Music Review: Sturgill Simpson's "Cuttin' Grass, vol. 1"
December 2, 2020 8:48 PM | Posted in:

Yeah, two music-related posts in a row. It just sometimes works out that way, but not to worry; we'll return to our usual mindless drivel pretty soon.

If you visit the apparel page on the e-commerce section of Sturgill Simpson's website and scroll down a ways, you'll see a t-shirt with the question "Who The **** Is Sturgill Simpson?" emblazoned across the chest. Of course, there are actual letters in place of the asterisks, but this is a family blog, sort of, so you'll have to use your imagination.

The message on the t-shirt may be crude, but it's actually a pretty insightful question from the perspective of how Simpson's musical focus changes dramatically from album to album.

Album Cover - Cuttin' GrassHis 2016 album, A Sailor's Guide to Earth, earned him a Grammy for Best Country Album (even though cynics would argue the only thing country-sounding on the record is his vocal twang). Sound and Fury is a 2021 Grammy nominee for Best Rock Album. And don't be shocked if Cuttin' Grass, Vol. 1 (The Butcher Shoppe Sessions), released digitally in October but just now available in vinyl or CD, doesn't show up in 2022 as a Grammy nominee for Best Bluegrass Album.

Sturgill Simpson grew up in Kentucky and was exposed to bluegrass music at an early age. However, he professes to having been more interested in rock and pop. 

That changed later in life. In his own words:
Many years later, after returning home to Kentucky from the military and living for some time out on the West coast, I was driving down the road one day and the public radio station played an old Monroe Brothers song and it absolutely floored me. A wave of emotion slammed me in the chest and I had to pull over on the side of the road. I was pretty much drifting at the time--completely lost, I guess you could say--and hearing that music brought everything to the surface.

It sounded like home. Bluegrass music is healing. I truly believe this to be true. It is made from ancient, organic tones and, as with most all forms of music, the vibrations and the pulse can be extremely therapeutic.
So, years later, having explored/experimented with different genres of music -- from metal, to psychedelic, to country -- he decided to try his hand at bluegrass. He surrounded himself with some of the most accomplished musicians in the genre, partnered with his favorite engineer/producer, and in three days recorded Cuttin' Grass.

The special genius of this collection is that each song was previously recorded by Simpson, but not in a bluegrass arrangement. Again, from Sturgill:
I typically go into the studio with most of the album written in my head and end up throwing half the songs away and writing the rest during the process once the album reveals itself for what it wants to be. But with this record, I just went though my back catalogue and listed which songs I thought would work best and surrounded myself with musical wizards, so at most there might have been some second takes...but not many. Once they learned the form, we just went in and hit record. Ferg [engineer David Ferguson] and I told everyone, "What you play off the floor is what it's going to be--we're not punching in solos or overdubbing anything, it's just going to be totally raw and live." Due to modern recording technology and the endless choices it brings, even modern bluegrass recordings have suffered from the soul-sucking pursuit of perfection. Merle Haggard once told me that "perfect is about the most boring thing on Earth." When it comes to music, he was dead on. As a result it was the fastest recording I've ever made.

Adapting the songs was pretty easy; even a few of the tunes that I thought might be a little weird worked very easily. Some of the more esoteric psycho-babble songs, like the song "Just Let Go," we got in the first take. It was just extremely easy, fun, everybody was laughing the whole time. Mostly, I was just humbled and amazed to be in the room with all these musicians. You can't overstate all their talents--truly next-level freak show kind of stuff.
Now, there are a ton of examples of where someone has taken a song from one genre and rearranged it to sound like bluegrass. For example, I have in my iTunes collection a bluegrass version of Wipeout, and another of Run DMC's Walk This Way. They're fun arrangements, and the musicianship is fairly impressive...but they're still gimmicks. The songs on Cuttin' Grass, in contrast, are the real deal, starting with the quality of the lyrics. Sturgill Simpson is a gifted songwriter, and the arrangements complement the lyrics in an easy and natural way.

Still, I find it fascinating how the musicians on this record were able to transform the songs from their original genres. It's almost as if Simpson unconsciously realized that they were bluegrass from the get-go, just biding their time to reveal their true characters.

I've taken the liberty of editing snippets from a couple of songs so you can compare the original arrangements to the new bluegrass versions. Both of the songs are from the previously mentioned Grammy-winning A Sailor's Guide to Earth, the inspiration for which came from the birth of Sturgill's son. Each sample has a short segment from the original arrangement, followed by three seconds of silence, then the same lyrical segment from the new album.

The first sample is taken from a song entitled Breakers Roar. As you'll hear, the original arrangement is a lush, almost melancholy production. The new version is more stripped down, but no less heartfelt. [mp3; length - 1:50]

The second example, All Around You, contrasts a slow, horns-heavy bluesy original with an upbeat mandolin-forward version. [mp3; length - 1:03] 

I confess that I'm not sure I know anyone personally who is a big fan of bluegrass music, and I further admit that I came to the genre only within the last few years myself. But the more overproduced and lyrically shallow songs I hear coming from Nashville, the more I'm drawn to the simplicity and honesty of the kind of music I hear on this record. You should give it a try; you might surprise yourself.
From Elvis In Nashville (hereafter referred to as FEIN to spare my typing fingers), a compilation of songs by you-know-who that became available last Friday, raises two questions.

First, how much Elvis is too much Elvis? Second, assuming your answer to the first question isn't "any Elvis is too much Elvis," which Elvis do you prefer?

Album coverI've spent a considerable amount of time over the last two days listening to FEIN. I call it a compilation instead of an album or a record, because it's a multi-volume collection of 74 items (the iTunes term for tracks is particularly useful in this case because we're not necessarily speaking only of songs) totaling four hours, twenty-five minutes, and fifty-four seconds of listening time. In other words, it's a beast and one could be forgiven for thinking it would be a slog to get through. Hence, my first question.

Some context is essential. In June of 1970, Elvis Presley traveled from his beloved Memphis to RCA's Studio B on Music Row in Nashville, and spent a week with some of the world's best studio musicians (a group you've no doubt heard referred to as the Nashville Cats). That week of work resulted in three albums. The first 40 or so songs on FEIN are the remastered studio recordings of those albums. 

So, why not just buy those albums and save oneself a few hours of listening? Well, primarily because the albums in their final form did not do justice -- in my opinion -- to what took place in the studio. They were overproduced -- again, my opinion -- with the addition of horns and strings, background singers, and other effects that sometimes masked, or at least distorted, the brilliance of the original music. But don't take my word for it; here's what a writer at Rolling Stone Magazine has to say about it:
While those albums had their moments, they also suffered from being overly polished. ... From Elvis in Nashville removes those distractions to focus on Elvis's voice and the chemistry of the band. -- Joseph Hudak
The operative word here is "chemistry," and FEIN makes it crystal clear that Elvis and his studio teammates are absolutely comfortable with each other, and the resulting music is a revelation.

