Tuesday, November 17, 2009


"If it thunder while she is broody the eggs will be addle, yea and if the hen chance to heare an hawk cry they will be marred. The remedie against thunder is to put an iron nail under the straw of the hen's nest, or els some earth newly turned up with the plow."
C. Plinius Secundus

It is startling to find that you have missed an obvious connection between things you have created. It had to be pointed out to me that an egg drawer next to a bone drawer was a clear alpha and omega - a beginning and an end. Eventually it would have occurred to me but what I was concentrating on was the beauty of shapes. I remember being taught in 7th grade, in a home economics cooking class, that the egg was a perfect food in a perfect container - spare and elegant. Much later when I did a series of drawings concerning food I chose the egg as the most appropriate lunch for a poet for just those reasons.

The background for the eggs is my version of the Milky Way in Sagittarius as seen in a photo taken by the Anglo Australian telescope. It was chosen both for its mystery and for the speckled quality that is so often found on eggshells.

The 2 paper boxes of eggs are in the ornithology collection of the University of Michigan. The larger green and blue eggs are those of the American crow, Corvus brachrhynchos. The smaller box contains those of the wood thrush, Turdus mustelinus.
The very large egg is that of an emu, Dromaius movaehollandiae. For a very brief period a man set up a booth at the Royal Oak Farmers Market where he sold all manner of Emu products - pain relievers, oils, lotions, soaps and some eggs. It was an unusual opportunity.
To the right of the emu egg is that of a domestic turkey, Meleagris gallopavo, and 2 killdeer, Charadrius vociferus, eggs that were given to me by a friend who determined, after watching them for a long while, that they had been abandoned by the mother.
To the left of the boxes are 3 impostors: a glass egg, an agate egg sitting on a granite tile sample that echos the egg shapes and the speckles, and a jasper egg. The little group of leaves is made of clay and serves only as a reminder of the trees.
The 2 actual eggs on the left side of the drawing are quail eggs purchased from a local Japanese grocery store. When I investigated the sale of quail eggs on line, the kind of quail that seems to be used for this purpose is the bobwhite quail, Colinus virginianus.
The 3 little turquoise colored eggs were laid by my Uncle John's finch. The poor bird was trying very hard but since it lived alone there was no hope of raising a little family.

Sunday, November 15, 2009


Bones do seem to last forever
But they remind you of mortality;
They are severed from reality
As they dally with our fears;
They are solid ghosts, the hosts
Of our pallid faults and frailty.
But we also need our bones
To support our ambition,
Free us from imperfect vision.

Arnold Klein

I have a friend who wears bones as jewelry and others who are nervous about even the thought of what lies beneath the skin. For me the shapes of bones are visually elegant and mechanically fascinating. One of my favorite artists, Eugene von Bruenchenhein, built tiny thrones and small towers out of chicken bones. The finished sculptures were painted with a very delicate and beautiful sense of color or they might be simply painted gold. He was capable of rethinking the use of bones so that each piece is unique. I have drawn 2 of these chairs at the Milwaukee Museum which will be part of the Bird Cabinet I am working on.

Set in the center of the drawing for the bone drawer are 2 pieces of sculpture by Peter Hackett, a gentle soul who recycles parts of animals he finds, who have died by violence or natural process. His work avoids disrespect even when it is humorous.

The cat's skull has a covering of avocado skin held in place by a carefully worked piece of wire.

The mythical beast is actually the skull of a woodchuck with mandibles attached as horns.

The drawing contains bones on loan to me from Missouri State University, Springfield. Some have I.D. tags attached. There are bird, mouse, shrew, muskrat, and rabbit skulls that look as you might expect. But then there is the armadillo skull, surprising for its lumpiness and almost duck-like shape. The spinal column might well be that of a sheep. It was found beside the road in New Mexico when I was traveling to Tucson with our son Barrett and the car broke down. When you are traveling with a naturalist you are never bored when you are outdoors. There are a number of chicken wing bones, vertebrae, an opossum femur and various ribs all lying on a marvelous patchwork piece of metallic embroidered Indian fabrics with mirror inclusions which we bought in Mumbai.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009


The beautiful metallic wood boring beetles of the family Buprestidae are among my favorite insects. Their iridescent colors come not from pigments but from minute grooves in the surface of the cuticle which, like a diffraction grating or pool of oil on the surface of water, breaks up the light into its component parts. As a result, they don't fade with time. Jan Fabre created an amazing metallic green ceiling in the Royal Palace in Brussels composed of a million elytra from these beetles. It is titled Heaven of Delight and even viewing it in photographs is thrilling.

