Mary Vaux Walcott


Mary Morris Vaux with her ice axe at the foot of the Illecillewaet Glacier,
British Columbia, 1899

Although her name is not widely known, Mary Vaux Walcott (1860—1940) was a true trailblazer during the Victorian era, and left a remarkable legacy encompassing the diverse fields of art, photography, glaciology, botany, and mountaineering.

Mary Morris Vaux was born July 31, 1860, into an old and prominent Philadelphia Quaker family. She received a “guarded” education at the Friends Select School in Philadelphia, where the curriculum included Catechism, daily Scripture readings, and weekly Meetings for Divine Worship, in addition to academic subjects. Following the death of her mother soon after graduating, Mary assumed the family’s domestic responsibilities, caring for her father and two younger brothers and managing the family homes in Philadelphia and nearby Bryn Mawr, where she also oversaw the family dairy farm.

Mary first visited western Canada at age 27 with her father and her brothers. The year was 1887, the second summer the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) offered transcontinental railway service, and the first year it offered lodging at Glacier House near Rogers Pass, British Columbia. The completion of the CPR had opened the alpine region of western Canada, and ushered in the development of tourism and the sport of mountaineering. Captivated by the breathtaking majesty and unspoiled grandeur of the region, Mary returned with various family members nearly every summer for four decades beginning in 1895.


             Mary and her brothers undertook the study of glaciers in Alberta and British Columbia, surveying, mapping, photographing, and measuring glacial movement. These studies remain vital to scientists today in understanding climate changes and land-shaping processes. Mary’s contributions were rewarded with election to the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia in 1892; she was among the first women to receive this recognition.

Mary had learned the platinum photo printing process from the noted Philadelphia photographer, William H. Rau. She handled the technical aspects of the glacier photography, printed the photographs, and took many landscape photographs used by the CPR for promoting rail travel. Mary was a member of the Photographic Society of Philadelphia, and an associate member of the Photo-Secession, founded by Alfred Stieglitz in 1902. She showed her photographs in exhibitions sponsored by both groups, published them in numerous publications including National Geographic Magazine, and gave frequent magic lantern lectures with her own hand colored slides about her travels and research. More than 2,500 of the Vaux family’s original glass and film negatives and lantern slides are now in the collection of the Peter and Catharine Whyte Museum in Banff, Alberta.


             Mary became an avid outdoorswoman, hiking, camping, and exploring the Canadian wilderness on horseback. On July 21, 1900, ten days before her 40th birthday, she became the first woman to climb Mount Stephen—and the first woman to ascend a peak over 10,000 feet in Canada. In 1908 a peak was named for her: Mount Mary Vaux rises prominently to 10,881 feet over the Maligne Lake valley in Alberta’s Jasper National Park. She was a charter member of both the Alpine Club of Canada and the Trail Riders of the Canadian Rockies. Mary estimated that she had ridden some 5,000 miles on horseback through the Canadian wilds in her lifetime, and she celebrated her 77th birthday with a 20-mile ride in the mountains.


Mary photographing wildflowers in western Canada

In 1907, Mary Vaux met Charles Doolittle Walcott (1850 —1927), noted paleontologist and Secretary of the Smithsonian, during his first visit to Canada. The two were married in June 1914, and Mary became a first-time bride the month before her 54th birthday. Mary and Charles lived in Washington, and spent three to four months each year in Canada for the next 12 years. It’s important to recognize the hazards and harsh conditions during these months-long excursions in the rugged Canadian mountains: it was a true wilderness where sudden snowstorms, cold, drenching rains, grizzly bear encounters, and pack horses carrying supplies and specimens falling to their deaths were not uncommon.

Mary had taken watercolor lessons in her youth and was an accomplished watercolorist. She later recalled, “Wildflowers were a joy and inspiration in the happy days of my childhood when I was taught to observe and sketch them under the direction of a skilled artist.” Years later in Canada, a “botanical friend” asked her “to portray a rare and perishable alpine flower so as to preserve its beauty, color, and graceful outline as a living thing.” She began to focus her attention on wildflowers. Her goal was to “collect and paint the finest specimens obtainable, and to depict the natural grace and beauty of the plant without conventional design.”

