Artist Makes Astonishing Armor for Cats & Mice

As a child, Jeff De Boer, the son of a sheet metal fabricator, was fascinated by the European plate armor collection in Calgary’s Glenbow Museum:

There was something magical or mystical about that empty form, that contained something. So what would it contain? A hero? Do we all contain that in ourselves?

After graduating from high school wearing a partial suit of armor he constructed for the occasion, De Boer completed seven full suits, while majoring in jewelry design at the Alberta College of Art and Design.

A sculpture class assignment provided him with an excuse to make a suit of armor for a cat. The artist had found his niche.

Using steel, silver, brass, bronze, nickel, copper, leather, fiber, wood, and his delicate jewelry making tools, DeBoer became the cats’ armorer, spending anywhere from 50 to 200 hours producing each increasingly intricate suit of feline armor.  A noble pursuit, but one that inadvertently created an “imbalance in the universe”:

The only way to fix it was to do the same for the mouse.

“The suit of armor is a transformation vehicle. It’s something that only the hero would wear,” De Boer notes.

Fans of David Petersen’s Mouse Guard series will need no convincing, though no real mouse has had the misfortune to find its way inside one of his astonishing, custom-made creations.

Not even a taxidermy specimen, he revealed on the Making, Our Way podcast:

It’s not an altogether bad idea. The only reason I don’t do it is that hollow suit of armor like you might see in a museum, your imagination will make it do a million things more than if you stick a mouse in it will ever do. I have put armor on cats. I can tell you, it’s nothing like what you think it’s going to be. It’s not a very good experience for the cat. It does not fulfill any fantasies about a cat wearing a suit of armor.

Though cats were his entry point, De Boer’s sympathies seem aligned with the underdog – er, mice. Equipping humble, hypothetical creatures with exquisitely wrought, historical protective gear is a way of pushing back against being perceived differently than one wishes to be.

Accepting an Honorary MFA from his alma mater earlier this year, he described an armored mouse as a metaphor for his “ongoing cat and mouse relationship with the world of fine art…a mischievous, rebellious being who dares to compete on his own terms in a world ruled by the cool cats.”

Each tiny piece is preceded by painstaking research and many reference drawings, and may incorporate special materials like the Japanese silk haori-himo cord lacing the shoulder plates to the body armor of a Samurai mouse family.

Additional creations have referenced Mongolian, gladiator, crusader, and Saracen styles – this last perfect for a Persian cat.

“I mean, “Why not?” he asks in his TED-x Talk,Village Idiots & Innovation, below.

His latest work combines elements of Maratha and Hussar armor in a veritable puzzle of minuscule pieces.

See more of Jeff De Boer’s cat and mouse armor on his Instagram.

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Ayun Halliday is the Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine and author, most recently, of Creative, Not Famous: The Small Potato Manifesto. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Why Goya Made His Haunting “Black Paintings” at the End of His Life

Though most of us see Francisco Goya’s Saturno devorando a su hijo, or Saturn Devouring His Son, at least every few months, we were never meant to see it all. The same is true of all fourteen of the so-called “Black Paintings,” which Goya executed late in his life on the walls of his villa outside Madrid. They now hang at the Prado where, as one tour guide put it to the Guardian‘s Stephen Phelan, “some people can hardly even look at them.” When visitors enter the room that contains these often grim and bizarre visions, “they are always surprised. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a visitor whose expression hasn’t changed.”

What could have moved Goya to create such paintings? In the new Great Art Explained video essay above, gallerist and Youtuber James Payne lays out the relevant factors in Goya’s life and the turbulent society in which he lived. His Enlightenment views and penchant for brazen satire drew suspicion, as did his willingness to paint for French and pro-French clients during that country’s occupation of Spain.

At the age of 72 he ended up putting himself into a kind of countryside exile, taking up residence in an estate called the Quinta del Sordo (the “Villa of the Deaf,” and suitably enough, since Goya himself happened to have lost his hearing by that point).

