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Monthly Archives: January 2011

John James Audubon

A painting of a black wolf running.

Painting of a black wolf on the hunt.

Damien Hirst may have made millions on sheep in formaldehyde, but he was hardly the first to exploit animals for art. In fact, he’s part of a storied lineage. Eadweard Muybridge, the nineteenth century photographer known for innocuous studies of galloping horses, once set a tiger from the Philadelphia zoo loose on a buffalo because he wanted to record killing in motion. But it is John James Audubon — pioneering conservationist and naturalist, whose tender portraits of birds canonized him the eyes of every binoculared weekend ornithologist — who has the most blood on his hands.

The early American artist-naturalist, after whom the genteel National Audubon Society is named, has recently been in the public spotlight. An original manuscript of his masterpiece, The Birds of America, recently sold for $11.5 million, setting a record for the world’s most expensive printed book. It’s full of the drawings that made Audubon famous, all of which appear to depict animals in nature as if by careful observation. But, while Audubon was certainly an avid observer, he painted from lifeless bodies mounted on his studio wall. Rendering is much easier when your subject can’t move.

Oil painting by John James Audubon of peregrine falcons.

A pair of peregrine falcons munching on duck, by John James Audubon.

Born in Haiti in 1785, the illegitimate son of a French captain and a chambermaid, Audubon grew up primarily in Nantes, France. He had no formal art training, just like he had no formal training in science, though as a teenager he did briefly pursue a naval career. After failing the entrance exam for the School of Hydrography, he turned to the interest he’d had since childhood — drawing from nature. He would spend most of life pursuing this passion, educating himself on an as-needed basis.

Portrait of John James Audubon in 1826 by John Syme. (Image courtesy of Ocean's Bridge)

The young John James posing for a portrait but longing for the hunt. Painting by John Symes, 1826. (Image courtesy of Ocean’s Bridge)

He left for the United States in 1802 to avoid conscription in Napoleon’s army by tending land his father had purchased in Pennsylvania. Eager to explore the anatomy of the specimens in his new home, he learned to gut and stuff animals. At first he strung his subjects up by their wings or feet, but later he began inserting a flexible wire frame into freshly killed animals before stuffing them. This way, he could arrange the corpses in more “lifelike” poses. However, the new technique lent itself to over-the-top theatricality — if he could pose animals at will, he could also take some liberties.

Unlike other early American hunter-naturalists who were more interested in the dignity of the hunt than pastoral visions, Audubon was more of an aesthete. He may have been unfazed by killing, but he cared about beauty. As scholar Roswell Eldridge put it, “a bird [for Audubon] was like a rose. You admired the color, you admired the fragrance, and you picked it without much emotional reaction.”

One of John J. Audubon's original bird specimens.

A yellow-throated vireo plucked from life by Audubon himself. (Image courtesy of The Zoology Museum)

There’s an unnerving amount of rose-picking recorded in Audubon’s journals: woodpeckers, blue jays, grosbeaks, marsh hawks, night hawks, the “extremely wary” red-tailed hawk who seemed to “understand perfectly” the use of a gun. A golden eagle at first refused to die, and its eyes “at one time blazed as if illuminated with fire, and then glazed as if in death.” And it wasn’t only birds that got “picked.” Audubon liked skins too, and skulls. There were buffalo, tortoises, antelope, deer, squirrel, bullfrogs. Certainly, his hunting sometimes had a pragmatic purpose – he had to feed and clothe his family­. But pragmatics seemed secondary to his obsession with collecting and rendering specimens, particularly since he sometimes boasted about killing a hundred birds in a day.

Unintentionally one of the first mavens of mixed-media, Audubon would combine watercolor with pastel, and work with oil, gouache and various engraving techniques. In his drawings, he tended to anthropomorphize his subjects, giving them human-like traits to such an extent that fellow naturalists questioned his legitimacy. A hawk with a writhing rabbit in its beak, or a haughty cross fox lording over a bloody bird, seemed to appeal more to pathos than science. But even if contemporaries and successors questioned his accuracy, no one questioned his inexhaustible productivity. He’d travel with numerous hunting parties throughout his life, and write prolific journal entries about what he saw. In his writings, he would often allude to how specimens of interest tasted.

Archival photo of John J. Audubon c. 1845 from the Smithsonian

The man reformed: John James Audubon, circa 1845. (Image courtesy of the Smithsonian Institute)

Much writing about Audubon, including his writing about himself, make him seems heroic in the way Lewis and Clark and Davy Crockett were — not because of his pristine character, but because of the mythic amount of activity they fit into their life. Certainly, he exaggerated, but his Herculean drive was real, and that one man could kill a hundred birds in a day is as awing as the fact that one would want to.