Prickly Pear, watercolor on paper

Prickly Pear, watercolor on paper

Mary carried her paint box and pads on the back of her saddle, and painted wherever specimens were encountered. Often, that meant warming her stiff hands by a fire in high passes and on mountainsides, or painting in the “diffused light of the white tent,” which she found “a great handicap.” The unpredictable weather conditions created challenges, as did the short lives of alpine blooming plants, which limited the number of sketches that could be completed each season. Not only did she find that wild flowers wither quickly, but sudden frosts killed them, and unusually warm, dry weather or cold, wet weather prevented their blooming at all. “For these reasons,” she explained, “desirable specimens of many of the fragile alpine flowers are difficult to secure, and in some instances were seen in perfection but two or three times during the many seasons on the trail. The limited habitat of others made it necessary to take long rides and climb high above the timberline to procure them, and frequently no trails were available.  Our sure-footed mountain ponies were a large factor in our success.”


Maypop (Passiflora Incarnata), watercolor on paper

Over the years, her botanical watercolors grew in number, and in 1925 the Smithsonian published North American Wild Flowers, a five-volume set of 400 color lithographs of her watercolors accompanied by her written descriptions of each plant. This seminal work led to her designation as the “Audubon of botany.” The original 809 watercolors are now housed in the collection of the Smithsonian American Art Museum.


Trumpet Honeysuckle, watercolor on paper

In 1927, both Mary’s husband Charles and her brother, George Jr. died. George had served on the United States Board of Indian Commissioners, a watchdog group charged with investigating and overseeing the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Mary was appointed by President Calvin Coolidge to fill his vacancy on the Board. She was reappointed by President Herbert Hoover and served until 1933, when the Board was disbanded. During her tenure with the Board of Indian Commissioners she traveled across the country nine times by car, made some 100 visits to Indian reservations, and presented her findings in written reports to the Board.  She took the opportunity to collect Indian artifacts on these trips, and donated a number of the pieces to the Smithsonian.

Mary Vaux Walcott made her final visit to western Canada in 1939. She died of a heart attack August 22, 1940, just after her 80th birthday, while visiting friends in St. Andrews, New Brunswick. She is buried in Rock Creek Cemetery in Washington, next to Charles Walcott.

—Lynne Adele


Labor of Love: The Art of Hair Work in the 19th Century

Victorian table worked human hair and gold brooch.

Victorian table worked human hair and gold brooch.

Steve and I have long been intrigued with 19th-century hair work objects. We’re drawn to the fragility, intimacy, and sentimentality of these objects, executed in incredibly painstaking detail from a most delicate and personal material, human hair.

Gold and enamel mourning ring with hair of the deceased under glass, c. 1855.

Gold and enamel mourning ring with hair of the deceased under glass, c. 1855.

Frequently made into jewelry, hair was also used to create decorative art works. In fact, the variety of objects made with hair seems limitless, ranging from a simple lock of hair tucked into a locket, to intricate wreaths made of hair woven into flowers, to miniature paintings on ivory with sepia paint made from finely chopped hair. Hair from deceased loved ones was frequently used in mourning pieces, but more often the hair of the living was worked into sentimental keepsakes given as everlasting tokens of friendship, remembrance, or romantic love.

Mourning brooch of gold and enamel, with simply plaited hair of the deceased encased in glass, c. 1848.

Mourning brooch of gold and enamel, with simply plaited hair of the deceased encased in glass, c. 1848.

Although the use of hair in jewelry dates back many centuries, it reached its apex in form and popularity during the Victorian era, affording Victorians an opportunity to combine their obsession with hair and passion for elaborate ornament with their appreciation of the sentimental and the macabre. Rings, earrings, bracelets, necklaces, brooches, charms, cufflinks, and watch chains made of hair—and often elaborately embellished with gold, enamel, pearls, and precious or semi-precious gems—were all the rage. It didn’t stop there: shadowbox-framed hair wreaths decorated walls, and 3-dimensional bouquets and tableaux made entirely of hair were displayed under glass domes on Victorian parlor tables.

Bouquet of hair worked flowers under glass display dome, New Zealand, 1896.

Bouquet of hair worked flowers under glass display dome, New Zealand, 1896.

At the Paris Exposition of 1855, visitors were said to have flocked to a life-sized portrait of Queen Victoria created entirely of human hair. The trend-setting Victoria was fond of hair work, and presented a bracelet made of her own hair to Empress Eugenie of France, who was reportedly moved to tears by the gesture. Following the death of her beloved husband, Prince Albert, in 1861, Victoria wore a lock of his hair in a brooch pinned over her heart for the rest of her life.