It was in the Quinta del Sordo, and indeed on it, that Goya (or, according to certain theories, Goya’s son) set his artistic worldview free to realize its most grotesque and jaundiced forms. Even apart from Saturn’s act of cannibalistic filicide, Phelan writes, “a humanoid billy goat in a monkish cassock bleats a satanic sermon to a gasping congregation of witches. A desperately expressive little dog appears to plead for rescue, submerged up to its neck in a mud-colored mire beneath a gloomy, void-like firmament of negative space.” Known as El Perro, or The Dog, that last artwork is one of the most beloved in Spain — and, in its ascetic way, the most haunting Black Painting of all.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Cats in Medieval Manuscripts & Paintings

Renaissance artist Albrecht Dürer  (1471-1528) never saw a rhino himself, but by relying on eyewitness descriptions of the one King Manuel I of Portugal intended as a gift to the Pope, he managed to render a fairly realistic one, all things considered.

Medieval artists’ renderings of cats so often fell short of the mark, Youtuber Art Deco wonders if any of them had seen a cat before.

Point taken, but cats were well integrated into medieval society.

Royal 12 C xix f. 36v/37r (13th century)

Cats provided medieval citizens with the same pest control services they’d been performing since the ancient Egyptians first domesticated them.

Ancient Egyptians conveyed their gratitude and respect by regarding cats as symbols of divinity, protection, and strength.

Certain Egyptian goddesses, like Bastet, were imbued with unmistakably feline characteristics.

The Vintage News reports that harming a cat in those days was punishable by death, exporting them was illegal, and, much like today, the death of a cat was an occasion for public sorrow:

When a cat died, it was buried with honors, mummified and mourned by the humans. The body of the cat would be wrapped in the finest materials and then embalmed in order to preserve the body for a longer time. Ancient Egyptians went so far that they shaved their eyebrows as a sign of their deep sorrow for the deceased pet.

Aberdeen University Library, MS 24  f. 23v (England, c 1200)

The medieval church took a much darker view of our feline friends.

Their close ties to paganism and early religions were enough for cats to be judged guilty of witchcraft, sinful sexuality, and fraternizing with Satan.

In the late 12th-century, writer Walter Map, a soon-to-be archdeacon of Oxford, declared that the devil appeared before his devotees in feline form:

… hanging by a rope, a black cat of great size. As soon as they see this cat, the lights are turned out. They do not sing or recite hymns in a distinct way, but they mutter them with their teeth closed and they feel in the dark towards where they saw their lord], and when they find it, they kiss it, the more humbly depending on their folly, some on the paws, some under the tail, some on the genitals. And as if they have, in this way, received a license for passion, each one takes the nearest man or woman and they join themselves with the other for as long as they choose to draw out their game.

Pope Innocent VIII issued a papal bull in 1484 condemning the “devil’s favorite animal and idol of all witches” to death, along with their human companions to death.

13th-century Franciscan monk Bartholomaeus Anglicus refrained from demonic tattle, but neither did he paint cats as angels:

He is a full lecherous beast in youth, swift, pliant, and merry, and leapeth and reseth on everything that is to fore him: and is led by a straw, and playeth therewith: and is a right heavy beast in age and full sleepy, and lieth slyly in wait for mice: and is aware where they be more by smell than by sight, and hunteth and reseth on them in privy places: and when he taketh a mouse, he playeth therewith, and eateth him after the play. In time of love is hard fighting for wives, and one scratcheth and rendeth the other grievously with biting and with claws. And he maketh a ruthful noise and ghastful, when one proffereth to fight with another: and unneth is hurt when he is thrown down off an high place. And when he hath a fair skin, he is as it were proud thereof, and goeth fast about: and when his skin is burnt, then he bideth at home; and is oft for his fair skin taken of the skinner, and slain and flayed.