I was not a fan of Elvis's music until later in life. I didn't dislike it; it just wasn't on my musical radar. But as I've aged, my musical horizons have expanded (forgive the tired cliché), and I've come to appreciate his unique talents. FEIN has taken my appreciation to another level. 

So, you may ask, if the first forty tracks are basically the final studio recordings of songs that were released on albums, what about the remaining thirty-four? Excellent question, and easily answered. Those tracks are rehearsals and preliminary takes of the final recordings, along with a couple of brief jam sessions in which the Cats cut loose on their own. 

For example, the final version of Twenty Days and Twenty Nights runs just over 3 1/2 minutes; the preliminary version is comprised of takes 5, 6, & 8 (7 must have been horrible) and runs almost six minutes. So, why would anybody want to listen to recordings of efforts that weren't deemed good enough to land on an album? That's slightly harder to explain. 

For me, it comes down to being curious about how music is songs are constructed or assembled. The additional tracks on FEIN give us a peek inside the sausage factory, so to speak, by capturing the dialog among Elvis, the musicians, and the producer, and when taken in total, reveal much of that chemistry mentioned in the quote above. Granted, this means that about half of FEIN is not something that you'd put on the stereo at a party or even for background music; it requires careful listening (I highly recommend doing that via a good pair of headphones) and a desire to hear more than just the musical notes.

So, let's end by riffing on the first two questions I posed at the top of this post. If your tolerance for Elvis's music is limited to the popular songs on which his fame rests -- and this probably encompasses the majority of people -- FEIN might be too much Elvis. On the plus side, there's such a wide range of styles and genres represented on this compilation, ranging from overwrought ballads to down-the-line country to conventional covers to swinging rock and roll to songs bordering on novelty, that everyone is likely to find something that appeals to them. But if you're in it solely for the music, you might find half of the compilation boring or unnecessary.

The second question -- which Elvis do you prefer? -- comes down to this: did you like the Las Vegas glitzy big-production Elvis-as-entertainer (try not to focus on body image issues), or did you appreciate more his talents as a pure musician? I'm firmly in the latter category, and for anyone else who falls alongside me, I highly recommend FEIN.

Additional Notes:

I haven't touched on the technical aspects of this recording but the remastering supervised by sound engineer Matt Ross-Spang is an impressive bit of artistry on its own. I mentioned earlier that listening on headphones was a good way to catch the background dialog, but it will also underscore the absolute clarity of the music itself.

Don't be misled by the description of the music as not being "overproduced." These are not stripped down, simplistic arrangements. The Nashville Cats as a group produce a complex-yet-clean musical setting for Elvis's vocals; it's a thing of beauty when eight musicians at the top of their individual games come together in a flawless, tight production.

This collection has way too many tracks to review individually, but there are a handful worth spotlighting. Elvis's covers of classic country songs like Bob Wills's Faded Love, Make The World Go Away (popularized by Eddy Arnold), and Willie Nelson's Funny How Time Slips Away are standouts.

Then there's Whole Lot-ta Shakin' Going On, a high-energy (an understatement) arrangement in which Elvis eventually succumbs to scatting that is almost indistinguishable from ecstatic glossolalia. 

Finally, it's worth pointing out that the recordings of the rehearsals and preliminary takes are uncensored, and in at least one case, neither is the final studio version. Got My Mojo Working / Keep Your Hands Off of It appeared on the 1970 album Love Letters from Elvis. That version has been carefully edited, and not just to add horns, strings, and background singers. If you listen closely, you might pick up on the briefest of skips in the lyrics. The version that emerged from the studio as heard on FEIN has those skips filled in, as well as keeps some editorial comment by Elvis after the song ends. Without going into detail, let me just say that the FEIN version was somehow overlooked by Apple's iTunes Store censors, as it would normally earn the "E" flag (for "Explicit"). 
Debbie and I recently returned from a very enjoyable and occasionally adventuresome stay on South Padre Island with our good friends Sam and Trish. Their house is mere yards from Lower Laguna Madre (aka "the Bay") which bounds the island on the west side, and an easy walk from the Gulf of Mexico (aka "the Gulf" [duh]) on the east side of the island. 

If you live anywhere north or west of San Antonio, you probably know that getting to South Padre Island (hereinafter cleverly referred to as "SPI") is a bit of a slog, driving-wise. It's not a hard drive, just a long one. Most of the route south of San Antonio is on two interstates, first I-37 and then I-69, the latter of which deserves the title of the nation's weirdest interstate. Feel free to look it up if you don't believe me. Plus, it's the only interstate highway I've ever driven that has 20 mph school zones in places. I'm sure there are others; I mention that fact only to warn you that speed limits along I-69 vary abruptly and precipitously, and the local constabulary maintains a constant vigilant presence along much of the route, if you get my drift.

Anyway, the drive to SPI is worth making, especially if you have such great hosts, and by "great" I mean -- among more traditional definitions -- the unwillingness to try to talk you out of certain foolhardy endeavors. More about that later.

We hauled our two inflatable paddle boards (Sea Eagle LB11s) plus our inflatable tandem kayak (Sea Eagle 385ft) in the bed of the truck, knowing that we'd be spending a lot of time in the water, weather permitting. Sam and Trish also have the same model of paddle boards.

Our first outing was paddle boarding on the Bay. It's not unusual for the winds to be too strong for stand up paddle boarding (I've written before about my windsurfing fiasco on the Bay), but we were blessed with an absolutely calm, clear, and warm day. We ended up paddling about three miles, round trip, and had a great time.

Photo - Trish, Sam, Debbie paddle boarding on South Laguna Madre
Trish, Sam, and Debbie paddling to the horizon

One of the neat things about the Bay is that it's very shallow, averaging three feet or less except for some narrow boat channels here and there. It would be possible, albeit non-advisable -- it's about seven miles -- to wade from SPI to the Texas mainland near Port Isabel. The shallow depth and calm water meant that we could observe some of the abundant sea life that thrives there, including southern stingrays, crabs, snake eels, and lots of fish of different and unknown (to me) species.

On day two, we drove forty-five miles to go ten miles. Our destination was Boca Chica Beach, where the Rio Grande empties into the Gulf. There's no direct route to get there, so it's 20-something miles from SPI to Brownsville, and then an almost 180-degree turn takes you back along State Highway 4 another 20-something miles, where the road dead-ends into the Gulf. Turn right onto the beach and head a couple of miles across the sand and you'll find yourself watching as river water flows one direction and ocean water flows the other and they form a blue/brown swirl.