Bracelet of finely woven hair accented with gold beads and clasp, before 1850. Probably one of a pair that would have been worn as matched cuffs.

Bracelet of finely woven hair accented with gold beads and clasp, before 1850. Probably one of a pair that would have been worn as matched cuffs.

Initially created by artisans and marketed in specialized shops and mail order catalogs, hair work soon became a popular parlor pastime for Victorian women. Publications including Godey’s Lady’s Book and Peterson’s Magazine published free patterns and instructions for DIY hair work projects, and schools were established in England and the US to teach young ladies the skill. Hair receivers became essential parts of a woman’s toilette set, to collect hair harvested from combs and brushes for later use. It has been suggested, only half-jokingly, that by the time hair jewelry began to fall out of fashion at the end of the 19th century, virtually every male had received a hair work watch chain from his fiancée, wife, sister, or mother; watch chains are among the most commonly found examples of 19th-century hair work today.

Victorian watch chain of human hair with gold clasped hand detail.

Victorian watch chain of human hair with gold clasped hand detail.

Below, we’ve assembled a small sampling of hair work, with brief descriptions of some of the techniques involved.

Raw material: a young Victorian woman displays her magnificent tresses.

Raw material: a young Victorian woman displays her magnificent tresses.

Palette work: Hair was cut into shapes and glued flat onto a surface such as vellum, ivory, or glass, to create designs that often resemble feathers and flora. Individual hairs could be used to create fine lines, or bits of hair could be sprinkled over the adhesive to add texture.

French palette work mourning hair wreath with hair from the deceased in its original frame, 1887, my gift to Steve on our first Christmas together.

French palette work mourning hair wreath with hair from the deceased in its original frame, 1887, my gift to Steve on our first Christmas together.

One of the more distinctive devices in palette work was the Prince of Wales curl, made by heating a rod used as a miniature curling iron, fixing the curl with glue, and then weighting it for several hours. Three of these feather-like curls arranged together created the Prince of Wales plume.

Brooch memorializing 2 deceased loved ones, gold and enamel with palette worked Prince of Wales curls from each deceased, seed pearls (representing tears) and gold wirework under glass, c. 1870s.

Brooch memorializing 2 deceased loved ones, gold and enamel with palette worked Prince of Wales curls from each deceased, seed pearls (representing tears) and gold wirework under glass, c. 1870s.

Table work: Working on a special table with a hole in the center, hair is woven using bobbins and weights into an intricate lace network, and is often embellished with gold or pearls. Table work was especially labor intensive: the hair was first boiled in soda water for 15 minutes, then sorted into lengths 
and divided into strands of 20 to 30 hairs. Most pieces of jewelry required long 
hair: for example, a bracelet called for hair 20 to 24″ long. Sometimes hair was formed around a wooden mold to create a desired shape, with special shapes made by local wood turners. The mold was attached to the 
center hole in the worktable. The hair was wound on a series of bobbins, and 
weights were attached to the braid work to 
keep the hair straight. When the work was finished and the
 mold still in place, it was boiled for 15 minutes, dried and removed carefully from the 
mold. It was then ready for mounting by a jeweler.

Brooch of white and brown hair, table worked and embellished with gold by the workshop of Antoni Forrer, 1847-1858. Forrer, a Swiss national, ran the leading hair work studio in London, employed a staff of 50, and included Queen Victoria among his clientele.

Brooch of white and brown hair, table worked and embellished with gold by the workshop of Antoni Forrer, 1847-1858. Forrer, a Swiss national, ran the leading hair work studio in London, employed a staff of 50, and included Queen Victoria among his clientele.

Sepia Painting: Hair was chopped finely and added to gum arabic or an adhesive called “musilix,” or ground to a powder with a mortar and pestle and dissolved in distilled water to create a brown pigment that was applied to ivory, glass, or vellum, usually in miniature landscapes or scenes related to death and mourning.

Georgian era mourning ring, sepia paint on ivory under crystal, surrounded by amethysts, depicting a woman standing at a tomb under a weeping willow, weeping into a handkerchief, c. 1784.

Georgian era mourning ring, sepia paint on ivory under crystal, surrounded by amethysts, depicting a woman standing at a tomb under a weeping willow, weeping into a handkerchief, c. 1784.

