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  • Andrea Durnell

2021 Menagerie

Updated: Sep 23, 2021

Once upon a time…

Well, these stories really are not those types of stories but this year's menagerie tale has more of a premise than usual.

All my characters are inspired by my real-life days, people I know, my travels, the daily news, and by early American time periods when anthropomorphizing was a great way to tell a juicy story without naming any names!

My characters are all clothed with mostly antique and some vintage clothing. Antique textiles have stories in themselves and by adding a thread of that to my character’s tales I not only keep the memory of this beautiful workmanship alive but I keep things out of the landfill by giving them new life. I only use natural fibers and, as much as possible,( and at growing cost) I hunt down pre-1940s fabrics and trims. After the 1940s a lot more manufacturing and automation came into play and petroleum-based fabrics started to take over. That said, I do use vintage fabrics if they are all-natural fiber.

I don’t pre-plan my menageries each year. I never have any idea who I will carve, what gender they will be, or what they will look like. I find wood on downed trees around my property and in the woods wherever I walk. When I look at a piece of wood, there is a click of recognition, (I know you!) and I bring it home. People like to bring me wood sometimes and I do enjoy that, but they are often disappointed because what I see is what I carve and it is rarely what they had in mind. For this reason, I never do commissions. I am just as surprised when I meet my final characters as is my audience. At some point during carving season, I usually notice a trend and I can start thinking about the general theme for the year and why it took hold.

Covid changed a little of my method because I haven’t been traveling for inspiration and I have had to pay a lot more to obtain genuinely old fabrics because I only buy online from sources who I know are knowlegeable about what they are selling. Out in the wild, one man’s trash is another man’s treasure and there are still treasures to be found.

This year and last year, I have had Montana on my mind. It is my home state and I have been trying since the day I left to figure out how to get back there to live. This year my husband and I bought my mom’s log house and that has set off my theme for the year. Not all the animals are those seen in Montana but I have ties to each of them in some way. There have been a lot of bumps in the road in the past two years and many of the character’s stories or personalities will reflect the bumps, the people involved, and the social dynamics that arise in all kinds of human interactions.

I won’t be revealing any actual names or personal details even of the one who is my self-portrait. While they won’t be written down, the clues are there, and a whole lot more comes out at shows than what you will see here. We are all multi-dimensional, right? At least I hope so. What we present in public is not who we are behind the scenes. Again, I truly hope so, for some people. There is always more than one side to any story, any circumstance, and any scenario. We are all a sum of our parts. The provenance of their materials is something I work into the stories at shows. They are my “cliff notes” for remembering who everyone is.

Being a folk artist and an avid reader I have a lot of interest in how animals have been portrayed in literature, fairy tales, folk tales, and by native cultures in their oral histories. I cherry-pick for details that suit my fancy. I don’t enjoy realism very much so the things that appeal to me might be a stretch at times! This is all for fun. These characters are chapters in my own life’s tale and it is all meant to be tongue in cheek. I hope you enjoy their journeys! Next week on Facebook I will highlight each one individually with a compilation of all their photos from their beginnings as a log to their present selves.

Mobius “Tom” Richards

Tom’s name was inspired mostly by a person I know who speaks in a lot of metaphors and is a champion of analogies as well as a pretty good storyteller. What better capitalization of metaphors than the book, “Moby Dick”, right? He is called Tom, though, because he seems to remind at least one cousin of our Grandpa Tom and I hope these two people meet one day in an afterlife because they have some common ground.

My Tom is a quiet, thoughtful guy who travels the old West bridging cultural divides, and creating them. He is a masterful trader, mostly because he speaks a few languages well and can wind an inaccurate tale, somehow offending noone.

I believe his peace pipe was a gift and it acts as an entry pass to each new village he enters. In his medicine bag he carries tobacco he can share, forging friendships as he travels.

Monty Larus

Monty’s name is a bit of a stretch, and I don’t spoonfeed, so you might need to google. I

like Monty Python. Monty is a seagull and not a swallow, but if you are familiar with the “migrating coconut” scene in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, I think it is plausible that the guy on the castle wall might have gotten around to supposing that a seagull carried the coconut shells. Enough said.

Carl Linnaeus was a botanist who is also known as the “father of taxonomy” in the 1700s. He used genus and species to create names for things, basically. I often use taxonomy to create the names for my characters. “Larus” is a jump off of the “laridae” family to which seagulls belong.

Seagulls are long lived birds that can live into their 40s. They are smart, can use tools, thrive in human habitats, communicate well, can drink saltwater and they forage for a living.

Monty travels a lot and, as you can see on his jacket, he has an “inner compass”. He also carries a 1987 good luck coin with a compass on one side. This was a year of great exploration for me and Monty was a part of that journey.

Lola Vulpe

“Vulpe” is the Romanian word for “fox”. Lola is a wonderful old name but in her case, it means “love laughing”.

Lola, this handsome Romanian gal, was invited to be a part of a fox hunt. Clever girl that she is, she dressed in a riding habit, carries a riding crop, donned her tricorn, and is ready to present herself. She is even wearing gloves with a chicken wire pattern. I have a feeling she has some clever maneuvers up her sleeve.