Photo - A deserted section of the Boca Chica beach
A line of pelicans head south along the shoreline at Boca Chica

Photo - The delta where the Rio Grande flows into the Gulf of Mexico
Looking toward the mouth of the Rio Grande

Photo - A heron keeps watch over Boca Chica beach
This wizened-looking heron appeared to be keeping watch over the beach at Boca Chica.

Our day trip had a dual purpose. The route brought us to incredible scenes of nature, but it also took us past an impressive manmade achievement. Boca Chica is the location for the SpaceX suborbital launch site, as well as the main production facility for SpaceX's Starship spacecraft and SuperHeavy first-stage booster rockets. In combination, they comprise the system that SpaceX plans to use to carry crew and cargo to the moon, to Mars...and beyond (*cue the Star Trek theme song*).

There's way too much to discuss about SpaceX's presence in South Texas (visit the preceding link to fill in any knowledge gaps), and I don't understand most of what we saw on this day trip, but here are a few photos to give you a sense of what's down there.

Photo - SpaceX production facility at Boca Chica
Part of the SpaceX production facility. If you could peek inside that tower, you might see a spacecraft under construction.

Photo - SpaceX's Starship SN8 on test facility
SpaceX's Starship SN8 at the testing facility. I can't believe they wouldn't let me fly my drone there.

Photo - View of SpaceX's Starship SN8 from Boca Chica beach
SpaceX's Starship SN8 as seen from Boca Chica Beach, perhaps a mile away. I have no idea what the structure on the right is used for (platform for testing the Starhopper, perhaps?). Hey, really need better signage, amigo.
Update (11/21/2020): My slightly better-looking but MUCH older cousin, Marshall, pointed me to this video which has a highly-educated guess about the purpose of the mystery structure shown in the photo above. The entire video is interesting, but the actual reference in question appears after the eleven minute mark.

Photo - Closeup view of SpaceX's Starship SN8
Closer view of SpaceX's Starship SN8. That's dust -- not smoke or steam -- blowing around the base. Interesting to note that Elon Musk has been quoted as saying the inspiration for the rocket's shape comes from Explorers on the Moon, the 1950s Belgian comics series featuring Tintin.

Photo - SpaceX's Starhopper
This is the Starship Hopper or Starhopper, a low altitude vehicle previously used by SpaceX to test the rocket engines -- named Raptors because why not? -- and other components that will be used in the Starship. This one is now out of service, and has been repurposed for something else that's probably classified and well above my pay grade.

Say, speaking of design inspiration...does that Starhopper remind you of anything else? Anything at all?

How about now...

Photo - Comparison of Spacehopper to R2D2
Nothing new under the sun

You'll recall that the Boca Chica launch site is about ten miles from SPI, as the crow flies. Ten miles seems like a long way, but Sam and Trish told us that when SpaceX fires up its test engines, the sound rattles their windows.

The next day, we hauled our kayak to a Gulf-facing beach on the north side of SPI. As I mentioned at the top of the show, foolhardy endeavors were bound to appear on the agenda at some point, and this day was that time. Sam and I had made a pact to see if the non-seagoing kayak could thrive -- or at least survive -- in the semi-pounding surf rolling in from the Gulf of Mexico. 

According to Sea Eagle's website, the 385ft is rated for Class II rapids, which are defined as those with regular waves... maneuvering required...handled by intermediates who can maneuver canoes and read water. Of course, this classification actually only applies to rivers, not to open ocean. And while we certainly were going to confront regular waves, the classification says nothing about how high those waves should be. And, finally, there's that last requirement about the skill level of the kayak's operator(s). We were emphatically lacking in all stated qualifications. In other words...bring it on!

Under the watchful eyes of our wives (Debbie was the videographer), who were remarkably calm, having already consulted our life insurance policies, Sam and I ventured bravely into the raging sea. I could exhaust my vocabulary describing what happened, but how about just watching a short video instead?

Pretty impressive, huh?

What you don't see on the video is that by the time we confronted the second or third wave, the kayak was filled to the gunwales (that's a real nautical term...I think) with water, as the waves were big enough to wash completely over us. It's a testament to the design of the kayak that we never came close to sinking, and we could still maneuver it, albeit not gracefully.

The biggest problem with a kayak full of water is that it's pretty dang heavy, so heavy that we couldn't lift it out of the water when we returned to shore and could hardly even turn it over to empty it.

The other aspect that's missing from the video is the fact that we didn't get nearly as far into the Gulf as we thought or planned. We were so busy trying to stay upright and pointed into the waves that we made very little actual headway. It took us about a tenth of the time to return to shore as it did to get out into the Gulf, and that included the only time we capsized (we turned slightly sideways coming back in and an opportunistic wave took advantage of that mistake).

We were out less than twenty minutes, and arrived back onshore completely exhausted and bedraggled. 

We can't wait to do it again.

Our last full day SPI  included church services at Island Baptist Church (where the pastor is an Aggie and joined me in celebrating a big football win over South Carolina the previous day) and kayaking/paddle boarding in the Bay. It was a good finale to a great getaway.

But we cannot close this chapter without remarking on the weather and the sunsets. It's my observation that every region of Texas claims to have the best sunsets, but in all honesty, our home in the Hill Country is sub-par in that regard simply because of all the trees and, well, hills. But SPI has no such distractions, and the view from our hosts' balcony offers exquisite views almost every evening.

Photo - Sunset on South Padre Island
A typical sunset over Laguna Madre

But the weather there can be a bit...unusual. Don't take my word for it; Weatherbug never lies.*

Photo - Screen capture of Weatherbug app showing humidity to be 1%
Does this look right to you? 

If you've never been to SPI, you should consider adding it to your bucket list. It's a special place, even if the humidity is off the scale.

*Weatherbug always lies.
Apologies for the post title. RhymeZone let me down again.

God gave us ten commandments that are intended to create a pretty good basis for life, but sometimes life calls for something a bit more...specific. Like, say, don't eat yellow snow. Or don't talk about Fight Club. Or, for example, don't squat with your spurs on or bring a flamethrower to a pillow fight. (I might have misunderstood that last one, but it sounds like a good idea anyway.)

I adhere to the aforementioned rules plus countless others, many of which I learned via the consequences of violating them before I knew their importance or relevance. And, recently, I added a new one: don't open an animal trap before you know what's in it.

As you may recall, I keep two armadillo traps in the back yard pretty much year around. Why? Well, I've trapped 82 so far, so the "why" should be obvious.

The traps are basically rectangular wooden boxes with doors that drop down on either end when an animal wanders into them. They have pretty sensitive triggers, so the doors sometimes drop to wind, or because a squirrel got in and then escaped through the small hole in the top where the trigger hangs down. And occasionally a particularly intrepid armadillo will manage to lift one of the doors and escape, and it drops back down afterward. Closed trap doors don't necessarily mean there's an armadillo inside.

