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  • Andrea Durnell

Menagerie 2023

I wanted to start out by saying what a crazy year this has been because I feel half crazy this year, but then I looked back on the past half dozen or so and I am feeling a trend! It’s been, well, another year.

I always feel a little melancholy when it is time to write the stories because it means another menagerie is about to graduate and the characters will be released into the wild at shows. (Waterford Fair in Waterford, VA on October 6-8 and Merry Meeting in New Harmony, IN on October 27-8) When I had empty nest syndrome after my daughter flew the coop for college and later on medical school, I relished it because I knew she would be home for visits and I would get to experience her adventures and future plans vicariously. I have to trust that my characters are continuing their own adventures and that they have settled into their new lives putting smiles on someone else’s faces instead of on my own. That is what it is all about, after all, and why I rehome them more like kittens rather than thinking of them as simply a piece of art to sell. And, to some extent, once I have carved out their little lives that are somehow a part of my own, I am ready for the next round of adventures, myself.

They all start with a log found in a wood pile or on the forest floor. I pick each piece because of a sense of recognition. They all hear “I know you!” right before I dig in with my carving gouges to bring them out so everyone else can see what I can see. Along with that recognition is generally a tiny, mundane “story” that gives them each a premise for existing and connects them to my own daily adventure.

I hope you will enjoy getting to know a little bit about them. The paragraphs you see here are the tip of the iceberg. Often at a show, you’ll get the whole story, but I don’t generally write it all down. I am a fan of very subtle play on words and analogies, many of which are designed to be missed unless you have a connection. If someone I know has become a character for one reason or another, I am not likely to tell them, but there are most likely clues. Many of these characters have a backstory I might never tell and it is cathartic to let them go! Most of the stories are not grand because I think even the smallest parts of the day should be approached as if they are part of an epic tale. Their names and materials can sometimes be part or even all of their story.

The Ancestors are a new addition to my menageries this year. Sometimes I have a great piece of wood that isn’t really suitable for one reason or another for creating a full character. I decided that these “busts'' could be the ancestors of past characters I have created. I never repeat a character and rarely repeat an animal other than in the equine category and this is a way for me to enjoy a little bit of a throwback and also use a piece of wood that I can’t unsee! They won’t get full stories. It is not unlike stumbling on a relative in an ancient cemetery or finding evidence of a great-great-great in a document. There are three this year.

Throaty Bellows's deep baritone will always be missed in the bayou.

Aunt Lynn wasn’t particularly pious but could really work a church hat.

Luther is still digging deep in heaven.

And here they are, in no particular order, the 2023 Menagerie

Mr. Benton Catamount is a bit of a gambler which is why he wears quiet shoes as he pads through towns mostly at night to avoid potential conflicts. He has had some success as a hunter, ornamenting himself with bits of antler both to impress the ladies and to keep foes wary. He keeps a full powderhorn of catnip to chase his troubles away when he sleeps.

Darby “Lucky” Grimaldi was raised by the descendants of Joseph Grimaldi, an English actor and comedian in the 1800s who may have been the one who initiated the garishly colorful costumes and face paint of today’s clowns. Darby has toned it down a bit because he worries that his luck will run out (notice his horseshoe on his lapel), but he can’t shed his fun-loving desire to provoke a good laugh and he literally walks through life with bells on.

Big Sandy Scuttle Have you ever known anyone with a hand in every pot, on a lifelong quest to accomplish it all? I believe Big Sandy may have misheard or misunderstood the term “getting ahead”. Her little shoes were found in an antique shop and were the impetus for her entire being. I wanted her to look like she might dance a little when you are not looking and several of her pink-covered limbs are holding parts of her day including, ahem, a head.

Vinnie Santana Vinnie broke off from his herd in the Southwest after the Spanish-American War on the promise of a snake oil trader who told him the spice of life and the Fountain of Youth could all be his for a price. Well, he did find some hot peppers and stumbled into a burro band (using his mariachi skills gained in his travels) but based on his worn and torn coat, he is ready to bury the past (thus his old shovel) and return to the safety of his herd.

Bridger Balboa thinks of himself as a bit of a conquistador. This makes him a bit of a challenge to ride and the rest of the pasture gives him a wide berth and leaves him to his basket of lemongrass rather than pointing out that in spite of his youth south of the border and his time spent as a steed during the Alamo, he has little to conquer other than the prairie dogs and crickets.

