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Two more Ganskopf “fetishes”: stone owls or just rocks?

This is the fifth installment of the Ganskopf series.  Read the first, second, third and fourth here.

“Professor Harrower wants to speak to me?” I asked, surprised.  Miss Laguna nodded, and pushed the phone towards me in the air.

After months of contact by letter — and snail mail at that — to say that I was surprised to be called on the phone, at the Ganskopf Library, by Professor Harrower was putting it mildly (not to mention how much it sounded like an Accusation in Clue).  I put the phone to my ear, its tangled coil-cord knocking over a cup of pens on Miss Laguna’s desk.  “Yes?” I asked.  The professor spoke in a quiet voice, tinted with a soft accent I couldn’t quite place.  With no pleasantries except a “good afternoon”, he made his request directly and said goodbye.  I handed the phone back to Miss Laguna, who had managed to take the entire length of the call to reorganize the pen cup.

“Miss Laguna, do you know Harmon Harrower personally?” I asked.  She nodded, and explained he made infrequent trips to the Collection.  I asked, “Do you happen to know where he’s from, I mean originally?”

“Texas,” she replied, “born and raised.  I believe his PhD is from Rice.”

“No kidding?  He’s an Owl?”  This seemed too odd to be coincidence.  “Well, Professor Harrower has another two ‘fetishes’ he wants me to render before I leave.  How late is the Library open?”

“Until 9pm.  There’s plenty of time if you’d like me to pull them for you,” she said.

“Then, would you mind?” I gave her the scrap of paper with the accession numbers, and moved back to a table to unpack my kit.  She returned promptly with two tiny figures, this time with hands once again carefully encased by purple latex gloves.

Here is the finished aquarelle pencil and ink illustration:

Again, I omit detailed notes on them here, except to say that the items were stone owls, no more than two inches tall, perhaps made owl-like by human hands, or perhaps just fortuitously owly cobbles.  I leaned as close as I could to the velvet pillow, and peered at the objects through my magnifying glasses.  There was a shininess or patina on them — especially around the bellies and beaks — that could have been made by frequent handling or rubbing.  I leaned back.  I suppose if I ever found an owl-shaped stone, I’d pick it up, too: just because they might not be fabricated didn’t mean they weren’t artifacts.  My gut feeling was that human-shaped or not, they could be very, very ancient; prehistoric ancient, even.

For these two “fetishes”, I chose a stippling technique to render their patinated, weathered cortex, remembering how effective that technique was for drawing Acheulian stone handaxes and other cobble-based implements during a summer internship at the Lancaster Anthropology Museum.

As I worked on the preliminary sketches, various facts kept the analytical part of my brain occupied: Professor Harrower wanted the illustrations for an article.  But he had been working on this article for an awfully long time — wouldn’t he want to catch the wave of public interest in these “mystery relics”?  And also, why were his payments and re-imbursements to me always in the form of money orders, rather than checks from his University?  On further reflection, I decided this might be because he was moonlighting — writing a piece for a popular publication, not a technical journal.  This could explain why exact measurements weren’t critical; also, why he had asked for colorful renderings.  (The objects themselves tended to be mute in color, so I’d solved this with bright backgrounds, which had seemed to satisfy him.)  But mostly what I reflected on was this: the absolute certainty that, based on the speaker’s accent, my phone conversation today was not with a Texan.

With provocative thoughts like these, time passed quickly, but it was a little after nine when I finished up.  Miss Laguna had already put on her coat.  I asked if she would let me buy her a quick dinner by way of thanks for holding the Library open a bit late (I could afford it, I was working with a per diem).  She smiled, but said she had to get to her night job, so I just grabbed a slice of pizza on the way back to the hotel.

In general, the food here isn’t as good as in New Elgin, and the pizza was heavy and soft with flabby cheese.  As I walked along the street struggling one-handed to keep it from dripping oil on my sweater, I wondered: what do you suppose a special collections librarian does for a night job?

To be continued.

Posted by Allison on Mar 25th 2010 | Filed in art/clay,artefaux,drawn in,pseudopod waltz,The Ganskopf Incident | Comments (3)

Return to Ganskopf fetishes

(This is the fourth installment in the series: read the others here, here and here.)

Several months went by before I heard from Professor Harrower again.  This hiatus surprised me, because the press had kept up with a stream of cheesey, sensationalist Ganskopf “mystery relic” articles, keeping public interest simmering.  But eventually a letter came in which Harrower requested that I return to the Ganskopf Foundation special collection to draw another batch of  owl “fetishes”.  He didn’t say anything about whether the completed drawings were satisfactory or not, and I didn’t ask, since the payment for each had come promptly.