Photo - Armadillo trap with closed doors

My normal routine is to check them first thing in the morning because it's not nice to leave an animal in a trap for too long. If the doors are down, my usual means of checking for the presence of an armadillo is to lift one end of the trap and listen for an animal sliding around inside (the armadillos are usually asleep by this time). This has proven to be a failsafe method of knowing what my next steps should be: reset the empty trap, or haul the armadillo far away for a safe release.

However, I recently learned that "failsafe" is no longer an applicable adjective.

Last week, I went into the back yard shortly after sunrise and saw that the doors were closed on one of the traps. I started toward it, intending to tip the box to confirm there was an armadillo inside, and as I got closer, a small, dark-colored head popped out of the hole in the top of the trap, and just as quickly disappeared. 

"Well, great..." I thought to myself, "...a rock squirrel got inside overnight and can't get out."

Alert Gazette readers will no doubt recall that there's a[t least one] family of rock squirrels living on the creek bank behind our house. You'll also remember that those squirrels are much darker than tree squirrels; their coloring ranges from dark brown to almost black. They're also bigger than tree squirrels so it's not impossible that one could get trapped.

However, as I got closer and the head popped out and back in, I realized that it was not a squirrel at all. See if you can guess what I was dealing with*...

Armadillo trap with skunk

Fortunately, I was wearing my x-ray glasses**, and was able to confirm the identity of the occupant of the box...

Armadillo trap with skunk - X-ray style image

That, mis amigos, is a Mephitis mephitis, aka striped skunk, and it had no business occupying an armadillo trap. Especially since I now had the unenviable task of getting it out.

I tip-toed to the trap and carefully peered through the small hole in the top, and if there was any doubt before about the occupant, it was now gone.

Photo - Armadillo trap with skunk inside

Now, notice the wood shavings on top of the trap (as well as on the skunk's back). It seems that the animal didn't take kindly to being incarcerated and decided to chew its way out. Here's a better view of the damage it was able to do.

Photo - Armadillo trap showing evidence of chewing by skunk

The stick hanging down is the trap's trigger and it should be about six inches longer***. From a biological taxonomy perspective, skunks and beavers have nothing in common except membership in the class Mammalia, but they both seem to know their way around a piece of wood.

Fortunately, releasing a skunk from a wooden armadillo trap is considerably less fraught than getting them out of a wire varmint trap [see here and also here]. Since they can't see you, it's easy to sneak up and gently lift the door on one end of the trap (preferably on the end opposite of where you'll be standing; this should be another rule to add to the list).

Photo - Opening the door of the armadillo trap

Once the door was opened, I quickly retreated to a safe spot (I hoped) to observe the skunk's exit. It took a few minutes before the animal decided it was safe to leave. (I apologize for the blurry photo; it's actually a screen capture from a video.)

Photo - skunk emerging from armadillo trap

However, the skunk apparently spotted me and -- similar to the groundhog seeing its shadow -- quickly retreated back into the trap. It apparently had no inkling that I was much less a threat to it than it was to me.

I positioned myself on the wooden deck overlooking the trap and tossed a few pecans and sticks down hoping to startle the skunk enough to make it leave, but not enough to make it you-know-what. 

That strategy had mixed results, in that it did succeed in making the skunk leave the trap, but it also caused it to head directly under the deck. We've got our fingers crossed that that was a very temporary refuge.

Needless to say, I have a new tactic for checking the contents of an armadillo trap, one that doesn't involve upending it. And this is one rule that's not made to be broken.

But there's still an unanswered question: what would prompt a skunk to enter a dark, non-baited box that smells like armadillo? Was it a sense of adventure, or a state of inebriation, or perhaps a dare from one of its skunk frat brothers? It's a mystery.

* Full disclosure: this is actually a mockup of the protruding skunk head, as I wasn't quick enough with my phone to capture an actual photo. Sorry [not sorry] for fooling you.

**I don't really have x-ray glasses, and I'm still mad about that misleading ad in the back of that March, 1966 edition of Mad Magazine.

***Thanks to the skunk, I had to fashion a new trigger for the trap. The replacement will withstand a beaver assault [famous last words, right?].

Steam Fog on Lake LBJ
October 28, 2020 7:50 PM | Posted in: ,

Folks who live in close proximity to Lake LBJ no doubt noticed an eerie phenomenon yesterday. Even though it was not a foggy day, the lake was covered with a thick blanket of what looked like smoke or mist...and the windy conditions blew that fog across the sky so that at times it did resemble smoke from a wildfire. 

It was a malevolant presence, likely concealing horrible apparitions. Although that could have been my imagination, given that this is the week of Halloween and I may have watched the movie adaptation of Stephen King's novel The Mist a few too many times. 

In reality, what we were witnessing was a meteorological phenomenon known as steam fog (aka steam smoke, water smoke, sea mist, etc.). It's not uncommon in these parts, but it's rarely as thick as it was yesterday. In fact, for most of the day, the surface of the lake was completely obscured.

Steam fog occurs when cold, dry air moves across the surface of warmer water. So when that frigid cold front blew in Monday night and dropped temperatures a couple of scores of degrees, we got to witness the result of textbook conditions for the creation of steam fog.

I spent a half hour or so taking some photos of Lake LBJ in an attempt to capture some of the mysterious-looking fog. Here's a photo of the Wirtz Dam shrouded in fog. The area between the dam in the background and the trees in the foreground is all lake.

Photo - Steam Fog over Lake LBJ (Horseshoe Bay, Texas)

This photo below shows Horseshoe Bay Resort (foreground) and some condominium complexes (mid-ground). The long thin row of trees along the background is Lighthouse Drive, and you might be able to vaguely make out the northern shore of Lake LBJ. Again, the strips of fog are resting on what would normally be seen as water.

Photo - Steam Fog over Lake LBJ (Horseshoe Bay, Texas)

Of course, the steam fog phenomenon isn't always scary or eerie. It can create quite a beautiful scene, such as the early spring occurrence on the creek behind our house, as shown below.

Photo - Steam Fog on the surface of Pecan Creek (Horseshoe Bay, Texas)

I'm not normally a fan of frigid, windy weather, but when it results in amazing phenomena like steam fog on the lake, it's hard not to be impressed.

Caterpillar Complaints and Captures
October 16, 2020 11:24 AM | Posted in: ,

Spoof of Indiana Jones movie still

Alert Gazette readers will recall my lament from last spring regarding an infestation of walnut caterpillars and their fecal flotsam. Well...lucky us. It turns out that these creatures make twice annual appearances -- spring AND fall -- and we're now in the middle of their curtain call.