Hair Flowers, Bouquets, and Wreaths: Hair flowers were made by wrapping the hair around a rod and using a fine wire to hold it together. By varying the size of the rods, the amount and color of hair used, and sometimes incorporating beads, many different shapes and sizes of flowers, leaves, and tendrils could be made and then joined into decorative bouquets or wreaths.

Victorian hair wreath in shadowbox frame.

Victorian hair wreath in shadowbox frame.

Detail, hair flowers.

Detail, hair flowers.

—Lynne Adele

Bessie Harvey, East Tennessee Visionary Artist

Five Sorcerers

Bessie Harvey, Five Sorcerers, 1986. Clay.

I’ve spent about a quarter of a century studying and writing about the work of self-taught artists, especially focusing on the work of African American artists. So I was pleasantly surprised to find two examples of the work of Bessie Harvey on a recent visit to the Knoxville Museum of Art. All too frequently, self-taught artists like Harvey are excluded from such exhibitions as “Higher Ground: A Century of the Visual Arts in East Tennessee”; their work tends to be segregated in shows specifically dealing with the self-taught genre. I applaud the KMA for including this important self-taught artist among her academically trained peers in celebrating the region’s rich artistic tradition.

Bessie Harvey (1929—1994) is considered among the top tier of 20th century American self-taught artists; her work has been shown in virtually every major exhibition of “folk” art in the past 25 or so years, is included in numerous museum collections, and in 1995 was selected for the prestigious Whitney Biennial. Harvey, born in Dallas, Georgia, moved to Knoxville, Tennessee in the late 1940s, and then to nearby Alcoa, known chiefly for its aluminum smelting plant, where she created her entire artistic output.

bessie harvey

Bessie Harvey

There was little in Harvey’s early life to indicate any likelihood of future success. Born into abject poverty, she was the 7th of 13 children, her father died when she was a child, and her mother was an alcoholic. She later recalled, “There was nothing. In the morning, you’d just get up, go looking for whatever you could find, and if you had one meal that day, then you’d made progress.” Harvey’s formal education ended in the fourth grade, and she worked as a domestic in private homes for many years. She first married at the age of 14, and endured years of domestic violence. By the time she was 35, she was the mother of 11 children, struggling to survive with little but her religious faith to see her through.

Harvey was deeply spiritual and loved nature. Based on visions that she believed were inspired by God, she began creating sculptures in 1972. She first displayed her art at the Blount County Memorial Hospital, where she was a member of the housekeeping staff, in 1977. Although she also worked in clay, Harvey is best known for her mixed media sculptures in which she combined embellished found natural forms with manmade objects.

poison of the lying tongues

Bessie Harvey, The Poison of the Lying Tongues, 1987. Found wood, cowrie shells, paint.

Harvey’s work belongs to a widespread African American visionary tradition that has been described as a unique “collaboration between the artist, God, and nature.” The ability to see anthropomorphic forms in roots, limbs, and driftwood—materials held sacred by African artists for their great spiritual powers—is not uncommon among African American visionary artists, and points to the survival of cultural Africanisms on this side of the Atlantic. Harvey is one of many African American artists who echo the belief that their role is to give physical form to spiritual presences already inherent within the materials. The artist’s role is to “bring out” these presences, usually by adding elements that might include shells, hair, cloth, paint, and other found or improvised items. The resulting forms are raw, powerful, and charged with energy.
Faces of Africa

Bessie Harvey, Faces of Africa II, 1994. Painted wood, wood putty, glitter and found objects.

Celebrated by her community and lauded by her state as one of its leading artists, Harvey received the Governor’s Award, Tennessee’s highest artistic honor, in the year of her death, 1994; the street in Alcoa where she lived has been renamed Bessie Harvey Avenue. Like many of her fellow self-taught artists, Bessie Harvey’s compelling story is one of perseverance and personal triumph against all odds, in which an artistic individual is inspired to create objects of great beauty and power amidst the most formidable circumstances.

—Lynne Adele

Anna Catherine Wiley, American Impressionist

Untitled, c. 1913, oil on canvas

One of the many pleasures of moving to an entirely new part of the country is learning about the history and culture of the region. This past weekend we visited the Knoxville Museum of Art. Among the highlights in the Museum’s ongoing exhibit, “Higher Ground: A Century of the Visual Arts in East Tennessee,” are several Impressionist paintings by the greatly undersung artist, Anna Catherine Wiley.

