Monday, June 29, 2009

Charmed, I'm Sure

Some time ago I posted a picture of an antique brick with incised features, and promised to show another sculpture from the same place. So here's to make good on that pledge.

A friend who owned a second-hand store was called to the home of an older African American lady who was moving, to see if there was anything he wanted to purchase. The house was in a neighborhood directly across from the old brick-making plant in Milledgeville, GA. He found this crude effigy of an emphatically male figure on top of her refrigerator. When he asked her about it, she told him that it had been made by an uncle who worked at the brick plant, and given to her when she was 14 years old. She called it a "Get A Man," and said its purpose was to help her attract a suitable mate.

That's the way the story was told to me.

The figure is made of the dense white clay that's used to make fire bricks, which are used to line fireplaces and furnaces. The maker pressed in two small ceramic chips, like from a dinner plate, at the eyes. The sculpting is partly hand-molded and pinched, and the legs and feet are carved. When it was fired in the industrial kiln, the chips melted. I can't remember whether the brown color of the hair and lips was a glaze or paint.

My opinion is that this is a modern survival of the same human impulse evidenced by the Venus of Willendorf and other fertility figures, male and female, in cultures all over the world, stretching back to time immemorial. And one hell of a piece of folk art.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Otha Turner and His Cane Fife

I've meant for a while to post about a favorite artifact, one especially treasured because it comes from a tradition now nearly extinct. It's a cane fife, made by the late Othar Turner of Gravel Springs, Mississippi. Mr. Turner was perhaps the last master of American fife and drum. You may have heard his music without knowing it, as part of the soundtrack of Martin Scorsese's Gangs of New York. Turner was also featured in Scorsese's Feel Like Going Home, a delta blues documentary for PBS. In the film, when Turner and his musicians march across the fields playing fife and drums, it was as electrifying to me as Jimi Hendrix playing the Star Spangled Banner at Woodstock. His best known composition, Shimmy She Wobble, is named for the dancing it inspires (and is one of the great song titles of all time).

What finally motivated me to write about this fife is an article in The New York Times here, about the recent discovery in Germany of a five-hole flute made from bird bone which dates to nearly 40,000 years ago.

So here's an object that proves a human musical tradition going back that far. I don't mind telling you, it makes me say wow.

You can read more about Mr. Turner here, and check out a film about him here .

And here's some music.

In his own words:

I make my own fifes. The cane grows right down there in the ditch banks down in the bottom. First you go out there and cut you a piece of cane. You judge the length you want your cane-you going to make your fife a foot, or a foot and so many inches long. A two-foot cane is really too long to blow. It's best a foot or so, I reckon. And your cane should be a medium size around. Too large a cane and you can't tune it. That cane grows from the earth so high, see, and it's jointed. You pick you out so many joints and cut it off. Then you take your knife and dress it down.

You get you a rod of iron and put it in the fire and get it red hot, and bore you a hole in your cane. See, sometime if you don't get your hole large enough, that fife won't blow good, so you got to twist it around and blow that hole out. You got to hold that rod in there so it starts smoking and steaming. You hold it and then, whoop, slides it on through there. You put all them holes in there that way.

Thanks to Jim for letting me buy this object.

Otha Turner and Granddaughter Image Credit Bill Steber, more here.
Bone Flute Image credit Daniel Maurer, Associated Press.

Are Those Things Real?

Exaggeration postcards became popular early in the 20th century, and generally combined boosterism and humor in extolling the virtues of local products. I found a bag of manipulated photos of the same genre at the local antique show, and it's probably mean to say so, but Thornton, who copyrighted these, could have been better at the craft.

I hear Maxwell Smart, "Would you believe..........."

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

A Feather in Your Cap, A Feather in Your Nest

The impulse to collect things is one of the most agreeable things about people. Of course, I would say that, since I make my living providing them with the objects of their desire. The reasons they accumulate what they do, and the strategies they use, and how they define what they're after is always interesting to me. And the variety is pretty much endless. It occurs to me now that most of the blogs I enjoy are maintained by collectors, or artists, or both.

One of the smartest people I know, in the long course of writing a dissertation about Native American imagery in the modern art of Germany, found some relief in collecting images that were sort of tangentially related to her topic. She started acquiring pictures of non-native Americans dressing themselves in costume, and eventually assembled a neat little collection. She graciously agreed to let me share a few of her prizes here.

The picture below is the scholar/collector herself. And below that, your correspondent, striking his usual contrarian pose.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Today's Word is Dapper

This gent knew how to look good, and he headed down to the local studio to have a permanent record made. Maybe to send to his sweetheart. I suspect he chose to be pictured while seated so that those cool socks would show.

And I'll bet the little white dot on the end of one shoe, a processing error, bothered him a little.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

It's a Dog Eat Football Team World

One of the most bizarre double exposures I've ever found, a photo of a dog merged with another of a football team.

No athletes were harmed in the making of this picture.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

More Than One Way to Read A Sign

See The
Root Woman

Talk With
The Lady
That Can
Trun Water
Into Blood

The photo of this group of hand-painted signs was taken in the early 90s, as best I can remember. They were nailed to improvised supports, right by the sidewalk in a poor area of a small Southern city. When a local told me about the sign, he warned that going into the neighborhood might be dangerous, but I had no problem in the few minutes I was there. I think the signs are evidence of more than one thing, among them:

that there was a plague in America

that desperately sick people who can't be cured by conventional medicine will sometimes try dubious therapies

that there are opportunists who cynically offer hope in exchange for dollars, and their marketing is frequently directed at people already poor

that there are remnants of magical healing practices still present in modern America,

and that handmade signs are far more interesting than commercially made ones.

Maybe there are other readings, too.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Bone-a-fied Stamp

One of those probably now obsolete rubber stamps with the rotating rubber belt of words. This one features parts of the human skeletal system. The belt is too brittle to risk using it anymore. A doorman at a nightclub could have had a lot of fun with it, I guess.

I digitally flipped the second image so it's easier to read.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Hard Questions

A few years ago a book of photographs of lynching victims was published. I struggled with my response to it, loudly harangued my dearest with concerns about its ethics, and finally gave in to a kind of fatigue, still conflicted and uncertain. I certainly don't intend to engage my much-appreciated readers here in a discussion about all that. But I do want to direct you to a relevant article in the New York Times by Michael Kimmelman here, about a show at the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris which concerns itself with transgressive and provocative photographs. I'd love to see that show.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Begging the Question

Since a theme seems to be developing here of looking at something and simply asking Why?, here's a snapshot that just begs the question.

(I bugged my friend Pat to sell me this image for more than a year. He refused. Then one day he simply gave it to me. Thanks, Pat.)

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Why Didn't I Think of That?

The products featured in yesterday's post reminded me of another invention that piqued my curiosity. I ran across it on ebay some months back, and a bit of web searching shows I'm not the only one who was impressed. But in case anyone missed it, here's a technological advance in protecting the offspring.

It's called a Snake Proof Baby Crib, was patented in 1914 and manufactured by the Caldwell Manufacturing Co. of Columbus, Ohio. Now, this raises a host of questions, most pressingly about just how bad the snakes-attacking-babies problem was in those years.

Maybe the patent has expired. It's gold, pure gold, Jerry!

Monday, June 1, 2009

Let There Be Light: Building a brighter mousetrap

They say necessity is the mother of invention. Herewith I make the case that this maxim needs revision.

Here are some new products that incorporate flashing LED (light emitting diodes):

Toy floating duck
Plastic knives, forks and spoons
and perhaps the most frightening visual, a flashing mouth guard