This is also the time of year that the pecan trees begin to drop their leaves, so we're dealing not only with caterpillar poop falling onto our deck from the trees in our back yard, but also the leaves. My mid-morning ritual now consists of firing up the leaf blower in an attempt to bring a modicum of order to the deck and back porch. Of course, those efforts yield results that last at best a half hour or so, but, like Sisyphus pushing that rock, my fate is simply to keep trying.

Now, all of this is annoying enough, but this is also the time of year when the walnut caterpillars launch themselves from the tree and rain down like multi-legged storm troopers. In the past, we've tried (a) ignoring them, (b) sweeping them, and (c) squishing them. The first approach proved unworkable, the second was futile, and the third was gross. So, this time around I've initiated Option D: harvesting them. 

Equipped with leather gloves and a bucket, I've picked up literally hundreds of caterpillars. I realize that for every one I catch, there are probably a hundred more that go...somewhere. But I figure that for every one I catch, that's one less to deal with next spring when the next generation hatches.

I haven't figured out their life cycle or behavioral patterns. I mean, they drop out of the trees, but then immediately find the nearest wall and start climbing back up again. I don't know; maybe it's like an amusement park ride to them. But it's a somewhat unsettling thing to stand on the back porch to watch -- and hear...they make a faint but obvious plop when they hit -- them fall. They seem to be slightly stunned when they hit the deck, but quickly recover and start crawling around.

Anyway, I'm collecting caterpillars by the bucket, and the creepiness factor increases when you look into said bucket. The following scene brings to mind the phobia of Indiana Jones:

Animated gif of walnut caterpillars crawling around in a bucket
They could be really short snakes.

As with most things, this too shall pass. At least walnut caterpillars don't transmit COVID-19.

Do they?

A Story
October 12, 2020 2:46 PM | Posted in: ,

I wrote the following story more than a decade ago. I posted it to the Gazette at that time, but for reasons now lost to me, I didn't include it a few years later when I rebooted the blog following an extended hiatus.

My inspiration came from the life of a real person, someone who -- as it is often said -- was famous for being famous. You would recognize the name, but it's not really important, because it could be about any one of least where the important facts are concerned. Anyway, while contemplating the hot mess she had made of her life, I began to think about how God might use one very flawed individual to affect the entire human race.

My purpose in republishing this is because today, in 2020 -- a year of grief and strife and uncertainty -- it's exceedingly important to understand that there's more to this world and this life than our physical eyes can perceive. Spiritual forces and battles swirl all around us, and they often envelop us. But there is a God Whose love, grace, and mercy provides us assurance that in the end, He is our Rock...our Advocate...our Salvation.

Once upon a time, there was a little golden-haired girl who slumbered in silken sheets, and God whispered his love to her, and she smiled in her sleep.

As she grew older, God continued to whisper to her, but she forgot how to listen to him. She smiled less and less, even though she lived in the midst of riches that the rest of the world could only guess at.

At some point, she began again to hear a voice in her sleep, but it wasn't God speaking, and it didn't make her smile. This voice didn't tell her she was loved, but that she could be loved, if only she would do...things. Things she knew were unspeakable, but the voice convinced her otherwise.

So she did them, and sure enough, the world said that it loved her. The more outrageously she behaved, the more it applauded her, and the stronger the voice spoke to her in those times no one else would.

Then one day, she did things that even the world would not accept, and her freedom was taken away from her. Everything she held important was taken away.

As she lay on her prison bunk, far from the silken sheets of her youth and drifting in and out of a fitful sleep, the golden-haired girl thought she heard a familiar voice, so soft, so tender. She didn't know how to answer the voice; she didn't know if she even deserved to hear it. But she lay still and silent, and then a wonderful, unimaginable thing happened. She was changed -- not physically, not so you tell just from looking at her, although the smile she'd lost as a little girl returned -- but in her heart and soul and spirit.

Later, when she was released, the world pretended again to care, and the acclamation seemed overwhelming but the young woman was untouched by it all. The world didn't notice.

A television network came to her and offered a vast sum of money if she would tell her story in front of their cameras, much to the outrage of the competing networks who deemed it unethical (besides, they would have paid more). She agreed to do so, and was soon seated in a studio across from a professional-looking woman -- a TV star -- who had a long list of questions designed to satisfy the needs of the millions of people who would be watching when the taped segment was finally aired.

So, tell us what prison was like, began the professional interviewer, who had heard it all before, many times over.

I will tell you, but first, I want to thank your network for paying me so much money to be here. And I want to let you know that I will be donating that money -- plus another five hundred million dollars -- to an organization called Voice of the Martyrs.

The interviewer frowned, and heard frantic conversation from the director and crew over her earpiece. What is Voice of the Martyrs?! Who knows anything about it? Oh, you've got to be kidding me: it's something religious!

The golden-haired woman continued, with an assurance hitherto unseen. Prison was both the worst and the best experience of my life. But what I want you to know is that I learned once more how to listen to God, and I re-learned his love and grace. I let him change me, and as wonderful as that is, what I want more than anything in the world is for you to experience that same change.

The interviewer's eyes had narrowed to slits, her worldly cynicism turning her lips to flint. She'd heard it all, and she wasn't buying it.

The golden-haired woman continued speaking, her voice low and calm and sweet, her face beatific. And another marvelous thing happened. As she listened to the woman's story, the interviewer's features began to soften, following her heart. Her lips loosened and her eyes widened and glistened. And wondrously, inconceivably, she found herself down on her knees, sobbing and crying out to the same God she'd denied her entire life, since the time she, too, decided to stop listening to his voice in her youthful sleep. 

The golden-haired girl knelt in front of the TV star, wrapping her lovely arms around the star's shaking shoulders, and calming her with whispers of God's love and redemption.

The producers and director were aghast, and the network executives wasted no time in calling to express their extreme displeasure. We can't use this; it's completely worthless. We'll be laughingstocks around the world. They instructed the producers to destroy the tape, and they mentally wrote off their investment.

Leaving the studio an hour later, the golden-haired woman emerged from the studio hand-in-hand with the interviewer, both faces tear-streaked but smiling, and were engulfed by waiting paparazzi and hangers-on who were oblivious to what had just occurred on the closed set inside the building.

The pair pressed through the mob, the people reluctantly parting, puzzled at the expressions on the faces of the two women. At the street corner, they hugged, and the TV star continued to the right to her parking space. The golden-haired girl waited for the light to change so that she could cross the street to a waiting limo. She found herself standing next to a bag lady, pushing a shopping cart and heading in the same direction.

The bag lady, seemingly confused by the scene at the nearby studio and mumbling incoherently to herself, stepped off the curb before the light changed, unmindful of the onrushing bus. No one noticed, because they were all focused -- eyes and cameras -- on the golden-haired woman.

