Saturday, October 28, 2006

Fascinatin' Crustaceans

The Zymoglyphic Museum's Arthropod Division has recently expanded its Crabs of the World collection with a shipment from Conchology, Inc. of the Philippine Islands. The museum's original collection has been a miscellany of eBay, shell shop, and other purchases, not always with proper identification. A recent concerted effort for taxonomic accuracy in identifying its various specimens has been aided by a number of helpful folks at The Crustacean Society.

Crabs have an important place in Zymoglyphic culture. When dead, they often look as though they are just posing for a really long time, and so make excellent diorama characters. They are the stars in the traveling crustacean mini-diorama, as well as supporting actors in many of the museum's aquatic dioramas. They are nautical mechanical marvels, from the tight, interlocking parts of a box crab to the implausibly leggy spider crabs. Some, such as the fiddler crab, verge on becoming "eccentric contraptions", surreal beings whose very existence seems impossible. Some have great character, such as the leopard crab shown above.

In previous entries, we have featured as "natural assemblage artists" the bowerbirds, who collect and arrange various objects to attract mates, and the Xenophora, shellfish which collect and arrange other shells on themselves. Decorator crabs take the latter idea further and make themselves into living, walking gardens. They cover themselves with a selection of living seaweed and plant-like animals, such as sponges, corals, and bryozoans. This is not a weed garden in the sense of just allowing things to grow on the carapace; the selections are carefully nipped and placed on specialized projections on the shell. The purpose is both camouflage and protection due to the poisonous nature of many of the selections. The festively decked-out crab shown here is a Cyclocoeloma tuberculata (photo from

If you are in the Seattle area and interested in crustaceans, there is an excellent collection at the shell museum in Port Gamble, a ferry ride across Puget Sound from Seattle.

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Sunday, October 01, 2006

Notes from the Museum's Mermaid Tank

Mermaid collecting has had a rather difficult and controversial history. Mermaid collectors are often beguiled by artists' depictions of full-size, curvaceous, fish-women, but the actual specimens that show up in collections tend to be much shorter and not really all that human-looking. Some species seem to be a primate-fish mixture, with the type specimen generally regarded to be P.T. Barnum's Feejee Mermaid, exhibited at his American Museum. Modern versions can be seen here.

The Zymoglyphic Museum's new curiosity cabinet acquisition, shown above, belongs to a family of mermaids that has been referred to throughout history by the common name "Jenny Haniver".

This related species appears in Ulisse Aldrovandi's posthumously published 1642 work, Monstrorum historia

This sighting of a somewhat more primitive species is from Ambroise Pare's 1573 work, On Monsters and Marvels

This one appears in Mary Thompson's 1960 natural art classic, The Driftwood Book (photo by Leonid Skvirsky)

This specimen is from the 1975 catalog of the Wonders of the World Museum.

The Zymoglyphic museum's new acquisition joins two existing specimens in its natural history department. This one, referred to as the Zymoglyphic Mermaid, is endemic to the Zymoglyphic region. Also native to the region is a primitive flying species known as the Leatherwing.


Saturday, September 09, 2006

Cheeky Pete's Collection of Happy Objects

The Zymoglyphic Museum Shop's Marketing Department regrets to announce that Cheeky Pete the Clown has resigned his position as drinkware manager (or "commercial shill" as he calls it) a scant few weeks into the job. The curatorial staff, on the other hand, is delighted to announce that Mr. Clown has shown great initiative and curated his own exhibit of "happy objects" from the museum's curiosity cabinet. He is, needless to say, quite pleased with the results!

Mr. Clown would like to remind the museum's patrons that the museum is not all about dead animals and decay. He points to historical precedents in the Zymoglyphic region, such as the native happy fish species and the legend of the happy monk.

Top shelf: A pair of Latin American whistles waiting for a happy tune. One is a serenading bovine devil and the other is a mysterious creature with a Mona Lisa smile.

Next shelf: A chorus of shell-shop frogs (souvenir of Florida) and a goofy plastic dinosaur

Then: A pair of happy shell frogs relaxing on a tropical island

And next: A set of (maniacally happy) "Crazy Newts" which have escaped from the hallucinogenic mind of Jim Woodring and taken on a solid form

Bottom shelf: Agate creatures. It is often hard to tell if stone figures are happy, but Mr. Clown, being an inanimate object himself, assures us that these are. Also, a grinning death's-head pipe (Mr. Clown says: "It's for smoking killer weed! Ha Ha!").

Those interested in greater detail may wish to click on the above image.

-- Museum Staff


Tuesday, August 29, 2006

The Quiet Parlor of the Fishes

Late in the 1980's, before the Zymoglyphic Museum existed, I had an idea to make an aquarium, not with water, but a scene with a sandy bottom. This would be a big version of the surreal scenes in sandtrays that I had been making at that time. I was recently married then, and the theme was of two fish making a home in a strange world. I liked the idea that the result would be a piece of furniture you would have in your house, rather than a piece of art intended for a pedestal in a gallery. It was even rather practical, in that it would be very low maintenance for an aquarium. The aquarium was made of various things that I had found and had been given. My wife was making intricate hinged fish out of metal and plexiglass, and I thought an aquarium would make a nice home for some of them.

