The Artist Who Came in from the Cold

James A. Houston, Mouse and Cheese, 1975Cheese is not a mouse’s favorite fare—at least from my experience. Sunflower seeds rather than slivers of cheddar are the furry fellow’s food of choice. Yet there are countless stories to the contrary—perhaps because the image of a cheese-eating mouse is simply irresistible.

James Houston, artist and writer, appears to have agreed. In 1975, he created two small decorative sculptures, each of a mouse sitting atop a wedge of cheese. Since 1962 he had been a designer with the famed Steuben Glass Works, a division of Corning Glass in Corning, New York.

Houston was American, Canadian-born and -raised. Excelling in art from an early age he found a mentor in Arthur Lismer of Canada’s storied Group of Seven [landscape painters]. He attended the Ontario College of Art, and at age twenty-six, he took off to Paris, and continued his studies at L’Académie de la Grande Chaumière for almost a year—until his mother, like a fisherman with a taut line, reeled him back to Toronto, writing that whatever he was doing “there” was “making her terribly nervous.”[1] But Toronto wasn’t Paris, and he opted for adventure; he took the Hudson’s Bay Company ship to the Arctic in September 1947, and made first Inukjuak and later Baffin Island his home. Surviving the physical hardship of his initial five-month stay—enduring sub-zero temperatures and slipping through the ice on no fewer than five different occasions—he fell in love with the indigenous people; one later told him, “We sometimes thought we’d have to give you away. We didn’t know what to do with you, you were so clumsy.” He learned the language and absorbed the way of living of the Eskimos (as he preferred to call them, that to him using the word “Inuits” was silly unless you’re speaking their language, something akin I guess to English-speakers calling Germans, die Deutschen). He drew their portraits, their birds and their fish, often gifting them with his sketches. He began collecting their soapstone carvings and sculptures, acquainted them with the printmaking process, and helped them by creating a market for their work; he became the biggest champion of contemporary Eskimo art.[2]

He had been living in the Arctic for almost twelve years when he met Corning Glass’s president, Arthur Houghton, who had arrived on Baffin Island as a member of the very first tourist group to the eastern Canadian Arctic. Instantly captivated by Houston’s drawings, impressed by his artistic skill, Houghton offered him, open-ended, a design job. Three years later, Houston, realizing that it was time for him to come in from the cold, finally accepted the offer, and became Steuben’s leading designer. Houghton said that Houston was “the most prolific and the most successful designer that Steuben ha[d] ever had.”

Houston’s specialty was “Major Ornamentals,” in which he often merged crystal with precious metal in his designs. The majority of his works feature either Eskimos or wildlife of the Arctic region—polar bears, salmon and seals, for example. He said that at times his ideas came in an instant from recognizing a particular animal’s shape in the molten glass on the end of the blowing iron. Perhaps it was in 1975 when he saw in a hot glob of crystal with tiny air bubbles, a piece of Swiss cheese—the perfect partner for a small 18k gold mouse.




[1] Quotes and primary source: see Mary D. Kierstead’s excellent profile of Houston, “The Man,” The New Yorker, August 29, 1988,

[2] Margalit Fox, “James A. Houston,” The New York Times, April 22, 2005.

(Image: Mouse and Cheese, designed by James Houston, 1975; Colorless lead glass, 18k gold,
4 x 3 13/16 x 3 1/4 inches. Made by Steuben Glass, of Corning Glass Works. Collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Reproduced for non-commercial use only.)


“It was here that the romance of my life began”

TRoosevelt MouseSeverely myopic young Theodore Roosevelt professed a passion for all sorts of wildlife. But until the age of fourteen, when his father bought him a pair of glasses, his most keen observations of nature were limited to the wild animals he could see close up, the ones he toted home: a family of young gray squirrels he fed milk via a syringe; a disagreeable woodchuck he tried to tame; and “a gentle, pretty, trustful white-footed mouse which reared her family in an empty flowerpot.”[1]

Explorations in natural history through books came a whole a lot easier for Roosevelt than any of his hands-on efforts out in the field. His heroes were Darwin, Huxley and Audubon. When he was ten years old he set up his own small natural history museum on the second floor of his family’s house in New York City, where he tagged the animals he had learned to stuff from his father. Later he donated twelve taxidermic mice to the American Museum of Natural History before its grand opening in 1877.[2]

But it wasn’t all about dead animals for the boy who would one day become the 26th President of the United States and celebrated for championing the protection of America’s wilderness. In addition to the mouse that lived in the flowerpot, other live mice served as his models for the drawings he carefully made, depicting each white-footed species. And when he went off to Harvard, his apartment off campus was said to be filled with litters of mice—whether he had brought them with him or whether his college residence was already infested, we’ll never know. Roosevelt never seemed to lose his love for “beasts and birds,” as he referred to them (no invertebrates, please!). Once he was nestled in the White House, now with children of his own, among the colorful collection of family pets—a badger, a pig, an iguana and a bear cub all of which roamed freely around the White House’s corridors and grounds—was Nibble the mouse.[3]



[1] Theodore Roosevelt, “My Life as a Naturalist,” American Museum Journal, May 1918.

[2] Quoted by Douglas Brinkley in The Wilderness Warrior: Theodore Roosevelt and the Crusade for America, from David McCullough’s Mornings on Horseback.

[3]American Experience: TR, The Story of Theodore Roosevelt,” PBS.