And thus they were witnesses to the shattering impact of the bus slamming against her slender body, but not before her sacrificial leap had pushed the bag lady out of harm's way. The mob grew temporarily silent at the sight of golden-haired woman's lifeless body, limp and broken, but some would later speak of an inexplicable smile on the lips.

None of them noticed the bag lady's exit, nor the faint glow emanating from beneath the tattered red watch cap she wore.

As expected, hundreds of photos and videos of the golden-haired woman's unselfish act appeared within hours on the internet and via national and international news broadcasts. However, the release of the taped network interview on YouTube was completely unexpected -- and unexplained. The producers would later swear that it had been destroyed immediately following the phone call from their bosses.

Within a few days, every corner of the earth had seen or heard the golden-haired girl's clear and beautiful testimony of God's salvation, and her cogent explanation of how to follow in her footsteps.

Then, a few days later, seven trumpet calls, blown by unseen lips, were heard 'round the world.

This gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all the nations, and then the end will come. Matthew 24:14 (NASB)

For it is written: "I will destroy the wisdom of the wise; the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate." 1 Corinthians 1:19 (NIV)

Happy Friday, folks! We've got a lot of ground to cover today so try to keep up. (Just kidding. If you're here for the pictures, there's plenty; if you're a former Playboy reader and have just stopped by for the articles, there're a few things for you, as well, but none of it requires your rapt attention.)

First, please join me in congratulating the 80th guest at the Fire Ant Armadillo Lodge:

Photo - armadillo being released from trap
He's a little camera shy.

Armadillo Ochenta -- as he prefers to be called -- won a fabulous prize of an extended vacation in an undisclosed location somewhere between Austin and San Angelo. Enjoy, #80, and feel free not to visit again!

We've recently had a number of interesting visitors besides #80. Yesterday afternoon Debbie glanced toward the back patio and exclaimed "what's that?!" I followed her pointing finger and saw that she wasn't looking outside at all, but rather at the track of our sliding glass door. This little fellow was attempting, and failing, to look inconspicuous.

I grabbed him, carefully trying not to break his tail, and he responded to my gentle grasp with a gaping maw that informed me that he was ready and able to inflict significant mayhem on anyone and anything within snapping distance. He, too, was released on his own recognizance to one of our flowerbeds.

Photo - green anole in my hand
Anole in hand is the same as in a bush, only more comical.

And,'s not a snake. It's a green anole. So cool your jets.

Not all our visitors are as harmless or comical. I watched this one stroll around the grounds until he felt at home.*

Animation of redheaded centipede
I count only twenty-one pairs of legs. So, more arthropodic braggadocio.

This is a Giant Redheaded centipede, aka a Texas Redheaded centipede (not to be confused with the Texas Red Headed Stranger). This one was about six or seven inches long (I tried unsuccessfully to get it to stand still for an exact measurement; it had a bad case of jimmy legs). 

Centipedes are horrifying to look at and, yes, they are slightly venomous. But they do fill an ecological niche by eating other insects and even snakes. That's all well and good as long as they stay outside. Unfortunately, they don't always respect our boundaries.

Let's shift gears to something a little more cuddly. Alert Gazette readers will recall that we are regularly visited by tree frogs. In fact, almost every morning we find two of them hidden beneath the cushions of the chaise loungers on the back deck, and they spend the day there. And every evening, they leave to do whatever nocturnal amphibians do when the sun goes down.

Occasionally, though, we'll find them in different spots -- invariably cool and shady spots -- during the day. Here's one that was resting in the foliage of a potted bell pepper plant on the deck.

Photo - tree frog amongst pepper plant leaves
Move along. I'm not the droid you're looking for.

But enough of the Animalia kingdom; let's talk fungi.

I was roaming around the adjacent vacant lot, wearing snake boots and carrying a weedeater, much to the bafflement of the golfers across the fence, and came upon this scene:

Photo - plants growing on top of fungus growing on a dead tree trunk
A pyramid scheme of life

I realize this isn't all that interesting at first glance...and possibly not at second or third glance. But work with me here. There's a big, dead, partially rotted tree stump lodged in the ground. And on that stump is a tree fungus (bottom center in the photo), somehow finding nourishment in that woody corpse. But -- and here's what I found rather fascinating -- in the center of that fungus there are green leafy plants taking root. I don't know what kind of plants they are, but wouldn't it be cool if they're baby trees? Talk about the circle of life.

Well, I can see you don't share my enthusiasm for symbiotic relationships among flora living and dead. That's fine. But what about a mushroom that looks like a flower? Is that more to your liking?

Of course, anything worth posting is worth Photoshopping, and while this mushroom has an interesting shape, I feel it's a bit lacking in the coloring department. So, I've "helped" it along. Drag that vertical yellow bar to the left to see what I mean.

Photo - mushroom that looks like a flower 'Photo - Photoshopped mushroom that looks like a flower
Drag that yellow line. You know you want to.

Up next: some raccoon photos, and perhaps a beaver video. Stay tuned!

*Sounds familiar, doesn't it? Feel free to hum the song from which this lyrical phrase comes.
It's been a stressful week around here, for reasons that I won't go into. I tell you that simply as an excuse -- as if I really need one -- to not tax my brain by attempting to come up with with any of the witty, pithy, and wise words that I know you all come here to get. *cough*

Nope, I just want to show you some pictures.

So, is there a term for the time that occurs about an hour after sunrise, or about an hour before sunset? Early morning? Late afternoon? That seems too easy. Eh, whatever. Here are two photos taken along Texas State Highway 71 down the road from Horseshoe Bay, at almost the same spot but ten hours apart on Monday, September 28th. The first is the "after sunrise" scene; the second is the "before sunset" picture. God does good work.

Photo - Cloud formations in Central Texas
Photo - Cloud formations in Central Texas

I think we can all agree that praying mantises are cool. Well, except for those of us who think they're terrifying. It's not really their fault that they have those googly eyes that follow you and peer deep into your very soul while they plot your imminent demise. OTOH, maybe they're just curious. Anyway, most of them look like the gal (or guy; I have no idea) shown below, right? Very, very green. It makes for great camouflage on plants; maybe not so much on a downspout.

Photo - Green praying mantis

So, green isn't a great camo color for every setting. It appears that some mantids have figured that out and have adapted. Take this guy (or girl...I have no idea), for example. I noticed it crouching on the pavement in our cul-de-sac while I was using the leaf blower (an activity not unlike sweeping the beach, but that's another less photogenic story).

Photo - Gray praying mantis
Photo - Gray praying mantis
Photo - Gray praying mantis

Now that, my friend, is effective camouflage! Well, except for the glaring shadow, but transparency is not a strong suite of most living creatures. That coloring will work well on tree bark, which I assume is a more normal habitat than the middle of the street.

AFAIK, mantids can change colors only very slightly, so this is a different species than la campamocha verde shown above. Still got those weird googly eyes, though.