The species in the drawing belong to the genus Chrysochroa. They are from Thailand and should feel at home as they are sitting on a piece of Thai marbled paper.

The shell in the center of the second drawing has been made into a charming container with hinges and a clasp. The background is a piece of Italian paper used in bookbinding, from the estate of Francis Robinson, an all-encompassing curator at the Detroit Institute of Arts, a man of many interests and talents and a prodigious collector of books and everything else. The objects that have spilled around the shell are hyacinth beans, castor beans, yellow Steuben beans, pinto beans, calypso beans and antique clay marbles.

Monday, October 12, 2009


One of my drawing students, many years ago, announced to the class that she knew about background colors. She had learned that there were 3 possible choices. I was stunned and expressed my belief that there are no rules in art.

We are all victims of misinformation. I was told in my formative years that the square was a bad format, static and boring. Since I thought that Josef Albers proved the rule I never investigated it. When I did little square drawings for the pigeonholes in my cabinet I was very surprised to find I enjoyed working inside the shape. The drawings were fun to construct and I liked the outcome very much. I found it so appealing I did several single drawings and a series of 24 for the Insect Cabinet, all in the square format.

I suppose if I had really kept my eyes open it would not have taken me so long to figure out that I had been mistaken. Recently, when I talked about my revelation to another artist I admire, Karin Klue, she immediately made reference to the landscapes of Gustav Klimt. Almost all of those perfect and astonishingly interesting paintings are square.

A Chinese bowl, filled with anemone spikes and carnelians found on the ground in Egypt by Elsie and Bill Peck, who dig there annually with the Brooklyn Museum excavation team at the Temple of the Goddess Mut.

The small, mirrored bag was a present I received many years ago and I have no idea who produced it. I have believed that it is from Central America but could be convinced otherwise. For the drawing I filled the bag with Native American pipestone beads.

A stack composed of a Native American arrowhead and 2 ax heads is supported by a rusted, cast iron tripod I found lying in a vacant lot. For contrast these rugged items are sitting on top of a piece of silk by Schiaparelli.

At some point I hope to identify the shells in this drawing. Right now it remains an area where I am woefully unskilled. The fabric underneath is a piece of silk brought home as a present for me by our son Arno after his university studies in Japan.

Monday, September 28, 2009


Small drawers and boxes for sorting and storing are not only a great aid to the collector but can also have immense charm. My personal favorites are the pigeonholes that are found in desks. I have a line of 8 drawings across the center of my cabinet that emulate these storage units. Each one addresses some aspect of an encyclopedic collection.

The small vase in the shape of a frog, a present from my daughter, not only introduces amphibians but also contains a flower that has hidden significance unless you know the Latin name and its reference. It is a spiderwort or Tradescantia which was named for the great gardener and cabinet of curiosities creator John Tradescant, 1570 - 1638.

He and his son assembled a collection known as The Ark. It was the first museum open to the public for an admission fee of 6d. It eventually became the basis for the Ashmolean Museum at Oxford. (That story is fraught with intrigue and is fascinating on its own.) John Tradescant the younger documented their collection in a 178 page book, published in 1656, called Museum Tradescantianum: or, A Collection of Rarities Preserved at South Lambeth near London by John Tradescant.

Sir William Flower wrote in 1898, "The wonderful variety and incongruous juxtaposition of objects make the catalogue very amusing reading".

By doing this blog I am writing my own "Rarities" in a modern form before the information gets lost. It is amazing how fast facts fade from one's memory as the mind fills with the next exciting project

The other flower represented in a pigeonhole is the violet which is held by a tiny silver cup, part of a pair that was given to us as a wedding present. They are the only things we own that came from Tiffany's and I have never been sure what to do with them, other than to draw them. In this case the cup adds precious metal to the Rarities list.

Monday, September 21, 2009


The platypus, Ornithorhynchus anatinus, is a worthy curiosity. When in 1799 the first preserved specimen was brought to England, the naturalist George Shaw wondered if "there might have been practiced some art of deception in its structure." It still looks like a hoax with its bill like a duck and tail like a beaver and body covered with fur like a mole.

Jean-Baptiste Lamarck thought it was the missing link between mammals and birds. The platypus lays 2 or 3 eggs which hatch into blind, hairless creatures the size of a lima bean. These babies are held between the abdomen and the tail, feeding not on nipples but milk secreted from patches on the abdomen.

Other strange revelations:
The males are venomous, injecting toxins by way of spurs on their hind feet.
The females have 2 ovaries but only the left one works.
The bill is a sensory organ used in hunting worms, larvae and other invertebrates that live underwater. It detects the electrical impulses given off as its prey moves.
The webbing on their feet retracts when they return to land, revealing toenails that help them run.