Self-portrait, c. 1910s

Wiley (1879—1958), was born into a wealthy and intellectual family at Coal Creek (now Lake City), Tennessee, where her father owned and operated two coal mines. She grew up in Knoxville, studied at the University of Tennessee from 1895—1897, attended the Art Students League in New York from 1903—1905, and spent six months studying with William Merritt Chase before returning to Knoxville in 1905, where she taught art at the University of Tennessee from 1905—1918. She continued her art instruction under the Knoxville painter, Lloyd Branson, became an influential member of the local art community, and organized a successful exhibition for the Appalachian Exposition of 1910. She spent several summers painting in Massachusetts and Newport, Rhode Island.
Pencil study of a collie, c. 1895—97

Pencil study of a collie, c. 1895—97

Wiley is best known for her masterful brushwork and exuberant play of natural light in her Impressionist paintings. Typical subject matter included women and children of the upper class in quiet scenes, often painted out of doors where Wiley took maximum advantage of natural, dappled light. She won numerous regional awards, and her work was shown at the National Academy of Design and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, but she did not achieve the level of national acclaim she desired during her lifetime. Her work, The Lily Pond, is in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, but most of her work remains in regional museums and private collections.

Lady with Parasol, c. 1915, oil on canvas

Wiley never married and was close to both her parents. It has been suggested that she suffered from bipolar disorder. The deaths of her father in 1919, her mentor (and possible lover) Lloyd Branson in 1925, and her mother in 1926, were also factors that probably contributed to a serious emotional decline that culminated in a mental breakdown in 1926. Sadly, her siblings committed her to an institution in Philadelphia, where she spent the remaining 32 years of her life. She had no access to art supplies and never painted again. When she died in 1958, her body was returned to Knoxville. Anna Catherine Wiley is buried in Knoxville’s Old Gray Cemetery, not far from her childhood home and the art museum that now features several examples of her lustrous and appealing work.

—Lynne Adele

Millenium Manor

Millenium Manor

Millenium Manor

Steve and I are extremely fond of vernacular visionary architecture and folk-art environments. We’ve been known to take some fairly extreme detours to visit these fascinating places, and we’ve experienced the delight of stumbling across others unexpectedly in our travels.

The artists who create these site-specific constructions are typically self-taught, eccentric individuals who are driven to follow their personal visions, and labor extensively and steadfastly over long periods of time to create a single great work of monumental scale. Whether created as private sanctuaries for solitary reflection or to make public statements for intended audiences, these works often give expression to powerful underlying philosophical, religious, or political views. Created with improvised construction methods and readily available materials, they are often inherently fragile. They are forced to withstand weather extremes, often face misunderstanding and ridicule from unsympathetic neighbors, and are vulnerable to acts of vandalism. Upkeep can be costly, time consuming, and challenging, and in all too many cases, they are destroyed following the artist’s death.

We were intrigued to learn about a structure in nearby Alcoa, Tennessee, known locally as the Old Stone House or Millennium Manor, so naturally, we decided to check it out.

W A Nicholson

W. A. Nicholson

William Andrew Nicholson, a mason and carpenter from Pickens County, Georgia, constructed the Old Stone House along with his wife, Fair, the mother of his ten children. Nicholson had come to Alcoa in 1937 during a worker’s strike at the aluminum smelting plant, as a “replacement for striking workers”—more commonly referred to as “scab labor.” (By the time the strike was over, 28 people had been wounded and 2 killed in a violent clash between striking workers and the company’s police force, and the National Guard was called in to restore order.) Following the strike Nicholson stayed on at Alcoa, and the following year he purchased a lot overlooking the plant and began building the house. He was 61 years old when he began his great project.

Nicholson’s goal was to build the house to last. Specifically, he wanted it to survive Armageddon and a thousand years beyond. He took a literalist view of the Bible, and was inspired by Revelations 20:6, “Blessed and holy is he that hath part in the first resurrection. Over such the second death has no power, but they shall be priests of God and Christ, and shall reign with Him a thousand years.” Nicholson had somehow calculated that the Apocalypse would take place in 1959; when that year came and went uneventfully, he revised his calculation to 1969. He believed that he would be one of 144,000 righteous people to survive and live for a thousand years.

To that end, Nicholson built the house with materials that would not corrode or decay—no nails or wood were used with the exception of window and door frames. The house is constructed primarily of local granite and Tennessee pink marble quarried at nearby Friendsville, and more than 4,000 bags of cement. There are 14 rooms and a 2-car underground garage, for a total of about 3,000 square feet under a 3-foot thick roof said to weigh more than 400 tons. The walls vary from 19 inches to 25 inches thick, and the floor is more than 4 feet thick. The entire lot is enclosed within a rock wall.