Pigs and rats also had a bad rep, and like cats, were tortured and executed in great numbers by pious humans.

The Worksop Bestiary Morgan Library, MS M.81 f. 47r (England, c 1185)

Not every medieval city was anti-cat. As the Academic Cat Lady Johanna Feenstra writes of the above illustration from The Worksop Bestiary, one of the earliest English bestiaries:

Some would have interpreted the image of a cat pouncing on a rodent as a symbol for the devil going after the human soul. Others might have seen the cat in a completely different light. For instance, as Eucharistic guardians, making sure rodents could not steal and eat the Eucharistic wafers.

Bodleian Library Bodley 764 f. 51r (England, c 1225-50)

St John’s College Library, MS. 61 (England (York), 13th century)

It took cat lover Leonardo DaVinci to turn the situation around, with eleven sketches from life portraying cats in characteristic poses, much as we see them today. We’ll delve more into that in a future post.

Conrad of Megenberg, ‘Das Buch der Natur’, Germany ca. 1434. Strasbourg, Bibliothèque nationale et universitaire, Ms.2.264, fol. 85r

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Ayun Halliday is the Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine and author, most recently, of Creative, Not Famous: The Small Potato Manifesto.  Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Lizzo Plays James Madison’s Priceless, 200-Year-Old Crystal Flute

In the annals of modern popular music, one does not find a surfeit of flautists. Tim Weisberg, in partnership with singer-songwriter Dan Fogelberg, did score a modest his or two in the seventies. More incongruously, Jethro Tull’s Ian Anderson set his band apart with his decision to take up the flute not long before their earliest performances. But today, outside the realm of orchestral music, there is surely no higher-profile flautist than Lizzo. Though best known as a pop singer, she continues to put to use the flute skills she honed at the University of Houston, without which she wouldn’t have been able to handle a precious piece of American history.

Last month, writes the Library of Congress’ April Slayton, one of that institution’s librarians Carla Hayden “saw that the one and only Lizzo was coming to D.C. for a concert.” Given that “the Library has the world’s largest flute collection,” Hayden took the opportunity to point out that fact to the pop star on Twitter. “One of about 1,700 flutes in the collection, she teased, is the crystal flute made for President James Madison by Claude Laurent — a priceless instrument that Dolley Madison rescued from the White House in April 1814 as the British entered Washington, DC during the War of 1812.. Might she want to drop by and play a few bars?”

Indeed she did, with results you can see in the video above: at the Library itself, Lizzo tries out one of the collection’s many flutes; then she plays the crystal flute itself on onstage at Capitol One Arena, having been handed it by the instrument’s own security detail. “It’s like playing out of a wine glass,” she tells her thrilled audience. One wonders if the comparison would ever have occurred to its first owner: “It’s not clear if Madison did much with the flute other than admire it,” Slayton writes, “but it became a family heirloom and an artifact of the era.” Now it has become a uniting symbol of American culture past and present: however forward-looking the Founding Fathers were, we can safely say they never imagine twerking.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

What It’s Like to Work in Frank Lloyd Wright’s Iconic Office Building

Frank Lloyd Wright, who drew so much inspiration from the wide open spaces of middle America, designed just two high-rise buildings. The second, completed late in his long career, was 1956’s Price Tower in Bartlesville, Oklahoma. The first opened six years before that, as an addition to one of his already-famous projects. That was the headquarters of S. C. Johnson & Son, better known as Johnson Wax, in Racine, Wisconsin. Seen at a distance, the Research Tower stands out as the signal feature of the complex, but it’s the earlier Administration Building that offered the world a glimpse of the future of work.

The Administration Building’s construction finished in 1939. Back then, says Vox’s Phil Edwards (himself an established Wright fan) in the video above, “offices were small and cramped, or private. This building had a spacious central room instead, meant to encourage the spread of ideas.” Such a concept may sound familiar — perhaps all too familiar — to anyone who’s ever worked in what we now call an “open-plan office.” But it was daring at the time, and it seems that no architect has ever implemented it quite as strikingly again. What other office makes you “feel like you’re underwater, that you’re in, maybe, a lily pond”?