While we're on the subject of insects that sport different colors than usual, here's a cicada that was on our driveway. Most of these guys are also on the greenish end of the spectrum.

Photo - Brown cicada

I think this is a pretty great scheme, and evokes the colors of the Black Knights of West Point. Feel free to suggest to someone that they should change their name to the West Point Cicadas (and be sure to let us know how that turns out).

Last but not least, while rolling snake eyes can be a VBT (Very Bad Thing) in a game of craps -- although I know about as much about shooting dice as I do about playing cricket, i.e. less than nothing -- not all snake eyes are eeeeeevvvvviiiiiilllllll. In fact, the eyes on this six-inch-long DeKay's brownsnake are much less creepy than those on the praying mantises above. But, YMMV.

Photo - Closeup of the eye of a DeKay's brownsnake

Thanks for indulging me. I'm not as stressed as I was before. And I never drink while blogging, so lose that thought.
One of the gratifying aspects of blogging is hearing from people who want to know more about something I've written. And nothing has generated more such contacts than the posts I've made about Atlantic Richfield Company's corporate art collection. It's been twenty years since ARCO was swallowed up by BP Amoco (now just BP), and five years since I first blogged about ARCO's extensive collection of artwork, but I regularly get email from people who are seeking additional information about pieces that they believe were once in that collection -- or, even better, offering additional information about that artwork.

If you're just now tuning in, you can find the original articles about the artwork here (May, 2015) and here (October, 2016).

Last week I received an email from someone that fell into that latter category. I have that person's permission to share it.

Hi Eric-

I commented on one of your blog posts, but I thought I should email you as well.

I have some photographs you may be interested in.  After I earned my photography degree in 1983, I worked as a darkroom tech in Schaumburg, Illinois, processing film and producing prints for corporations and pro photographers.

One of our clients was ARCO.  I spent a -lot- of time producing 8x10 prints and duplicate transparencies of pieces in their collection.  I saved every proof of every piece I liked.

I still have them.  

I suspect you may be interested in seeing them!  Mostly sculptures -- I don't recall doing any two dimensional pieces, but it was a long time ago.  I'll dig the boxes out today.

Thank you for the illuminating blog posts!.  I was always curious about ARCO's collection -- and its disposition.  Thanks goes to the synchronicity of the Internet- I only found your blog because I learned that a friend, Arthur Ganson, sold a number of his sculptures to William Louis-Dreyfus (Julia's dad), who was a huge outsider art collector.

At that moment, I realized that I had never Googled the term "ARCO art collection"- well!  Here we are.  

John Lovaas
Woodstock, Illinois

Well, as you might expect, my curiosity was piqued and I was indeed interested in running down this new trail. John and I exchanged a series of emails and a few days ago ten high resolution scans of artwork photography appeared in my inbox. John had done what he promised; it was time for me to get to work.

The first item of business was to nail down the nature of the ARCO location where the artwork resided. I knew nothing about any offices in the Chicago area, and I came up empty trying to find a reference to a Chicago-based operation. So I crowd-sourced the research. 

There's a Facebook group composed of former ARCO employees who worked in the Dallas headquarters of what eventually became ARCO Oil and Gas Company. I posed the question to that group, and one of my former co-workers (supervisor, to be exact) came up with a link to this 1984 notice from UPI. The announcement of the move of Anaconda Industries, which ARCO acquired, to Rolling Meadows, Illinois. This seemed to answer the question...except...

John's work on the photos took place in 1983, before the above-referenced move to Rolling Meadows. Plus -- and this is the biggie -- Rolling Meadows is northwest of Chicago, and John clearly remembers the ARCO client being located on the south side. So much for crowd sourcing.

Fortunately, John came up with his own research in the form of this 1987 Chicago Tribune article documenting the reopening of an ARCO research facility in Harvey, Illinois. That in turn led me to this FOIA request that references the former location of an ARCO Chemical research facility in Harvey. In addition, a couple of other former ARCO employees chimed in with firsthand knowledge regarding the Harvey facility. So, absent any additional information to the contrary, I'm going to assume that the artwork shown below was at one time located at that facility. 

Sure, it's not important in the grand scheme of things, but we're all about accuracy here at the Gazette, even if we have to make it up.

Having established the "where," I then set out to try to clarify the "what"...i.e. the backgrounds of the pieces for which John has provided the images shown below. Because of the nature of his work -- making prints and duplicate transparencies from the original transparencies provided by ARCO -- there was no identifying information. Of course, the artwork speaks for itself, but I suspect many of us find our enjoyment enhanced by knowing something about the piece and its creator.

I turned first to the Tineye reverse image search service. If you're unfamiliar with this fascinating (and free) resource, it allows you to upload an image and then it searches to see where else it might appear online. As of this writing, it's cataloged 42 billion images. I've used it sparingly in the past to see if anyone has "borrowed" photos that I've used in my blog posts.

I used Tineye to search for matches on the ten images provided by John. I wasn't optimistic...and my realism paid off, as there were only two matches. But both of those matches led to resources that helped me learn more about the artwork.

For the remainder, I did sleuthing based on the artist's name, where I could make it out. I also reviewed literally hundreds of images associated with each artist via Google searches. In the end, only three of the ten pieces remain unidentified. My hope is that someone someday might run across this post, recognize one of the mystery pieces, and share some information about it.

Based on my research, it would not be an exaggeration to say that most if not all of these nine pieces are historically significant examples of American folk art and it was a privilege to be able to "handle" them and to learn more about the artists. I hope I've done them justice.

I think that's enough context. Let's get down to the really interesting stuff: the artwork itself. Along with a JPG of each piece, I've provided all the information about the artist and the artwork I could find, along with a blurb highlighting a bit of biographical information about the creator. You can follow the links I provide if you want to know more.

Also, a mild disclaimer about the color accuracy of these images is in order. Most of the images I was given did not have color reference cards, so I didn't have a baseline to know what adjustments might be needed to approximate the look of the original piece. So, I offer my apologies to any art critics (or owners) who are familiar with the artwork. For the rest of you...just assume they're perfect representations!

Photo - 'Wrestling' - Painting by George W White
Photo - 'Wrestling' - Painting by George W White - Closeup of label with artist's description of painting
Photo - 'Wrestling' - Painting by George W White

Title: Wrestling (1968)
Media: Oil on panels with carved relief and collage
Dimensions: 27 3/8" x 29 7/8" x 6 ¼" (mounted on board)
Artist: George W. White, Jr. (1903-1970) [Bio via Texas State Historical Association]
Born: Cedar Creek, Texas
Comments: "Wrestling" (1968) has a hinged panel mounted in the center: when the panel is turned to the left the fight is represented in progress, and when turned to the right the winner is shown standing above his knocked-out opponent. (Via Texas State Historical Association website)

As a native Texan and former resident of the Dallas area, I was fascinated by this artwork. The  artist's comments on the label attached to the piece refer to a very famous wrestler, Fritz von Erich, patriarch of an equally [in]famous wrestling family living in the north Texas area. Mr. White was obviously a big fan not only of von Erich but of professional wrestling in general. This piece is practically a wrestling documentary. Killer Karl KoxGary Hart, and Spoiler #2 were all wrestling contemporaries of von Erich, and Marvin Jones was a well-known referee of the time.