So before long I once again found myself waiting in the secure reading room for the librarian, Miss Laguna, to return with the items nestled into a black velvet pillow.  Hoisting my bag onto the battered tabletop, I set out my lamp (I’d upgraded to a natural light fluorescent, which, conveniently, didn’t get hot and produced a clear, color-true light), mechanical pencil, spare leads, small sketchbook, drugstore magnifying glasses, and kneaded eraser.  It still bothered me not to be able to use calipers for exact measurement — I was never allowed even to touch the pieces so calipers were out of the question — which for me put my finished product in the realm of illustration rather than technical rendering.  While I waited, I looked around the Collection reading room for changes, but saw none.  There was still a security officer at the metal detector, and once again, there was no sign of other patrons, including the sleek “Dr. Danneru” and his contraband mug of tea, who still was the only person I’d ever seen consulting the collection.

Miss Laguna came back with the pillow, and set it on the table in front of me casually. I noticed there were no purple gloves in sight.  I looked at the new set of “owls”.  “But…” I exclaimed.  Miss Laguna shrugged and walked away.

On the pillow lay three stamped metal lumps.  I’m no numismatist, but they appeared to be ancient coins, pretty straightforward artifacts: one, clearly a silver Athenian tetradrach, one a very small gold coin, perhaps Hellenistic or Roman (that late stuff was never my strength in Art History), and the third brass, which, on closer inspection, emitted the air of forgery.  Except for the fact they each depicted an owl, I couldn’t see any connection between these and supposed “mystery relics”, but it wasn’t my call.  Shaking my head, I started to draw, working as quickly as possible without being careless.doktorG As with the other fetishes, I made notes for each one, but will not include them here.

The sketches didn’t take long, but I had one more thing to do.  When Miss Laguna returned to fetch the group of owls, I held out a photocopy of a grainy photo which Becca the computer maven had dredged up from an old newspaper obituary, in an only slightly fruitful fit of detective work after my last visit to the Foundation.

“Oh,” she said, “that’s Doktor G — Dr. Ganskopf.  Just before he died.  Poor man; he was sick for so long,” and handed the photo back to me.

As she did — and before I could get any questions asked — the library’s desk phone rang.  “Excuse me,” said Miss Laguna.  I began to pack up.  I had just gotten all my equipment back into its bag, when I realized that Miss Laguna was waving at me with one hand, and holding the phone up in the other.

“Prof Harrower wishes to speak with you.”

To be continued.

Posted by Allison on Feb 2nd 2010 | Filed in art/clay,artefaux,drawn in,pseudopod waltz,The Ganskopf Incident | Comments (4)


Yes, that’s “Cnemie-philia” — the love of lizards in the genus Cnemidophorus, now more properly called by their current genus name, Aspidoscelis, or Whiptails.  Our locals are Sonoran tiger whiptails (Aspidoscelis tigris punctilinealis), and they’re the most commonly seen lizard in our Phoenix area yard.  They like it hot and are out and about during the the day, except in the highest heat, constantly looking for prey such as insects and ants, which they are welcome to, as our ants have out-sized painful defense methods.  (Yet I love the ants, because they feed the flickers and the whiptails).  The young whiptails have been more in evidence recently, too — tiny whippety slippets of things, sleek and fast with brilliant blue tails that largely void their stripey camouflage against granite gravel.  Maybe the flashy and detachable nearly-neon blue tail is an effective decoy for color-visioned predators, distracting them from more critical body parts.

(Various watercolors in Arches 140 lb coldpress sketchbook, A.Shock; click image to enlarge)

Here’s a watercolor study of a tiger whiptail who, sadly, fell victim to the LaBrea Tarpit of our pool.  I finally took it out of the freezer drawer of our fridge, much to E‘s relief, although there is still a Vaejovis scorpion chilling in there (this is when zip-lock bags really shine, I feel).  When I was through drawing, I took pictures and put the limp, thawed carcass out for a Curve-billed thrasher to find for a meal, but ashes to ashes: the ants found it first, bringing the lizard’s life full circle in a nutritional sense.


Lately I’ve been slacking off on supplying etymologies for things, but this one’s already been covered, at the very bottom of the Desert iguana post, along with a swell photo by E of a (Plateau?) tiger whiptail we saw at the Grand Canyon.

Lord of the Fly(catchers)

Late each spring, later than most other neotropical migrants, the Brown-crested flycatchers (Myiarchus tyrannulus) return to our neighborhood (and other places in southern Arizona) from their wintering grounds in Mexico.

They are relatively large tyrant flycatchers, about the size of the more familiar Cardinal, but unlike Cardinals they’re not usually seen on or even terribly close to the ground.  They are Birds of Trees, and favor woodland and riparian areas, as well as the occasional suburban or park setting.  They need trees with trunks large enough to contain generously sized holes, because they’re cavity nesters.  A saguaro will do (a “Crest” once checked out a woodpecker hole in our now defunct saguaro, but didn’t select it), or a cottonwood, or any other tree a good-sized woodpecker like a flicker has excavated a hole in already.  We’ve got Gilded flickers and Gila woodpeckers around, so there are holes big enough for the Brown-cresteds to raise a brood in.  Excellently, the BCFL is one of the few native cavity-nesting passerines able to out-compete Starlings for nest-holes.