Millenium Manor 2

Working without formal plans, Nicholson used the stone arch technology developed by the ancient Romans some two thousand years ago. Nicholson first created wood forms. Upstairs, to make smoother interior walls, he placed rubber tarps over the wood. After stacking the stone on the forms, he set the center keystone to keep the rocks steady. He poured cement over the stones to fill cracks and hold the rocks in place, and then removed the wood form and tarp.

William and Fair hauled all the rock themselves, some weighing up to 300 pounds each, on their flatbed truck. Fair mixed the cement for the mortar. They toiled together on their project over a period of 9 years, working from 6 to 8 hours per day after William had put in a full shift at the plant.

Millenium Manor Interior

Fair died in 1950, and the grieving William followed her in 1965, four years before the predicted Millennium. The house stood abandoned for a number of years, was briefly used as an Odd Fellows lodge, and was run as a Halloween haunted house by the local Jaycees before falling into disrepair. It became a drinking place for local teenagers, was ravaged by vandalism, used as a trash dump, and encased in a jungle of vines until, facing demolition, it was rescued in 1995 by its current owner, Knoxville fire captain and paramedic, Dean Fontaine. He has been working for 17 years to restore the house. He took time out to give us an impromptu tour of his home yesterday afternoon.

Of course, no architectural oddity would be complete without tales of hauntings, and it is said that you can still see candlelight through the windows and hear Mr. Nicholson working on the house at all hours.

—Lynne Adele

For more information:

A Handful of Locusts

Locust, George Shaw, 1805

Steve and I are extremely fond of 19th-century imagery, and we have a collection of early natural history and literary engravings and lithographs in our home in Austin. After deciding that our recent CD would be titled A Handful of Locusts, referencing a line from our song “Grasshoppers,” we worked with graphic designer Jamie Panzer to develop the concept for the cover design.
The song “Grasshoppers” tells the tale of an eccentric, religiously obsessed man who talks to Jesus through his car antenna and believes that God wants him to eat only locusts and Campbell’s soup. We recorded the track live in the studio, with the legendary Jad Fair (best known for his role as co-founder of the band Half Japanese) providing guest vocals that “quake with the ultimate rumination of wrack and ruin” (Doug Freeman, Austin Chronicle).
We ultimately decided to build the design around a copper plate engraving from a book by the English botanist and zoologist, George Shaw (1751-1813), published in 1805, which we purchased from a dealer in New Zealand.
Jamie then went to work, creating a design incorporating the iconic image. The image was reversed, enabling it to wrap around the cover and be viewed in full when the cover is opened. For the inside cover, Jamie’s individual portraits of the band were presented in Victorian-era mourning jewelry settings and a typical Union case, continuing the 19th-century aesthetic.
The locust engraving itself is a product of the burgeoning interest in scientific exploration during the 19th century. Western adventurer-scientists were traveling the globe to explore new regions, seek real and imagined treasures, and discover and classify mammals, reptiles, insects, plants, fungi, sea life, and minerals. They returned from their expeditions to find attentive audiences fascinated by lectures about their adventures and discoveries, and wealthy patrons eager to purchase exotic specimens for their collections. Lavishly illustrated studies published as books and portfolios found their places in private libraries. Our locust came from one of these works.

A Handful of Locusts disc image

In addition to the literal reference to the song, we were also drawn to the biblical, apocalyptic associations of the locust with plagues and ruination—a thread that runs throughout the album. The disc itself features an image of a swarm of locusts as a visual conclusion to the cover’s ominous warning. Naturally, we were pleased when a British reviewer praised it as “some of the best cover art we’ve seen this year.”
—Lynne Adele

A Handful of Locusts CD cover

Visionary Art in Newgate Prison, 1677

The Lord High Chancellor's Mace

While reading through trial transcripts from late 17th century London I recently came across the story of Thomas Sadler and William Johnson who were executed on Friday, March 16, 1677, at Tyburn, a village in Middlesex long famous for its permanent gallows.

Sadler and Johnson had somehow managed to steal the mace of office belonging to the Lord High Chancellor, as well as two “purses”. The mace is the Chancellor’s symbol of office which accompanies him to any sitting of the House of Lords. The purse is a large bag embroidered with the Royal coat of arms which is also a part of the ceremonial trappings of the Chancellor’s office.