That description comes from architect and Wright scholar Jonathan Lipman, one of the experts Edwards consults on his own pilgrimage to Johnson Wax Headquarters. He wanted to spend some time working there himself, something easily arranged since S. C. Johnson has by now moved most of its operations into other facilities. But however satisfying it feels to sit in the shade of Wright’s “dendriform columns” sprouting throughout the Great Workroom, the experience proves unsatisfying. “It wasn’t a real thing without any people around,” Edwards says, “without the energy of being in that office.”

Wright spoke of his intentions to create “as inspiring a place to work in as any cathedral ever was to worship in.” Today, amid the silent absence of typists on the ground floor and managers on the mezzanine, the Administration Building must feel holier than ever. The space exudes a magnificent loneliness, and opening a MacBook to log into Slack surely intensifies the loneliness rather than the magnificence. “In 1939, this was the future of work,” Edwards says. “These big corporate campuses, the Googles and Metas and Amazons: they owe a debt to this campus here.” But for the increasingly many living the remote-work life, even those twenty-first-century big-tech headquarters have begun to seem like temples from a passing era.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Behold the Medieval Wound Man: The Poor Soul Who Illustrated the Injuries a Person Might Receive Through War, Accident or Disease

Do you swoon at the sight of blood?

Suffer paper cuts as major trauma?

Cover your eyes when the knife comes out in the horror movie?

If so, and also if not, fall to your knees and give thanks that you’re not the Wound Man, above.

A staple of medieval medical history, he’s a grisly compendium of the injuries and external afflictions that might befall a mortal of the period- insect and animal bites, spilled entrails, abscesses, boils, infections, plague-swollen glands, piercings and cuts, both accidental and deliberately inflicted.

Any one of these troubles should be enough to fell him, yet he remains upright, displaying every last one of them simultaneously, his expression stoic.

He’s hard to look at, but as art historian Jack Hartnell , author of Medieval Bodies: Life, Death and Art in the Middle Ages writes in British Art Studies:

The Wound Man was not a figure designed to inspire fear or to menace. On the contrary, he represented something more hopeful: an imaginative and arresting herald of the powerful knowledge that could be channelled and dispensed through the practice of medieval medicine.

A valuable educational resource for surgeons for some three centuries, he began cropping up in southern Germany in the early 1400s. In an essay for the Public Domain Review, Hartnell notes how these early specimens served “as a human table of contents”, directing interested parties to the specific passages in the various medical texts where information on existing treatments could be found.

The protocol for injuries to the intestines or stomach called for stitching the wound up with a fine thread and sprinkling it with an antihemorrhagic powder made from wine, hematite, nutmeg, white frankincense, gum arabic, bright red sap from the Dracaena cinnabari tree and a restorative quantity of mummy.

The Wound Man evolved along with medical knowledge, weapons of warfare and art world trends.

The woodcut Wound Man in Hans von Gersdorff’s 1517 landmark Fieldbook of Surgery introduces cannonballs to the ghastly mix.

And the engraver Robert White’s Wound Man in British surgeon John Browne’s 1678 Compleat Discourse of Wounds loses the loincloth and grows his hair, morphing into a neoclassical beauty in the Saint Sebastian mold.

Surgical knowledge eventually outpaced the Wound Man’s usefulness, but popular culture is far from ready for him to lay down and die, as evidenced by recent cameos in episodes of Hannibal and the British comedy quiz show, QI.