Grace Koffe Psittacus

Psittacus comes from the taxonomy for an African Grey Parrot. Grace was a name I heard a few times in parts of Togo when I was in the Peace Corps a lifetime ago. Koffe is a fairly common West African name and also the name of our training director at that time.

Koffe was a newlywed during my training and he and his wife, also a teacher, lived in one of the huts on what used to be our training campus where we all shared our living quarters, took bucket baths to stay cool since there was no running water, and studied what we needed to know wherever we found a spot that pleased us.

I used to study under a tree outside the window of Koffe’s quarters with a cup of freshly brewed lemongrass tisane. I liked it because there was an African Grey who lived in this tree. She had been part of the Peace Corps family for decades. She was incredibly smart, well spoken if you enjoyed swear words in about 8 languages, and had excellent comic timing. Koffe fed her and she followed him around the campus to the various huts where his lectures were given.

The problem was...Grace was incredibly good at learning new things. Koffe was newly married, and when she wanted his attention and he was ignoring her during his lecture, she would fly around repeating the, um, “night noises” she was hearing frequently enough that she learned to repeat them.

My Grace, is returning from market with her berries wearing a feedsack dress that isn’t unlike an old Dutch wax relief pattern of her time period when a large print would not have been unheard of. I didn’t give her a feather tail, but as you know African Greys have red tails, so I gave her plumage (her jacket) a red textile tail.

Ann S. Brock

Ann has a sweet innocence about her. “Brock” comes from the Scottish name for “badger”.

In folklore badgers are often portrayed as elusive, kindly, wise with hygienic and tidy dens. In a lot of native cultures they might also be shapeshifting, vengeful, master thieves. In reality, did you know that badgers create separate bathrooms in their dens? Like a lot of animals, they know not to poop in their own beds!

My Ann is working around her house and garden today. She is wearing a traditional bed jacket over her chemise and petticoat which are highly decorated with the handwork that showcases her truly amazing skill. She is wearing “slaps” on her feet to elevate her and to keep her hems dry.

Rufus J. James

Jesse James evokes images of outlaws, train and bank robberies, murder and crime in the

Old West, but Rufus J. James is the sheriff and the polar opposite. His first name, Rufus, comes from two sources. The taxonomy for a bobcat is felis rufa. My dear old dog friend from childhood was named Rufus. He was fearless, funny and, ironically, had a reputation as a cat killer. (not proud of that) I think he would see the humor here.

In folk tales it is generally considered to be a good omen to cross paths with a bobcat. They are territorial, well camouflaged, cunning, patient, resourceful, and tactical.

Rufus here is doing what bobcats do. He is still and waiting for the right moment to pounce. I am not sure what he is hunting but he will mete out justice when the time comes. Had he lived in the more populous East, he could have been a good lawyer. Because of his ability to blend in with his background he gets along with everyone who brushes elbows with him and because he is patiently observant there isn’t a lot that escapes him.

He is dressed in blue and gold as a nod to my alma mater and former employer, MSU (Go Cats!) but also to imply the various mottled tones of the fur on a bobcat.

Philip Edentata

The taxonomy for an anteater is Xenarthra Edentata (there is more to it than that depending on the type of anteater). Edentata basically means “no teeth”. This is true because they eat with their very long and sticky tongues and can consume up to 30,000 ants in a day.

There is a wealth of folk information to be gleaned from all around the world and combined with factual details about their character,this was the perfect animal to be the alter ego of the person he represents. They have the lowest body temperature of all mammals which I found fascinating. They are distantly related to the sloths. They have poor eyesight and spend up to 15 hours a day sleeping.

In folk tales they are portrayed as busybodies, symbols of divine justice, secretive, good at finding hidden information (ants, too!), reclusive, diligent, brave, adaptive, intuitive and with their massive claws they are quite formidable. The Egyptians depicted them as the God of Chaos, part anteater and part ass.

Philip is a literary sort and very good at unwinding a mystery, thus he is carrying a leather bound book of Sherlock Holmes in his messenger bag. He’s a natty dresser, too! His first name was handed down to him by the original owner of one of the fabrics he wears, but that is another story. He isn’t very formidable, and his “no teeth” name symbolizes that.

Rose Spilogate Putorios

Rose’s middle and last name are her taxonomy but they also create an elevated name for a much maligned creature who was surprisingly portrayed very positively in folklore. I liked the name Rose for her because it softens her and evokes a contrast in smells.

In a lot of lore skunks are portrayed as smart animals who outwit their opposers, embrace their authenticity and know their own worth. They are also often a cautionary tale. Listen to warnings (foot stamping, hissing and a raised tail) because while skunks aren’t aggressive, if you cross them you will truly be sorry.

Rose is dressed for collecting her wares at market. She is wearing a lot of layers to keep her warm but her clothes are cut to give her freedom of movement. She is carrying a basket of smelling salts because she knows she often has that effect on people.

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