The Purse

Thomas Sadler, it seems, was known to the court as a repeat offender, having already been in Newgate Prison fourteen times. When asked by the court why the sentence of death should not be pronounced upon him Sadler was at first smug and insolent, saying that he already considered himself a dead man and had nothing to add except that the court should proceed and arrange a convenient time for his execution. Once the sentence was passed, however, he quickly changed his tune and went into “a strange kind of Agony with the terrours of his condition, flinging his Hat one way and his Perriwig another, and wringing his hands in a lamentable manner.”

Upon returning to prison Sadler spent his time in his cell “raging like a Wilde beast caught in a Trap, and vainly Shawing the greatness or stubboruness of his Spirit, rather than symptoms of Remorse or Contrition for his Offence.” After being visited by clergy he repented for his crimes, weeping and “confessing what abundance of Robberies and Villanies he had been guilty of, never before discovered.”

Sadler’s co-defendant in the trial was one William Johnson, a harness maker and “a fellow well educated, of good understanding, and great natural parts.” He had lived for a time in Holland and spoke both Dutch and French. Johnson was known to frequent “ill company” but had never been in jail before. He denied being involved in the theft and “fell down at the Bar in a Swoon” when the sentence of death was passed upon him.

Before his trial Johnson, “having an excellent fancie, and a hand no less happy at Limning”, had drawn the scales of justice on his cell wall. In one of the scale’s balances was the stolen mace and in the other was the gallows at Tyburn, the gallows much outweighing the mace. After he was condemned and returned to his cell where he spent “these few remaining moments of his life in Prayers and Tears”, he drew another set of scales, but this time with the gallows on one side and a crucifix on the other, the gallows again outweighing the crucifix. Beneath this drawing he wrote:

My Precious Lord, from all Transgressions free, Was pleas’d, in tender pity unto me, To undergo the Ignominious Tree.

I Suffer justly; but his Sacrifice, I trust, shall make my groveling Spirit rise, And from the Gibbet mount the glorious Skies.

Here we have a man of humble origins, intelligent but likely with little formal education given his previous trade, crying out to the universe through one of the few means available to him: art. How many times has this scene played out throughout history? How many masterpieces of visionary art have been lost to memory, whether scrubbed from the prison wall or tossed onto the midden heap after the death of the artist?

-Stephen Lee Canner

William Hogarth's The Idle 'Prentice Executed at Tyburn (1747)

The Curious Aeros of C.A.A. Dellschau

A A C Dellschau

Steve and I share a longtime interest in the work of self-taught visual artists. Among our favorite artists is Charles August Albert Dellschau (1830-1923). Born in Brandenburg, Prussia, Dellschau emigrated to the U.S. through the Port of Galveston at the age of twenty. He applied for U.S. Citizenship, married a widow with a young daughter, and fathered three children. Dellschau worked most of his life as butcher, and later as a clerk in his son-in-law’s saddle and harness shop in Houston.

After retiring in 1900 at the age of seventy, Dellschau began creating a series of scrapbooks in which he affixed mixed-media drawings of primitive flying machines. He called his drawings press blumen, or “press blooms.” Dellschau first drew grids in pencil on paper over which he drew the flying machines, or “aeros,” in ink and watercolor. To these, he added collage of newspaper clippings of the day, many relating to aeronautics and other scientific discoveries.

Aero 1

Each flying machine was given a name, attributed to a designer, pictured from various angles, and accompanied with notes regarding its history written in German and English as well as strange symbols that comprised a secret code. The final drawings are dated 1921, just two years before Dellschau’s death at the age of ninety-three.

The drawings remained unknown for more than forty years after Dellschau’s death, stored in the attic of the family home. In 1967, twelve of the scrapbooks were placed on the street for trash pickup, where they were rescued, and ended up in a junk store where they sat unnoticed for two more years. Found there in 1969 by a local college student, four of the books were eventually purchased for Houston’s Menil Collection. Four additional books are now shared between the San Antonio Museum of Art and the Witte Museum, and four more eventually came on to the market via a New York gallery. It is estimated that he may have created as many as 2000 drawings.

