Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Dead Mountain Gorilla

Just reposting some of my old art and sketches. The one above is based on that iconic image that has been making the rounds this past year. I was trying to capture the mass and strength of the gorilla, even in death. The original photo can be found here.
Messing about with Blogger's sluggish picture interface has finally convinced me to create another site to host my art. The layout is just too small for my needs. I will still post book reviews here and the occasional article but images will go somewhere else. Any suggestions from out in the internet as to where a good image hosting site is?

Monday, July 7, 2008

Origins Of Sock Monkey Shrouded in Mystery

It doesn't happen often in this modern age. No matter how small the notion, someone is willing to take credit for it. So, the mysterious origins of the sock monkey are all the more compelling due to the absence of facts. The sock monkey didn't just spring up, whole cloth, from the Earth, but there is no record of when the first one was made.
"I never had one as a child." says Barbara Gerry, "The first one I saw was in 1951, when my father gave one to my firstborn." And if anyone would know it would be her. Barbara Gerry is the direct ancestor of John Nelson, the man who invented the seamless sock knitting machine in 1873. After selling the machines for some time the family began making socks as well with that distinctive two color burl. They were working socks, made for farmers and factory workers who stood all day long.
As for the sock monkey, well, some speculate that it evolved from a type of sock doll that resembles a harlequin, examples have been seen but as Dan Bartlett, Curator of Exhibits for Midway Village museum center stresses, there could not be a doll with the distinctive red lips and rear end before 1932.
That's because the red heel was an addition made in that year, on the suggestion of Howard Monk, a local adman. The red heel was a signature of the socks made by Forest City Knitting, the company formed by the Nelson family after they left Nelson knitting.
Although we know the year that the red heel came into being there is no record of the sock monkey's existence before the late forties. Most sock monkeys date from either the fifties or the seventies. Two decades when homespun crafts were very popular. This reporter remembers his own sock monkey from the seventies, It's rhinestone eyes and ambiguous smile played a large part in the play times of my youth.
That's another curious thing about the sock monkey. Unlike many dolls and handicrafts, the sock monkey transcends gender. This weekend at the Midway Village Museum Center, I watched as boys and girls sat at tables and assembled sock monkeys. Young men, who so often scorn a traditionally female pastime like sewing, industriously stitched monkey parts. In previous years at the sock monkey festival I have seen college students show up with their sock monkeys, proudly displaying their handiwork. Another mystery, what is this hold the sock monkey has on our imagination?
"I think it has something to do with their origins, they are homemade, each one is unique." Says Doc Slafkosky, who runs the Kortman Gallery with his partner Jerry Kortman. "My grandmother's friend made mine when I was a child. Winifred Peterson, that was her name."
I should probably mention that the Kortman Gallery offers quite a few sock monkey products. "The sock monkey is in the public domain." Says Doc. "We have a T-Shirt with our own sock monkey on it. It's very popular, but anyone can make a sock monkey item and I think that's part of it's appeal. It's an example of American ingenuity and a Rockford original."
There is that too. As a child in Boise Idaho, thousands of miles from Rockford Illinois, this reporter had a sock monkey. Other thirty-somethings from around the country also remember their sock monkeys fondly. Despite it's local origins, the sock monkey has achieved a ubiquity which supercedes it's humble beginnings.
That was apparent when I walked into the Midway Village Museum Center on March eighth. Families filled the special events hall and sock monkey parts sprawled across tables.
"For the four years we've held the festival, we get about six hundred people each day." Says Jessica McDonald, Special Events Coordinator for Midway Village. "It's our biggest special event."
Jessica collects vintage monkeys, preferably from the fifties. "When I look at a sock monkey I think about the person who made it." I ask her if there's any way to trace the monkeys, if they have a provenance. "There's no provenance on most sock monkeys. I know of one women who collected sock monkeys with a distinctive multi colored pom-pom on their hats. She finally traced them back to one church group in Iowa who used that multicolored yarn but usually there is no way to find the creator of the monkey."
In the four years since the first festival there has been something of a sock monkey renaissance in Rockford Illinois. Large fiberglass sock monkeys decorated by local artists stand at the main thoroughfares. It's hard to say what effect this has had on this blue collar city on the Rock river but it's clear that some Rockfordians have embraced their inner sock monkey. And then there's the curious case of Neslon.
Nelson is a seven foot tall sock monkey, made from one very large, specially commissioned sock. As of today, Nelson is the largest known sock monkey in existence. He is also, putatively, the most well traveled. Nelson has flown standby from Rockford's airport to various places. Nelson's button eyes have reflected the splendor of the Grand Canyon and the stately grandeur of the capitol steps in Washington D.C.. Nelson has even appeared on the Today show in New York City.
But that's just one monkey, Barbara Gerry has been making monkeys and finding homes for them among the political elite. Barack Obama has one of her monkeys but whatever happens in November it won't be the first sock monkey in the White House. Jenna Bush and the president himself have examples of her handicraft. With a monkey in the White House you would think that the sock monkey’s ambitions might be sated, but no, as I spoke with Barbara I was introduced to a Japanese woman who was filming her. She had plans to take the sock monkey across the Pacific to the land of the Rising Sun.
Forest City Knitting eventually merged with Nelson Knitting and as demand for the work sock declined they turned to making athletic socks. Now the sock is produced almost exclusively for the construction of sock monkeys. No one knows who made that first sock monkey but their handiwork lives on, on the shelves and in the closets of all kinds of Americans. Their origins might be a mystery but their appeal is apparent to all.
Midway Village Museum at 6799 Guilford Road, Rockford Illinois, holds the annual Sock Monkey Festival in early March. They can be reached via the internet, at www.midwayvillage.com or by phone (815) 397-9112.
The Kortman Gallery at 107 N. Main, Rockford, Illinois, offers sock monkey products all year round. They can be reached at (815) 968 0123.

Note: this piece was written in the hopes of selling it to a travel magazine. As you might have guessed, I didn't sell the piece. Not only that, but I didn't hear from the editor at all. Oh well, that is what I get for trawling Craigslist for jobs. If you want more info on the sock monkey, you can contact me in the comments.