch the movie: he plays the guy with the sandals. Aardvarks on a Tank can be found on this page full of lesser movies.

And if you need more evidence of manatee-like behavior in the human flock, check out Amazon.com's grocery aisle. Search for Tuscan Milk and read the reviews. Go from there to grapes and vine ripened tomatoes. It will make you love the puny humans and their milk drinking ways.