Until the late 1990s, Dellschau’s drawings spent most of their time in museum storage due to their fragile condition. They remained unknown outside of Texas—except to a small group of folk art scholars, amateur scientists, inventors, and individuals with interests ranging from physics to paranormal and extra-terrestrial phenomena. The drawings were at the center of a mystery involving a secret society and reported UFO sightings in the 19th century.

They became the passion of Pete Navarro, a Houston UFOlogist who deciphered Dellschau’s code, translated the texts from German to English, and uncovered a fascinating tale. He found that Dellschau claimed to be a member of a secret aero club comprised of some sixty individuals who gathered in the 1850s in Sonora, California. The drawings were said to represent airships that had actually been built and flown by the Sonora Aero Club before being dismantled. Navarro found that the books held designs for more than 100 distinct aircraft.

Aero 2

It is difficult to imagine any of Dellschau’s eccentric contraptions having aerodynamic capability. But supposedly, the aeros did not rely on conventional gases such as helium or hydrogen commonly used in dirigibles and balloons of the day. A member of Dellschau’s society had discovered a secret substance made from green crystals distilled from coal, which, when added to water, created a hot gas that had the ability to negate weight. With this antigravity substance, known as the “supe,” the airships were lifted and propelled in flight. The supe recipe was lost forever when its inventor died, and soon the group disbanded.

There are numerous newspaper accounts of mysterious airship sightings throughout the U.S. toward the end of the 19th century. But whether Dellschau’s drawings were designs for actual aircraft, or the fanciful creations of the artist’s imagination, one thing is certain: they represent an artistic achievement of great vision and importance, and serve as valuable documentation of man’s obsession with flight.

—Lynne Adele

The Moenkhaus Gang

When I lived in Bloomington around 1984-85 I lived downtown in a large (now locally famous) apartment building called the Allen Building. Given the extremely cheap rent (bathroom down the hall, $135 a month) the vast majority of my neighbors were musicians, artists or just scenesters. But there were a couple of pensioners that I would occasionally see in the hall. I knew their names and would nod hello to them on the stairs, but nothing much more than that. One of these folks was Carl Moenkhaus, a thin balding man who never said much. I knew that there was a dorm building on the Indiana University campus called Moenkhaus but that was as far as the familiarity went.

Recently on the Indiana MFT site a discussion of Hoagy Carmichael’s early days in Bloomington came up. In the 1920s Carmichael famously hung out in the Book Nook, a soda shop/bookstore directly across the street from the gates to the university. By the time I lived in Bloomington the Book Nook was just a place to stop in and grab a Coke on the go, more a convenience store than a hangout. If memory serves they did still sell a few Cliff Notes and other minor books, though. In Hoagy’s day the Book Nook was evidently the hip place for the jazz kids to get together. One of these kids was William “Monk” Moenkhaus. Monk was great pals with Hoagy and evidently something of a Hoosier Dadaist. One source says that he was actually going to school in Zurich in 1914 (although according to what I’ve found he would’ve been 12 at the time, not sure how long he stayed there) and “apparently exposed to the Dadaist movement then taking shape in Zurich – or at least its intellectual fallout – and brought its principles back with him when he returned to study music in Bloomington.” If Monk stayed in Europe until he was 18, this would’ve been around 1920, then he was definitely old enough to have had meaningful contact with the Dada crowd.

If this is true we’ve found a direct connection between the Book Nook/Carmichael crowd and first wave Dada. In the early 80s when a friend of mine named his dorm room “The Cabaret Voltaire” and made Dada inspired flyers for our band Your Real Dad we had no idea that there could be any sort of connection between Zurich in the teens and the small southern Midwestern town we lived in.

I wasn’t sure exactly how old Carl Moenkhaus was but he seemed pretty frail in the mid-80s and did indeed die while I lived in the building. A bit more research turned up the fact that there was a zoology professor at Indiana named William Moenkhaus. As most professors at IU came from elsewhere, not the local community, and the last name not being a common one, I figured it was a good chance that Carl was closely related to Monk.

Then I came across this entry in the 1930 census. It appears that William “Monk” and Carl were both sons of William, Sr, 12 years apart. And given the fact that census takers in those days went from house to house and the next entry is for Alfred Kinsey (yes, THAT Kinsey) it appears that they were adjacent neighbors.

If only I’d known some of this at the time. What amazing stories could I have learned from Carl? The lesson from this is that history, amazing history, is all around us, all the time, no matter where we are. Don’t hesitate to reach out and gather as much of it as you can, before it’s too late.

–Stephen Lee Canner