As flycatchers, they are also Birds of Air, and feed almost entirely on insects which they catch on the wing.  They’re distinctively vocal, and it’s often easier to detect them by sound than by sight, as they give vigorous rolling brrrts and wheeps from the tops of trees.  In addition, they seem to be the earliest singers of the morning, starting before sunrise with a gentle repetitive song that differs in note and pattern from their daytime vocalizations, but is similar in tone.  Many people find it easier to identify them by sound: Brown-crested flycatchers have a look-alike smaller Myiarchus “cousin” the Ash-throated flycatcher, which is more widespread in arid regions of the southwest but utters different sounds.

Though they arrive late in spring, they also leave earlier than most migrants, and around the middle of August, I find myself listening each morning for the early song of the Brown-crested flycatcher, wondering when they’ll all have flown.

(Sketch book watercolor, A.Shock)

Posted by Allison on Jul 23rd 2009 | Filed in art/clay,birds,drawn in,field trips,natural history,yard list | Comments (0)

Have a Javelina, or two

Days are getting short until Three Star Owl‘s third appearance at Southwest Wings Birding and Nature Festival, and I’m in a groove, making pieces for the event.  As posted, I’ve been making mugs, and also owls.  Lots of owls.  Even more owls than usual.

So recently I turned to the hairy side of Sonoran fauna, and have been doing Javelinas.  Javelina items are popular with Three Star Owl clients, both Arizonans and visitors to the desert.  Interestingly, it’s often people who have lived their lives in the less urban areas of AZ who are NOT fans of the rooting, tusk-bearing mammal: they may have grown up thinking of them as pesky neighbors, and are weary of battling them over landscaping, gardens, and garbage, or are tired of sewing up the hound.

But in general, javelinas have lots of fans.  I was thrilled when a herd temporarily moved into our neighborhood a few years ago. They were flooded out of their usual habitat during a rainy year when the Salt River swamped the Goodding’s willow woods growing up in its channelized banks.  They did a bit of damage in yards, including ours, but I also still remember the thrill of hearing clicking sounds coming up the street, and looking up to see a mama with two quite young piglets following her!

Javelinas are not true pigs: they are pig-like mammals in the peccary family, Tayassuidae, and have a New World origin as opposed to pigs and swine, family Suidae, which originated in the Old World.  Our javelinas are also called Collared Peccaries, and live in a wide geographical range and a variety of habitats in the arid Southwestern U.S.  There are three other species of peccary in the Americas, which live throughout Central and South America: White-lipped, Chacoan, and Giant Peccaries.

Three Star Owl will be offering Javelina candle-holders and salt and pepper shakers for your table.  Here’s a colored pencil drawing of a pair of shakers in progress.  It’s not the drawing that’s “unfinished” it’s the clay objects, which are in two stages of completion, still in wet clay.  One is modeled and textured, the other not yet detailed or textured.  The shaker holes are the nostrils at the end of their snouts, and each one is re-fillable through neat rubber plugs in their bellies.

And here is a larger candle-holder, completed. The salt and peppers will have the same coloration, matte slips and oxides, with a little sparkle in the eye.

(Photos: top, javelina dirt-napping at the Arizona Sonora Desert Museum, E.Shock; javelina in our front garden, munching spring wildflowers, A.Shock; colored pencil sketch on recycled, speckled paper, A.Shock; Three Star Owl javelina candle holder, A.Shock)

Posted by Allison on Jul 15th 2009 | Filed in art/clay,drawn in,Events,increments,natural history,three star owl,yard list | Comments (0)

O the Wonder that is Short-alls!

“Paean to the Short-all”  (India ink and watercolor sketch,  6×9″, A.Shock)

One crabby technical addition: note the bleeding that occurred in the sepia ink lines adjacent to washes in the drawing.  This happened after adding the watercolor washes, after an hour of ink-drying time.  So, if you’re using Higgins “waterproof” sepia drawing ink, note that it doesn’t appear to be entirely waterproof, despite what it says on the bottle.  Perhaps more drying time?  Actually, the effect if you were doing an ink wash could be nice — a pleasant sanguine fuzziness — but not so much when you’re looking for a clean line to contain tinted areas.  Especially around the lettering…

Posted by Allison on Jul 13th 2009 | Filed in art/clay,drawn in,three star owl | Comments (0)

A new batch of “Songbird” mugs is underway

I’m now in heavy production mode for the upcoming Southwest Wings Birding and Nature Festival in southeastern Arizona (see Events for details).  Some of the objects I’m making in small batches are smooth-surfaced mugs for glazing bird portraits on.  Flat-bottomed, hand-built (as opposed to wheel-thrown), and intended for daily use, these mugs have proven popular items at nature festivals and among Three Star Owl‘s birding clientele.  Who wouldn’t want to drink their favorite beverage out of their favorite bird mug?