Free-ranging and insatiable as a young man, the aging Audubon seemed to discover more reasons for anger and to feel more for the animals he’d spent his life shooting, stuffing and mounting. In 1843, at nearly sixty years old, Audubon embarked on a Mississippi River expedition with other hunters and naturalists, and his field notes reveal a disgust and regret altogether uncharacteristic of his younger self. The gusto and thoughtlessness of his companions grated on him. He describes two men, “who may be called hunters,” killing four buffalo, letting one drown, and only salvaging minimal meat and the tongue of one bull before returning to their party. Wrote an angered Audubon, “and thus it is that thousands multiplied by thousands of buffalo are senselessly murdered every year.” On another instance, he lamented, “What a terrible destruction of life, as it were for . . . next to nothing that they were killed,” and began to show a more specific sympathy than ever before: “these poor animals which two hours before were tranquilly feeding are now dead; short work this.”

Oil painting of two cats fighting by John James Audubon, 1826. (Image courtesy of 2Art Gallery)

Two cats fighting (and a murdered squirrel). John James Audubon, 1826. (Image courtesy of 2Art Gallery)

Audubon never explicitly denounced hunting, but the Mississippi trip was his last major expedition. In a review of recent Audubon biographies, Jennifer J. Baker talked about biographers’ inability to “reconcile the bloodshed to the conservationism, just as others cannot reconcile, say, slaveholding to the Declaration of Independence.” But Baker suggests we “can at least imagine how Audubon…supplied the inspiration and tools for future change.” This may be the case; he was one of the first to recognize the need for conservation at all. Still, the fact remains: animals suffered for Audubon’s work and, in celebrating nature, he also destroyed it. Does that sort of recklessness always have to be part of progress?

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Wool

Jean Seberg wrapped in a wool knit sweater. (Image from Suzi-Souchi)

No pulling the wool over her eyes: Jean Seberg in a cozy cableknit. (Image from Suzi-Souchi)

Sheep have gotten an undeserved baa-d rap. Besides loathsome puns, the saying “dumb as sheep” has been a longstanding colloquialism for stupidity, a common misunderstanding of the flock mentality that serves as a defense against predators. Studies have proved the species to be smarter than previously thought, with particular skills in facial recognition. Dolly, famous for being the world’s first cloned mammal in 1996, rendered sheep (at least in the eyes of the fearful) symbols of science gone wrong. Hailed as a scientific breakthrough, Dolly also incited heated controversy over implications for humankind and cloning. In 2007, Dr. Charles Roselli’s research on gay sheep was thwarted by animal and human rights groups over an unfounded — but highly publicized — fear of imminent sexual eugenics.

In truth, sheep are innocent as lambs and humankind has them to thank for more than 12,000 years of food, shelter and most importantly, clothing. The main product of sheep — wool — has been used since prehistoric times as primitive loin flaps, and has stayed with us over millennia, evolving into pleated trousers and lace collared, mini argyle short sleeved sweater blouses.

The first wool garments were simple tunics made of sheep pelts. Eventually, around 3,500 BCE man developed crude mechanisms for spinning and weaving fleece into wool, most likely an innovation borne from observing spider webs and birds’ nests. This breakthrough had far-reaching effects. The warmth of wool allowed prehistoric man to extend the sprawl of civilization far and wide, beyond hospitable warm climates. The Romans, in their quest for world domination and empire, brought their sheep along, spreading herds throughout Italy, Spain, North Africa and England. Sheep were transferred to the New World in two waves, first with the explorations of Christopher Columbus and second during the colonial era. Today, an astonishing 80% of the world’s wool comes from Australia.

Archival Life magazine image of a man shearing a sheep.

A sheep gets sheared. (Image courtesy of Life Magazine)

SHEEP TO SWEATER

The process from sheep to sweater starts with raising and shepherding healthy animals free of disease. The “sheep year” begins in October when rams are bred with ewes. Only one busy ram is bred with a group of ewes to keep records tidy and prevent cross-breeding. After about six months of gestation, lambs are born in mid-March or early-April.

Sheep are usually sheared once a year before giving birth in the spring, before the Southern Hemisphere’s summer cold sets in. There is currently a shortage of professional sheep shearers around the world, prompting the development of shearing schools to carry forth the practice. A skilled shearer can finish the job quickly and remove the fleece in a single, in-tact piece with minimal discomfort for the animal. On small farms, shearing can be done by hand with scissors or blades, but increasingly the use of electric shears or even robotic mechanisms in combination with specially designed corrals are being applied. These days, technology and science has improved the situation for both shearers and sheep, as the animals are injected with a protein called Bioclip that makes the fleece more easily removable and lessens breakage of the fleece fibers.