All of the specimens in the drawing are from the collection at the Exhibit Museum of Natural History at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. The squirrel in the group has USSR marked on its base. The long tailed weasels and juvenile woodchuck are native to Michigan. They are standing on a piece of marbleized paper that I made at the Center for the Book Arts in New York.

The other collection present in the drawing is that of fossilized plants and invertebrates. My favorite examples are those where I have both sides of the rock that was split. They open like little books exposing twin images on the pages. I adore these ferns but the person who loves them and also understands them is Carl Mehling, Collections Manager of Fossil Reptiles, Amphibians, and Birds at the American Museum of Natural History. He has edited a book called Fossils, published by Thunder Bay Press. Many of the specimens in the book are from his private collection. I count myself lucky to know Carl.

I had my drawing with me in New York 3 summers ago and Carl was able to identify the specimens in the drawing.

"When I say 'are the leaves of' I am spotlighting a peculiarity of paleobotany: plants are rarely found whole and it is the norm to assign different 'form genera' to different parts of the plants when they can not be confidently associated. For instance, Pecopteris is a form genus of leaves that grew on Psaronius which is named for the stem/trunk".

Neuropteris sp., Carboniferous are the leaves of a seed fern. Seed ferns are not ferns - they only look like them. They are long extinct.

Pecopteris sp
., Carboniferous are leaves of true ferns, in fact, a tree fern.

Alethopteris sp.,
Carboniferous are the leaves of a seed fern.

Annularia sp., Carboniferous are leaves of a huge relative of horsetails.

Cyclopteris sp
., Carboniferous are the leaves of a seed fern.

Sphenophyllum sp.,
Carboniferous are the leaves of a relative of horsetails.

-like conifer cone, Jurassic, Argentina. The genus is still around today and it is know as the monkey-puzzle or Norfolk Island Pine.

Elrathia kingii,
Cambrian, Wheeler Fm., Utah. A trilobite.

Ammonite, Devonian, Morocco. Although highly reminiscent of modern Nautilus are actually more closely related to octopi.

Sunday, September 13, 2009


"(The crow) is a great thief and hoarder of curiosities, hiding in holes, corners and crevices, every loose article he can carry off..." A.B. Strong, M.D. 1853

"He does not confine himself to petty depredations on the pantry or larder; he soars at more magnificent plunder; at spoils that he can neither exhibit nor enjoy; but which, like a miser, he rests satisfied with having the satisfaction of sometimes visiting and contemplating in secret. A piece of money, a teaspoon, or a ring, are always tempting and if not watched, will carry to his favorite hole." George Louis leClerc, count of Buffon

Before I knew that the drawing with the crow was to be a cabinet it was an homage to the collecting instinct of these remarkable birds. For the purposes of stories and drawings it is not a problem if that proclivity might only be a myth. It is a wonderful idea which conjures up all sorts of images and plots. In this case I have stolen many little objects from my own collection and given them to my bird. They are laid out for viewing; they range from bones and fossils to brass objects from India and Africa and contemporary buttons made by Windsor, Ontario artist Susan Gold.

Behind the crow is a yellow background, a color that I have been told will attract bees. This seems to be the case as the insects are there. They have arranged themselves in a regular pattern, like wallpaper.

Surrounding the central picture space are more birds that are common to Michigan. All of the specimens were drawn at the Exhibit Museum of Natural History, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.

The drawing is all about collections. The one belonging to the crow, the Michigan birds from a collection at the University, and finally bees and a few other insects drawn from the insect boxes that, to my advantage, remain at home while our son Barrett, the entomologist, is away furthering his education.

When I finished this drawing I had the inspiration for a series of drawings that would be hung together and emulate a cabinet. The second drawing for that group has to do with mammals and will be described in my next post.

The following documents the contents of the Crow's door.

2 starfish
cast aluminum starfish (from a tic tac toe set)
cast aluminum sand dollar (from the same set)
Ashanti bronze gold weight in the form of an alligator
Brass turtle, scorpion and fly from India
2 buttons made by Susan Gold
3 contemporary glass beads and 2 African trading beads
2 Woodland Indian arrowheads and a drill point
Frosted blue glass canning lid
Granite sample and tile sample from a kitchen renovator
2 pieces of frosted sea glass and 3 smooth glass bits
shell with blue interior
crynoid stem
bird bone and fish bone
fossilized shark's vertebrae
sea anemone spine
2 pieces of Chinese jade