Even the title, "The Quiet Parlor of the Fishes", is a found object, taken from Thoreau's "Walden":

I cut my way through a foot of snow, and then a foot of ice, and open a window under my feet, where, kneeling to drink, I look down into the quiet parlor of the fishes, pervaded by a softened light as through a window of ground glass, with its bright sanded floor the same as in summer; there a perennial waveless serenity reigns as in the amber twilight sky, corresponding to the cool and even temperament of the inhabitants. Heaven is under our feet as well as over our heads.

"Walden" was one of my favorite books in high school. It provided a mythic and spiritual dimension to nature that transcended the mere collecting, naming, and classifying of specimens, which had been the focus of my original museum. The summer between high school and college, I even tried a brief emulation of Thoreau's year-long stay at Walden pond. I camped out by myself for four days on an island in the middle of a small mountain lake in Olympic National Park. I paddled out to the island on a primitive boat made by tying driftwood logs together, read Walden, and wrote a short journal, trying to emulate Thoreau's 19th century style.

In this dry aquarium, the two fish have a little television set in their parlor and are watching a program that features one of the Judy's art-fish. They also have their own little dry aquarium, foreshadowing the worlds-within-worlds theme of the museum-to-come. This first aquarium was followed by a series of small dioramas inside standard 10-gallon aquariums. Some had a terrestrial theme and some were aquatic. The serenity of the underwater world, eternal and unchanging, gave way to the archetype of the primordial ooze, a crowded, dense, active, messy world of creation, decay, and conflict, and a Walden-like mythological cycle of death and rebirth.

In recent years, I have been trying to capture a sense of the little worlds inside the dioramas in close-up photography and I think this is one of the more successful attempts. It is the little aquarium in fishes' parlor. This picture was, in fact, my entree into hallowed halls of the Museum of Dust.

In the past couple of months, Judy has been experimenting with pinhole photography, using homemade mini-cameras. I was not convinced of the true potential of this technique until she took some photos of the aquarium, which gave the whole thing a dreamlike air. The full set of photos can be seen here. One of the those photos, of an astronaut from the moon who is coming to visit the fish, resulted in her own initiation into the Museum of Dust.

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Saturday, July 29, 2006

Surrealist Barbie

In primitive societies, there are often particular figurines considered to have great power within the culture. For us, the Barbie doll seems to serve that function. Such is the power of this figurine that she has managed to stay trendy for more than 50 years in the ever-changing worlds of fashion and toys. She has even penetrated the august halls of the Zymoglyphic Museum, where current events are rarely acknowledged and brand names hardly ever seen.

My niece went through a fairly heavy Barbie phase in her pre-teen years. One Christmas when we were visiting, she presented me with this rearranged doll which is now enshrined as the ultra-rare Surrealist Barbie of the museum's curiosity cabinet. It is still exactly as she gave it to me. Later, she sent me some heads and a few body parts for me to use in art projects (see note below). Then, no doubt inspired by her visit to the museum, she created Nude Barbie-zilla.

It turns out that deconstructing Barbies is practically a cottage industry. The prevalence of girls mutilating their Barbies in various ways was the subject of a recent study at the University of Bath. The Market Street Gallery in San Francisco hosting the fourth annual Altered Barbies show with more than 50 artists participating. It runs through August 27th.


Sunday, February 26, 2006

The Zymoglyphic Meteorite

When I was a boy, I would troll the beach with a magnet tied to a long string, hoping to snag a torn-off bit of the cosmos in the form of an iron meteorite. As an adult, I found out that if you want one, you can just buy one. This one is from the Gibeon fall, a meteor that broke apart over Namibia in prehistoric times. It was originally part of the iron core of an asteroid that later broke up. Its melted, pitted exterior marks its fiery passage through the Earth's atmosphere, but its inner crystalline structure has not changed in 4 billion years. To me, it is the equivalent of a medieval relic, a connection to the universe and its creation.

One of the holiest relics of Islam (and its predecessors in Arabia as well) is a meteorite embedded in its central shrine at Mecca. One legend has it that this stone, too, dates from close to creation, falling at Adam's feet and subsequently discovered by Abraham.

The Hall of Meteorites in New York's American Museum of Natural History has an excellent exhibit (virtual and physical) on meteorites.

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Sunday, January 22, 2006


In creating assemblage works from natural objects, I often think of having a sort of partnership, where I provide the overall idea and "let nature do the detail work". Natural objects often have a complex texture to them that remains interesting even at very close range. I started thinking that I could do some painting to make underwater diorama backgrounds - ideally the sort of atmosphere evoked by the paintings of Yves Tanguy (such as the one shown here). I took some classes on the basics of acrylic painting from Tesia Blackburn. I made some tiny paintings with interesting textures and became fascinated with making amoebas out of tar gel. The results are showcased in the Shoebox Art Gallery #3.

Last fall, I took a class at the Pacific Art League with Nancy Rice who makes large abstract paintings using a sort of pour-and-shake technique. I discovered that if I did something similar on Masonite board, the pigment deposit made an amazingly detailed pattern, consistent with my "let nature do the detail work" plan. I decided that some of the resulting paintings were interesting enough to be displayed on their own, and that the collaboration with natural processes qualified them as the Zymoglyphic art of the new millenium.


Sunday, November 27, 2005

New Painting Gallery!

The museum has opened a new gallery to house a recently acquired batch of acrylic paintings. These paintings represent a new direction in Zymoglyphic art away from found-object assembage, but in keeping with the theme of the "Primordial Ooze".

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