Delve into the history of the Wound Man in Jack Hartnell’s British Art Studies article “Wording the Wound Man.”

via Public Domain Review

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Ayun Halliday is the Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine and author, most recently, of Creative, Not Famous: The Small Potato Manifesto. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

When Marlon Brando Refused the Oscar for His Role in The Godfather to Support the Rights of Native Americans (1973)

At the 45th Academy Awards, Marlon Brando won the Best Actor award for his performance in The Godfather — but sent a Native American civil rights activist named Sacheen Littlefeather to decline it on his behalf. “The twenty-six-year-old activist took the stage in a fringed buckskin dress and moccasins,” writes the New Yorker‘s Michael Schulman. “When she explained that Brando’s reasons for refusing the award were Hollywood’s mistreatment of Native Americans and the standoff in Wounded Knee, South Dakota, there were loud boos and scattered cheers.”

More seventies things have happened, but surely not many. With time, Schulman writes, “the whole thing cemented into a pop-culture punch line: preening actor, fake Indian” — the “crying Indian” environmental PSA had aired just a few years before — “kitschy Hollywood freak show. But what if it wasn’t that at all?”

Almost half a century later, this notable chapter in Oscars history has come back into the news in the wake of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ official apology to Littlefeather. It’s now more widely understood who Littlefeather is, and what Brando was going for when he made her his emissary that night in 1973.

Brando wasn’t especially hesitant to explain his actions even at the time: less than three months after the event, he laid out all his reasons on The Dick Cavett Show. “I don’t think that people generally realize what the motion picture industry has done to the American Indian,” he tells Cavett. “As a matter of fact, all ethnic groups.” He then runs down the “silly renditions of human behavior” delivered nightly on television, highlighting the phenomenon of “Indian children seeing Indians represented as savage, as ugly, as nasty, vicious, treacherous, drunken.”

Such clichéd portrayals were what Brando meant to address by speaking through Littlefeather. But the public’s immediate reaction, as Cavett puts it, went along the lines of, “There’s Brando jumping on a social-cause bandwagon now, getting in on the Indians.” They’d forgotten that the actor’s connection with Native American causes went back at least to 1964, when he was arrested at a Pacific Northwest “fish-in” by the Puyallup tribe protesting the denial of their treaty rights. And as Littlefeather’s fêting by the Academy shows, that connection has long survived even Brando himself.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

The Most Distant Places Visited by the Romans: Africa, Scandinavia, China, India, Arabia & Other Far-Flung Lands

As we still say today, all roads lead to Rome. Or at least they did at the height of its power, which historians tend to place in the second century. It was in that century that the Greco-Egyptian polymath Ptolemy wrote his book Geography, whose description of all known lands inspired an unprecedentedly detailed world map. As Ptolemy’s map illustrates, “the Romans, for all their rhetoric about universal empire, were aware that the world was much larger than their domains.” So says ancient-history Youtuber Garrett Ryan in “The Most Distant Places Visited by the Romans,” a video essay from his channel Told in Stone.

Ryan explains what history has recorded of “the vast range and reach of Roman merchants and adventurers,” who made it to Africa, Scandinavia, India, and even China. Some may have been motivated by pure wanderlust (the ancient Roman equivalent of Eurail-hopping college graduates, perhaps) but surely most of them would have set out on such long, arduous, and even dangerous journeys with glory and wealth in mind.

It was the promise of spices, frankincense, and myrrh, for instance, that drew Roman traders to Arabia Felix (or modern-day Yemen), despite the region’s reputation for being “overrun by flying snakes.”

However impressive ancient Rome’s geographical knowledge, they clearly had yet to get the details straight. But they knew enough to bring back from a variety of far-flung lands not just tall tales but treasures unavailable elsewhere, turning the metropole into a reflection of the world. Few such items would have been as visible in Rome as silk, “an indispensable luxury used in everything from legionary standards to the robes of the emperors.” That material came from China, most often purchased through dealers in Central Asia and India. But some particularly adventurous Romans made it not just to the Middle Kingdom but into the very palace of the Chinese emperor. All those roads to Rome were, after all, two-way streets.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

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