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.