Gale Talel Several Native American tribes believe that the cardinal, or the redbird, has the ability to predict the weather. Gale has taken these notions and run with them, being an industrious and enterprising fellow, trading umbrellas to the local haberdasher in exchange for fine goods for clothing. Like a lot of the birds I make, he is wearing a coat with tails. If a tail can presumably hide under a jacket, I make it so. Also, it is not legal to use fallen feathers of migratory birds and I have not seen chickens in quite the right shade of orangey red!

Augusta Ruddock is quiet. She doesn’t speak the language well. She was taken as a child by a native tribe who taught her that robins are the thieves of fire. She spends most of her day making and keeping the coals for her new family. In her own native lands, there wasn’t a name for the color “orange” in the English language until after the 16th century, so most of the names associated with her imply that her color is red. She retains a little bit of both her blended cultures including her worn bed jacket and apron she was wearing when she was taken. The bed jacket was a garment that stuck around for several centuries of women’s wear. It wasn’t simply a bathrobe but was a looser garment that could be worn for doing messier jobs around the house and yard.

Aldridge Hamilton Corvus Ravens can be a raucous bunch and Aldridge is no exception. He has a waist-belt for stashing his stolen treasure and he does like to flash his plumage and pilfered sparkles a bit. He has a bird friend because an old landlord of mine in college told the same story to everyone he met for as long as I knew him. “Have I told you about my blue tit?” He thought he was hilarious, but he always had “a little nip” in his coffee to maintain that illusion. Aldridge’s blue jewel is because I have a crow friend (we don’t have many ravens where I live) who comes often to sit on the arm of my scarecrow to pick out a colorful glass marble from what used to be my daughter’s mulch around her little garden.

Robert “Smoky” Ygritte is a longtime Florida native but as a youth, he was once blown off course and spent some time in the Carolinas. No one knows for sure, but it seems he has maintained a side endeavor that, in the 1800s, is mere pocket change, but by the time the Depression rolled around there were three companies responsible for promoting the creation of tobacco bags, small drawstring bags holding loose tobacco used for rolling cigarettes. These small bags could be made by the whole family as an extra income to survive hard times. I have always wondered how those little bags got started. Maybe we now know?

Ortun Baris Ortun’s mother is Welsh, and gave him a name meaning “from the shore” because it seemed to compliment his Turkish father’s last name of “Baris” which can mean “peaceful”. He is a fleet fisherman, in any case, and makes them proud. When I create birds, I try to use fabric that mimics the colors of their plumage. While I have not actually seen a green kingfisher personally, I had a really old piece of green wool and some green trim that steered me toward giving him green coloring.

Emery “Dearie” Dodson Ms. Dodson is eeking out her living any way she can. If it means pressing clothing, so be it, but she is a passionate quilter at heart. When she takes in clothing for repair, she isn’t beyond snipping a scrap of hem to use in her creations. Her name Emery comes from a childhood neighbor whose cinnamon roll recipe our family all seems to have. I don’t remember an awful lot about her other than she was always kind and her rolls were epic! Not a bad legacy at all.

Birni Ismay “Birni” is a Banda word for rhino. Not all in Africa is as it seems, or as we might be told, and across the vast cultural and physical expanse of nations is a great deal of contrast and conflict. Birni is a modern-day trader bridging the cultural gap between tribes and balancing the desperate and broad needs of his countrymen with the considerable wealth that might be had by engaging with tourists. It is a risky, deceptive business. I made Birni an affable, patient, wise sort based on a village chief I got to know a little and gave him a traditional-looking bag to carry, and hat to wear. I spent several years in different parts of Africa and would love for some of these countries to experience a bit of peace and relief. Many of my menageries have had an African animal.

Hingham Barbary There was a North African lion called the Barbary that is now extinct. I dressed Hingham to resemble North African culture, having spent a bit over a year in Tunisia, myself. He is wearing a smoking jacket and a smoking hat. In early America (not only here, but Hingham migrated as a young lion much to the dismay of his father, the King) these were garments worn by men when they would retire to the smoking room. They donned them when they went in and doffed them when they left, presumably to keep the smoke smell contained to that room.. Smoking hats were often elaborate, embroidered affairs with a tassel. I gave him soft soles shoes to remind him of the North African slippers he had as a cub. In his bag, he carries a book and some glasses to remind him of being “The Happy Prince” his mother dubbed him.

If you are interested in learning more about any of the characters, I will be sharing more of their details and photos in the Facebook group Andrea Durnell Folk Art including their beginnings as a log!

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