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It has been a while since I wrote about flowering trees for the garden.  April and May have passed (and the garden’s most extravagant flower show), but are there trees which flower in June.  Allow me to present the Japanese snowbell (Styrax japonica) a lovely small tree from Southeast Asia and Japan which blooms with a proliferation of one inch long white bells along its graceful branches all throughout June. The tree is small, growing only to 5 meters (15 feet) in height and width.  The tree is known for asymmetry and has the appearance of a large bonsai tree covered in white blossoms.  As the summer gets hotter these blossoms give way to rock-hard seeds which look like pearl pendants.

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I don’t have a Japanese snowbell, but one can always dream…and we have these lovely pictures to look at until the opportunity arises to plant one.

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Apollo and Marsyas Toy Theater (Wayne Ferrebee, mixed media, 2015)

Apollo and Marsyas Toy Theater (Wayne Ferrebee, mixed media, 2015)

OK, I promised everyone a Halloween treat, and here it is.  This past year I spent some time (ahem, well, actually hundreds and hundreds of hours) working on an art toy–a 19th century-style miniature theater for action figures!  It is sized for four inch tall action figures because I grew up with Kenner’s “Star Wars” figures.  I made the toy with a jigsaw, a lathe, and plywood. I painted/drew the images with watercolors, color pencils, markers, and Photoshop!  Since I used Photoshop I can print eveything up and make as many as I like! However I haven’t finished scanning all of the backgrounds in yet and altering them (and I still have a couple more backgrounds I want to make).

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The proscenium arch shows the musical competition between Apollo and Marsyas, an evocative tale which reveals dark truths about art.  I have showed the contest instead of the outcome. On the left a nesting swan is left bereft because a cruel cupid has stolen her mate and shackled him to a chariot (he is flying away at the top). marsyas has heartbroken love and the muses behind him.  Apollo has his dead python and a cold white temple  The farms and cities of humankind can be barely glimpsed in the background behind them. Shears, a wineskin, shackles, and a flaying knife hint at the future.

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On either side of the stage are great mock-Egyptian columns which support the aristocrats and rich folks in the top boxes. The best seat in the house go to the state–which I have represented on one side as a beautiful princess and on the other as an evil inquisitor (although if you look closely you will see they are the same person). The orchestra is filled with musicians and music makers from around the world like a serpent player, the devil with his fiddle, a splendid lyrebird, a ponce with a triangle, a vaudeville ukulele player in pancake makeup, and a toy monkey with some cymbals.  
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The wings of the theater fold out to show all of society.  On the bottom are various groundlings like the shouting lout, the woman with her stupid iphone, my crooked ex business partner (with his vodka bottle), and a hungry walrus watching the fish tray above him. A couple of witches have slipped in without anyone noticing (Terry Pratchett would understand).  The middle level is filled with thieves, lovers, merchants, and clergy people.  The top level is filled with faceless shadow-folk on one side, and noble heroes on the other (notice the lady scientist, the luchador, and the martial arts master). The enraged colossal squid in the lower right was added expressly for this blog (although dedicated readers will notice many familiar elements).

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I have placed some action figures from my collection inside the theater to give you a sense of scale–and of the play operas you could invent with your own action figures and toys!

Clever viewers will note that this is really a fancy frame with footlights.  The real purpose is the interchangable sets–a collection of strange artworks featuring imaginary scenes from throughout history and the imagination.  There is an ancient churchyard in front of a medieval church (notice the undead form and the megaliths on the moor beyond).

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Here is French Colonial Timbuktu.  Effete er…elite officers ride by on a half-track as cobras and scorpions prowl the thronging marketplace.

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Regular readers will remember this seascape of adventure and excitement.  Perhaps it is showing a scene from the spice wars!

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I spent a long time drawing Hell. I was really afraid of hell when I was a child and I tried to capture some of those concepts in these horrible monsters and gruesome punishments.  It is unclear whether it is hell or Diyu (if there is a difference).  I wanted it to be beautiful in its depraved horror.  There are burning cities and red deserts yearning for water…but the aqueducts are broken. There are churches everywhere because I figure hell will be full of the devout.  After all, people who believe in Hell worship evil deities–gods who purposely created flawed spirits just to torture them forever.  But maybe I am just angry about being scared so badly when I was little.  I added pterosaurs because I like them, not because I think they were especially evil.

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My favorite scene is the garden aviary (pictured in the first picture at the top).  It is filled with beautiful flowering trees, spring bulbs, and birds from around the world.  I put the tropical jungle half-set in front of it (see the arborial marsupials), but it sort of blocks the scenic vista.  In fact I had all sorts of trouble photographing this.  I am a better toymaker than photographer.  Also some scenes are not finished (like the future city filled with post-humans and sentient robots, below).  I also left the secret door on the back unphotographed.  I will save it for a later day (but it is really cool and it also unifies the toy greatly). More to follow.  In the mean time get out there and enjoy Halloween (oh, and direct some traffic over here, if you have a moment–I have been working hard making things for you to enjoy!).

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Miniature Donkey Foal

Miniature Donkey Foal

Yesterday I promised to blog about donkeys. This donkey post was meant to be a towering work of research covering many different aspects of these lovable albeit stubborn equines.  I was going to write about their domestication in remote prehistory, their profound utility to human society throughout the long millennia, and their importance in the most ancient art and literature.  I was even going to make references to the wild onager, an exquisite endangered species of donkey which runs faster than thoroughbred racehorses (and is very nearly the world’s fastest land animal).  But then it occurred to me that I could write about all of this in the indefinite future and, for today, write a picture-heavy post about adorable miniature donkeys!