I recently finished a batch for a client with a home in the Colorado Rockies, and here are a few shots of the process.  One of the reasons I’d like to share these photos is so folks can have an idea of the amount of work that goes into these mugs, which have three images of a species on each cup.

The mugs start out as flat rectangular slabs of clay that I make with a rolling pin and hardwood slats from the “home improvement center” as guides for thickness: very high tech.  (Many potters have slab rollers in their studios, which are fabulous items for making clay flat, but they’re big, and I’m not giving the swamp cooler the boot when a rolling pin and some wood molding will do.)  Then I curl the clay rectangles into a cylinder, seal up the side seam, add a slab base, a rim coil and a coil handle, and dry them very slowly over a period of several days.

After they’re bisqued, I draw the outline sketch of the chosen bird with regular no.2 graphite pencil right on to the clay.  This is convenient because I can erase pencil lines or whole drawings if they don’t go as planned (although nothing eats through erasers like rubbing on bisqued clay!), but I don’t have to remove the lines before the final firing: the temperature in the kiln is sufficiently hot to burn off the pencil completely.  The photo above gives a general idea of the tools used for glazing; the one to the right shows the roughed-in pencil sketch for a Green-tailed towhee.  (Remember to click on any image you’d like a closer look at).

The next step is glazing the interior: that happens before glazing the images on the outside, so the glaze doesn’t drip down a finished bird while pouring out the extra from the mug’s interior.

Next, I brush the glazes on.  This is like painting, without the advantage of being able to see what the image will look like with its proper colors.  This is because most raw glazes have very little in common visually with their finished, fired selves.  They go from chalky, pastel flat patches to shiny, brightly hued areas often with brush strokes visible where the thickness of the glaze varies.  These two photos show the difference between a male Western tanager, before and after:

Each mug has an image of the bird on each side, often the male on one side and the female on the other, and a thumbnail sketch, usually a profile portrait of the bird, on the bottom.  The bottom image must be done with matte slips, so they don’t stick to the kiln shelves during firing.

This batch of birds is spoken for, but if you’d like some of your own, contact me and I’d be happy to make you your own, with your own choice of birds (for details click on Shop).  Or, come visit Three Star Owl in Sierra Vista and see what’s in stock at Southwest Wings this August.

(all photos A.Shock)

Posted by Allison on Jul 8th 2009 | Filed in art/clay,birds,close in,drawn in,Events,increments | Comments (0)

Desert Dove-o-rama: White-winged doves

Arriving in the spring, they lurk like vultures for weeks on the crowns of blooming saguaros, waiting for the flowers to swell into fat green fruits.  When they do, the White winged doves (Zenaida asiatica) rip them open with their strong fruit-ripping beaks, exposing the sweet red fruit and feasting greedily.  Sometimes several doves will stack, treading clumsily on one anothers’ backs, vying for access to their favorite food.

“White wings” are big doves, and during their breeding season, which are the hottest and driest months of the Sonoran Desert year, they rely heavily on the fruit of the saguaro for food and water.  So heavily in fact that in this habitat biologists consider them “saguaro specialists”.  In other parts of their large range, which includes the Caribbean and parts of Central America, they are agricultural freeloaders, and vast flocks of them take advantage of bountiful farmland for food and roosts.  Here they are considered “tropical doves” by ornithologists and “pests” by farmers. As such, they have been hunted energetically, and their population numbers are subject to wide swings throughout the year and decades.

This pesky mooching aspect of this big dove is not hard to imagine: they are agressive and a bit greedy at the yard seed feeders, and will lower their heads and charge at smaller doves, like their “cousins” the Mourning doves, making a hoarse hoo that’s the columbid equivalent of a growl.

But perched picturesquely on top of a fruiting saguaro against a desert blue sky, their frequent “who cooks for you” call means summer to me, and a welcome sign that the desert cycles are intact and thriving.

(Sketch book drawing, graphite, and photo, A.Shock)

Posted by Allison on Jul 5th 2009 | Filed in art/clay,birds,close in,drawn in,natural history,yard list | Comments (0)

In the Cat’s Own Dream (equal time category)…

…she’s Queen B in the Fiery Jungle.

(B in the Grass, watercolor 7×10″ A. Shock 2009)

Posted by Allison on Jun 30th 2009 | Filed in art/clay,drawn in,the cats | Comments (0)

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