Once the sheep is sheared, the fleece is cleaned to prepare for processing and spinning. Body oils, dirt and yellow discoloration are removed by mechanically scouring the fleece in water or solvent. The wool is scoured and squeezed up to six times, and subjected to forks and suction at each level in order to homogenize the fibers for a uniform material.

Archival image of men sorting wool at Clifton Station

The wool sorting room at Clifton Station. (Image courtesy of The Powerhouse Museum)

After the wool is washed and scoured, it is carded, essentially combing through the wool with wire teeth. Carding is a mechanized process where the wool is fed into a series of spinning spools or drums covered with small metal pins. This step removes any remaining undesirable substances from the fibers. The combing process also helps to align the short and long fibers in preparation for the final step of spinning.

If you inspect the label on the plush sweater you are wearing at this moment, you will most likely find that it is Merino. Other high-quality soft wools include lambswool and Shetland wool. Scratchy sweaters may be due to the quality, type or treatment of the wool, for example if it is boiled or worsted. With fleece prized for its long and soft, yet strong, fibers, the Merino sheep is the most popular breed for clothing.

A Merino sheep is bred to have wrinkled skin, which produces piles of surface area and yields more fleece per inch. In recent years, animal rights group PETA has targeted the Australian wool industry in particular for “mulesing”, a brutal practice developed over 70 years ago by John Mule to keep flies from nesting in the sheep’s skin. The process involves cutting off chunks of skin from around the sheep’s tail — without anesthesia — in order to prevent fly-attracting moisture from gathering in the wrinkled skin folds. It’s the cheapest way to deal with skin flies, but vile enough to prompt major clothing manufacturers, including the likes of H&M, to sign a ban and redirect business to mulesing-free venues.

The Australian Wool Industry proudly declared in 2004 that all Merino wool produced in the region will be mulesing-free by December 31, 2010, though rumors are now flying that the AWI is sheepishly skirting this earlier promise.

Archival photo of champion Merino sheep. (Image courtesy of the Biotechnology Learning Hub)

The champion Merino rams of New Zealand. (Image courtesy of the Biotechnology Learning Hub)

HOMESPUN GOES HAUTE-COUTURE

The perceived shady dealings of big business and a desire to get back to a simpler, more transparent manufacturing process has gotten some wool supporters involved in the production of their sweaters from step one. With the resurgence of knitting in the last ten years or so, some true devotees bypass purchasing yarn from the local hobby store and go straight to the source, buying untreated fleece right off the back of a freshly sheared sheep. Once these die-hard knitters get their fresh fleece home, they scour the wool in their washing machines and card with a hand-carder, which looks very much like a rectangular ping pong paddle with tiny metal teeth. Manual spinning wheels can be purchased for the home, with pigment dying done in a Crock-Pot.

Homespun sweaters are hardly the exclusive purview of those drifting off the grid. High fashion has ventured into chunky knits and thick fisherman’s cables, which have been around since before the grid was invented. According to common lore, sweaters were originally knit by despondent sweethearts of fishermen sent off on long sea voyages. The sweaters were knit with patterns and cables that identified the fisherman’s clan if his body ever washed ashore.

Archival image of a man in wool during a Danish Polar Expedition

Man outfitted in wool for a Danish Polar expedition. Courtesy of Cowbell Music.

Wool was chosen in these cold, wet regions for its warmth, breathability and water-repellency. Unlike fur or hair, wool fibers have a microscopic outer layer that prevents water from penetrating. At the same time, the fiber has the capacity to wick away sweat from the body, keeping the wearer warm and dry.

Today, the naturally-occurring technology of this material is still prized. Amongst the ecologically conscious, wool is a sustainable as well as a biodegradable product. In the current apparel industry, wool easily blends with other natural or synthetic fibers and it is used in everything from Olympic sportswear to high-fashion. Wool has made its way from the rudimentary fleece tunic of prehistoric man, to the utility of fishermen, to the refined Chanel boucle jacket. Wool is a material that has been used worldwide and across thousands of centuries. For this, we must say thank-ewe.

FURTHER READING - The Growth and Vicissitudes of the Wool Industry, from “The History of Wool and Woolcombing” by James Burnley, Google BooksOrganic Wool, from “Sustainable Fashion and Textiles: Design Journeys” by Kate Fletcher, Google Books

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Horn Measuring Cup

Horn measuring cup, detail.

A half-teaspoon marker.

In the eighteenth century, back when this horn cup was made, coughs and sneezes could eventually kill you, and there were few remedies out there besides prayers. The measured notches on this horn cup offered a little certainty in what was surely a not-so-certain cure.

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