Miniature donkeys snuggle Pot and Cuddle Pie with a toddler (photo by David Caird via the Daily Mail)

Miniature donkeys snuggle Pot and Cuddle Pie with a toddler (photo by David Caird via the Daily Mail)

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The miniature donkey is more properly the Mediterranean miniature donkey.  They were originally bred in Sardinia, Sicily, and southern Italy as dray animals, but a far-sighted American donkey enthusiast imported them to the United States in the 1920s just because he liked them. The largest miniature donkeys stand a majestic 9 hands tall at the withers when fully grown (for non-horse people this translates to  91 centimeters (3 feet) tall at the shoulders), but most are smaller. Miniature donkeys can pull carts, act as shepherds or companion animals, and generally do whatever their ancient forbears did, however, in today’s world the miniature donkey is largely kept as an endearing pet. They are particularly successful as therapy animals—they go and cheer up the elderly, the disabled, or children with terminal illnesses (which presents a touching picture of their gentle temperament).

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MAKING FRIENDS !  HAPPY BIRTHDAY GLADY'S  99YEARS YOUNG

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Miniature donkeys acting as therapy animals (look how fancy they can dress up!)

Miniature donkeys acting as therapy animals (look how fancy they can dress up!)

These little donkeys can be gray, brown, black, sorrel, or spotted (or rarely white).  Most donkeys have pale “points” around their eyes and muzzles and a “cross” of longer fur which runs down from the top of their head to their tail and meets with a stripe of fur running from shoulder to shoulder up across their withers (Christian mythology claims this cross denotes a blessing from Jesus to all donkeys for their loyalty and friendliness–but donkeys’ cross-shape manes long predate the New Testament). Donkeys in general–and miniature donkeys in particular–are noted for their great intelligence.  This intellect also makes them recalcitrant to certain human projects: stubbornness is a noted feature of donkeys (although patient & mild-tempered trainers assert that this famous obduracy largely stems from mishandling).  Miniature donkeys have similar habits and needs to horses, but they have longer lives.  The average life span for these tiny donkeys is 30 – 35 years!  If you are blessed with sufficient acreage and outbuildings, and you feel that you will live long enough to have miniature donkeys as pets, it is important to remember that they are highly social  heard animals and will suffer without constant companionship from other donkeys and horses (although people who keep them as shepherds aver that a flock of goats will also keep them occupied).   These donkeys are so cute!  I just love them (and I couldn’t help but notice a shocking number of the photos of them feature people hugging on them), but I think my housecat would object to having one in Brooklyn…to say nothing of my landlady or Mayor DeBlasio!

Here's one with an alpaca!

Here’s one with an alpaca!

Time lapse photo of the movement of 2012 VP113 (color digitally added)

Time lapse photo of the movement of 2012 VP113 (color digitally added)

Astronomers today announced the discovery of a new dwarf planet at the edge of the solar system. Until the appropriate nomenclatural bodies settle on a snappier name, the tiny body will be known by the unwieldy moniker of 2012 VP113. The little planetoid is estimated to measure about 450 kilometers in diameter (so it is much smaller than other plutoids like Haumea (which is approximately 2,000 km x 1,500 km x 1,000 km). Speaking of Haumea, which has a mysterious pink spot, the new object (which I’ll call VP113, for short) is also suspected to be light pink because radiation causes the frozen gases to decay to that color.

Even when it is closest to the sun, the little planetoid is still 12 billion kilometers (7.4 billion miles) distant from our home star–but at the farthest extent of its orbit 2012 VP113 is a whopping 70 billion kilometers (44 billion miles) from Sol. That’s almost a thousandth of a light year! The irregular orbit takes 44,000 Earth years to complete—which means one year there is a very long time!

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You might be wondering why I am taxing your brain with obscure snowballs, but, astronomers are very interested in VP113 because of what it might reveal about the origins of the solar system. In 1951, the Dutch-born astronomer, Gerard Kuiper, predicted the existence of a vast cloud of icy objects at the remote edge of the solar system. The Kuiper belt has indeed been discovered—it is a belt of dust and icy objects approximately between Neptune and Pluto. In 1950, a Dutch astronomer, Jan Hendrik Oort revived an idea from the 1930s (from Estonian Ernst Öpik) that there was a huge spherical cloud of comets, vapor, and icy planetoids at the edge of the solar system—beyond even the orbits of miniature planets Eris, Sedna, and VP113. [I don’t know why all the scientists who theorized about the solar system’s icy edges were northern Europeans].

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The discovery of VP113 proves the existence of the inner Oort cloud and provides astronomers with a source of information about the objects in the Oort cloud. Additionally the extremely strange orbits of VP113 and Sedna begin to suggest that an alien star disturbed the Oort cloud in the past—or that there may still be an Earth sized planet at the true edge of the solar system.

 

Paolo Porpora (Still Life with a Snake, Frogs and a Tortoise)

Paolo Porpora (Still Life with a Snake, Frogs and a Tortoise)

Paolo Porpora (1617–1673) was a Neapolitan painter during the Late Baroque.  He was apparently influenced by Dutch still life paintings and his works share the precision, control, and aesthetic elements of paintings by Rachel Ruysch or Balthasar van der Ast. Yet Porpora did not paint still life paintings.  His works are miniature nature tableaus which have the dark drama of Baroque art written small in the lives of small animals.  In Still Life with a Snake, Frogs and a Tortoise, the various reptiles and amphibians square off in a little landscape of fungi and flowers.  The small world has the menace and violence of a Webster play as the cold blooded creatures stare beadily at each other attempting to work out who will eat whom.

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