Photo - 'Bull Dog' - Sculpture by Jesse Aaron

Title: Bull Dog (1969)
Media: Mixed media sculpture
Dimensions: Unknown
Artist: Jesse Aaron (1887-1979)
Born: Lake City, Florida
Comments: In 1968, while Aaron and his wife were living in the house he had built on N W Seventh A venue in Gainesville, he discovered that Lee Anna was losing her sight. He realized in desperation that without a steady job, he would have no money for her cataract- removal operations. As he told it to me, one morning he awoke at 3 A.M. with the voice of the Lord still reverberating in his ears, saying "Jesse, Carve Wood!" He immediately arose from his bed, went into his small workshop, and carved the first of his small wooden sculptures. (Via Souls Grown Deep website)

Jesse Aaron was a prolific folk artist and the web is chock full of examples of his work. This particular piece, however, is something of a ghost. I could locate no additional information about it. The Souls Grown Deep website linked above has a lot more information about Aaron.

Photo - Unknown sculptures

Title: Unknown
Media: Mixed media sculptures
Dimensions: Unknown
Artist: Unknown

I could locate no information about these pieces. I even tried doing Tineye searches on the individual figures, to no avail.

Photo - 'This Is It' - Painting by Luster Willis

Title: This Is It (date unknown)
Media: Unknown
Dimensions: Unknown
Artist: Luster Willis (1913-1991)
Born: Terry, Mississippi
CommentsWillis's paintings are made form a variety of paper and materials. He tries to achieve subtle, three-dimensional shifts by painting on different kinds of paper with various thicknesses and collaging them together on the same canvas. Willis refers to this product as a "set-in" because the different materials are set together like puzzle pieces. Willis used primarily watercolors and acrylic paints on paper, pasteboard, cardboard, and plywood. Occasionally, to achieve more depth, he would add shoe polish or gold or silver glitter to the edges of the "set-in" pieces. (Via Wikipedia)

Luster Willis was another prolific folk artist, and created many paintings entitled "This Is It." However, this particular version didn't appear in any of the searches I did.

Photo - Unknown mixed media painting

Title: Unknown
Media: Mixed media
Dimensions: Unknown
Artist: Unknown

I would love to know more about this piece. The red star on the airplanes might indicate that this was a reference to the Cold War.

Photo - Unknown sculpture

Title: Unknown
Media: Mixed media sculpture
Dimensions: Unknown
Artist: Unknown

Once again, I struck out in my efforts to identify this sculpture of a horse race.

Photo - 'Pig on Expressway' - Artwork by Nellie Mae Rowe

Title: Pig on Expressway (1980)
Media: Crayon on paper
Dimensions: 17 3/4" x 23 3/4"
Artist: Nellie Mae Rowe (1900-1982)
Born: Fayette County, Georgia
Comments: Throughout her two-dimensional works, she incorporated common religious imagery, like the cross, or faith-based texts. A member of the African Methodist Church, Rowe was a deeply spiritual and religious Christian. Across some of her canvas she wrote, "Beleave in God and He Will Make A Way Far You" or "God Bless My House." She said, "Drawing is the only thing I think is good for the Lord" and attributed her artistic talent to God. Additionally, some scholars have located her depiction of "haints" or spirits in broader African-American spiritual traditions, which accepted the presence of voodoo spirits. (Via Wikipedia website)

Nellie Mae Rowe is one of the most important American folk artists, working in multiple media. Her art is on display in some of the most prestigioius museums in the country.

Photo - 'G.H. McNEAL THIS IS FISH BOAT BACK IN YEAR 1929 RUN BY StEAM' - Sculpture by Leslie J. Payne

Media: Wood/plastic/fabric/metal
Dimensions: 32 5/8" x 52 1/8" x 12 1/2"
Artist: Leslie J. "Airplane" Payne (1907-1981)
Born: Airport, Virginia
Comments: After living in New Jersey and Baltimore during his early adult life, Payne returned at forty to his native Virginia, where he made a living as a handyman while devoting much of his spare time to building large- and small-scale airplane models from found materials. They were displayed in an elaborate yard show that included model boats, hand-painted commemorative signs, and whirligigs. Payne was deeply interested in machinery of flight, but he also loved ornament.(Via Smithsonian American Art Museum website)

According to this piece's entry on the SAAM website, it was donated to the museum by Herbert Waide Hemphill, Jr., (1929-1998), an artist and collector of American folk art. The sculpture appears to not currently be on display...except here, albeit in two dimensions.

Photo - Painting by Inez Nathaniel-Walker

Title: Unknown
Media: Unknown
Dimensions: Unknown
Artist: Inez Nathaniel-Walker (1911-1990)
Born: Sumter, South Carolina
Comments: Inez Nathaniel went north to Philadelphia during the Great Migration of the 1930s to escape the harsh realities of farm work in the rural South. Convicted of the manslaughter of an abusive male acquaintance, she served time in the Bedford Hills, New York, Correctional Facility from 1971 to 1972, where she began to draw to isolate herself from the "bad girls" in the facility. When she remarried in1975, she took her new husband's name, Walker. Walker's drawings are almost exclusively single or paired portraits of females. In most of her works, the heads are drawn much larger and more expressively than the rest of the figures and dominate thecomposition. Though Walker never felt she was able to capture a likeness, and she relied on her imagination to develop the faces, she created clearly recognizable characters. Some recur frequently. Elements of self-portraiture are also evident in her figures, many of whom wear clothing, especially hats, based on the artist's own.(Via Smithsonian American Art Museum website)

Walker's style is consistently recognizable, and the example shown here is one of scores, if not hundreds of similar variations. Again, however, this specific piece doesn't show up in a Google image search. There is a website devoted to her life and work that goes well beyond the typical Wikipedia summary.


I want to thank the folks who provided valuable input to this article, beginning of course with John Lovaas. John had no real incentive to go to the trouble of contacting me and then working to provide high quality images of the artwork discussed herein, other than a desire to help maintain the historical record, as it were.

I also greatly appreciate the help of my former ARCO colleagues -- most but not all of whom I knew in a former life -- in nailing down the probable location of the artwork. These folks include Joe "Accounting" Watson, Ben Kawakami, Art Hughes, Jim Sluder, and Steve Molina.