Eastern crow Corvus brachrynchos
Common grackle Quiscalus quiscula
Downy woodpecker Picoides pubescens
clockwise starting at bottom left
Spotted sandpiper Actitis macularia
Oven bird Seiurus aurocapillus
Grey crested flycatcher Empidonax wrightii
Red breasted nuthatch Sitta canadensis
Yellow bellied sapsucker Sphyrapicus varius
Red winged blackbird Agelarius phoeniceus
Hairy woodpecker Picoides villosus
Northern mockingbird Mimus polyglottos
Yellow billed cuckoo Coccyzus americanus
Black bellied plover Pluvialis squatarola

Sunday, September 6, 2009


We are all limited by something, but I am not sure that is always a bad thing. When the options are endless it can be difficult to make a decision. My decisions will be made in a room that is 11'3" x 13', with 5 windows and 2 doorways and a dining room table that will still need to function.

The east wall is the focal point, as it is what you see when you enter the house and are standing in the living room. Presently the first cabinet of curiosities is placed there between 2 windows. Since the drawings are done in watercolor and color pencil and the room can be very bright in winter, I try to keep a drape over the cabinet when we are not at home. I plan to either find or make a covering that will be of interest in itself.

When you enter the room from the kitchen you look south, over the table and out the window toward the street we live on. There is a little space on the walls either side of the windows that can be used but essentially the useful aspect of that side of the room is a bench that was de-accessioned by the Detroit Institute of Arts and wound up at a salvage operation where I found it many years ago. When I bought it it was painted flat black and the underside was thick with chewed and abandoned gum. Underneath the paint was a beautiful piece of walnut. The provenance alone makes this piece of furniture interesting to me. It will serve as a display area for curiosities.

Our china closet is backed up to the west wall. I like the old oak cabinet that is there now and intend to move it, eventually, to my studio when the new piece of furniture I am designing for that space has been built. The 1st cabinet is encyclopedic. This one will have a specific theme: Birds.

The doors to the kitchen are in the middle of the north wall. Bookcases for cookbooks have been on either side. One bookcase has already been removed and the empty space will soon be filled by a new cabinet devoted to the sky. This cabinet will have 2 doors behind which are shelves. It will function as a bookcase but I will be making alternate contents that deal with sky issues. The space that is presently filled by a bookcase will eventually have a new cabinet devoted to fruit. It will be the site of my herbarium.

Much of the room will change but some things will remain as they live up to the high standards I am setting for being curious.

Monday, August 31, 2009


I have hit a point in my life where most of the disparate things I do seem to be coming together in one room. Literally.

It began innocently with a set of 14 drawings that were to emulate a cabinet: 2 large drawings on top acting as doors, 8 small drawings underneath looking like pigeonholes and 4 horizontal images pretending to be drawers. I explained to everyone that it was not going to be a real piece of furniture. It was to hang as a cluster on a wall. Then my friend Dennis said "It must be a cabinet". That changed everything. He built the cabinet and I found myself dealing with 3 dimensions. The cabinet had a huge presence and an interior space that needed filling. My collections made their way onto the shelves and into the drawers. Drawings and books were created specifically for inclusion. It is a project that could take the rest of my life to complete.

One thing leads to another. A second "cabinet" was built honoring insects. It is a triptych with 2 doors that open onto a jewel box of 24 drawings of insects. The reverse side, which is often unseen when the work is backed against a wall, is devoted to camouflaged insects. When I had an idea for a third cabinet, storage became an issue.

The first cabinet of curiosities found a home in our dining room. If I were going to continue making furniture it was going to have to go somewhere. Why not replace everything in the dining room except the table? I have room there for 3 more cabinets before I start investigating the living room.

This project grows in my head every day. I have been acquiring handmade, unusual frames and doing drawings to fill them. They are destined for the walls as well as the shelves in the cabinet. I can see new curtains, a tablecloth and drapes for the cabinets when they are not being viewed. What about hanging things from the ceiling? There are books to be made. Certainly there should be an herbarium. There are so many things to learn and do.

All of this is in the tradition of cabinets of curiosities.

I find very appealing the early ideas of collecting a vast range of objects intermingled and displayed together, rather than being segregated into specific categories. The pursuit was private and often very eccentric, combining objects from the natural sciences, exotic artifacts, historical remnants, works of art, and whatever else might be of interest to the collector in his/her pursuit of knowledge.


Cassiano dal Pozzo, in the 1600's, assembled what he called his "Paper Museum". He commissioned many hundreds of exceptional drawings of natural history subjects that were bound into 23 volumes. When I first heard about this man I felt an immediate connection. I am creating a collection of objects drawn from the Exhibit Museum of Natural History in Ann Arbor and the Cranbrook Institute of Science. This blog is an introduction to my Paper Museum.