(Image: Juvenile drawing of a mouse by Theodore Roosevelt, Houghton Library, Harvard University.)

Visions of Sugarplums

Georg Flegel Dessert Still Life, early 1600sFrom the looks of the mouse, he couldn’t be more fortunate sitting among the confectionery; after all, the small creature, like many of us, is known to have a bit of a sweet tooth. We’ve seen what happens “if you give a mouse a cookie.” But here on the tabletop in the early 1600s, instead of chocolate chips, he’s tempted by “ragged” comfits—short ribbons of cinnamon with some twenty coats of a sugar syrup that makes them look like those Styrofoam packing peanuts—and sugarplums, round and oval, often made of dried figs and almonds, flavored with anise and cardamom, in a labor-intensive process to develop their hard candy shells.[1] Before this mouse, however, begins to enjoy himself with an espresso to wash it all down, there’s something that might give him pause if he understood his hapless role in seventeenth-century people’s spiritual outlook.

The painter, Georg Flegel, who is considered to be “the most important representative of early German still lifes,” used sugar in place of honey as the symbol of “spiritual sweetness” and, to my mind, went a bit crazy.[2] His Dessert Still Life painting must be one of the most overarching displays of religious symbolism ever, in which the open walnut, we’re told, according to St. Augustine, is a symbol of Christ, the shell suggesting the “wooden cross” and the nutmeat, Christ’s “divinity.”[3] Flegel then added a wine glass and a bunch of grapes to underscore the Eucharist; a white carnation as an emblem from the Middle Ages for Christ on the cross, the flower’s petals resembling the nails; and coins to remind us of Judas’s “betrayal of Jesus for thirty pieces of silver.” The painter also tossed into a bowl additional nuts and figs, dusted with sugar, to represent a wealth of religious principles. Not quite done, he introduced into the painting its two most arresting subjects: a green parrot and a gray mouse. Their own symbolism Flegel makes clear: Look who’s been assigned to stand guard over the bowl-full of “spiritual values” and look who’s snuck in to gnaw on the “cross.” The mouse has been freighted with sin. Once again.

Nevertheless, the superabundance of theological allusions might just be ‘icing on the cake.’ Dessert Still Life points to Europeans’ passion at the time for sugar—a luxury item which they had recently imported from Brazil—as well as their appreciation for Flegel’s artistry. In today’s context, his depiction of the mouse appears not at all evil but innocent—and surely with visions of sugarplums dancing in his head.



[1] Historic Foods

[2] Norbert Schneider, Still Life, Taschen, 1990, trans. by Hugh Beyer.

[3] For a complete discussion of religious symbolism in Flegel’s paintings, see Schneider, ibid.

(Image: Dessert Still Life, oil on board, early 17th century, 22 x 28 cm)

From a Mouse a Flower

Honebana Lycoris #2, 2009Hone = bone, bana = flower. Honebana, Hideki Tokushige calls his art: single-flower sculptures he makes from the bones of mice. Honebana might, to Western ears, sound like a sendup of ikebana, the Japanese art of flower arranging, if it weren’t for the fact that his work is a meditation on “nature and modern life.” It might appear a bit creepy if it weren’t for its beauty. The works are at once delicate and elaborate; each mouse bone carefully placed to complete the illusion of the stem, the petal and the stamen.

His use of bones emerges, Tokushige writes, from the knowledge that humans have been, since the beginning of time, connected to animal bones—converting them into tools and even houses (thanks to the size of the mastodon), not to mention musical instruments, jewelry and fancy footwear—and that all that we avail ourselves of today, from a sweater to the internet, stems from this “primordial consciousness.”[1]

For the Japanese artist, the mouse is the perfect conduit for conveying these ideas because, like us, it is a mammal and similar in form, that has lived through epochs of human history. And perhaps he chose the mouse too, because it was easy to find. He went to a pet supply company that raises domesticated mice whose sole purpose in life has been ascribed by man, to be raised only to be killed and frozen to feed people’s snakes. The chain of life with a man-made spin.

After he extracts the bones, transforming them into a lycoris, a lotus blossom, or an azalea for example, his work is only partially done. With a 4 x 5 format camera in a room on the first floor of his old two-story home, he painstakingly photographs the honebana to give it permanence. No sooner than he’s done, he turns around, breaks apart the flower and buries the bones to honor nature’s “systematic cycle,” and to honor the mouse.

“Spring comes after winter, flower blossoms and dies, evening follows morning, life returns to soil and [is] reborn—.”



[1] All quotes, according to Hideki Tokushige’s website.

[Image: Lycoris #2, 2009, copyright Hideki Tokushige]

Moonlight and Mouse

The Mouse, the Moon, and the Mosquito Photograph c Alex Badyaev, 2014The Natural History Museum in London has just announced the winners of their Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition. The mammal category goes to Alex Badyaev for his stunning picture of a deer mouse and a mosquito backlit by the moon.

Badyaev is an evolutionary biologist, and like numerous scientists and naturalists who have preceded him, the art and the science go hand in hand. “My career as a scientist and a nature photographer gives me a way to learn and convey the fascinating complexity and diversity of the biological world,” he told BBC Wildlife, after winning an earlier photography award—a list of prizes he’s received that keeps growing.[1] “I have always spent a long time observing animals. That’s when I think, get inspired, learn, come up with my best scientific ideas,” he said.[2]

For centuries wildlife artists with their closely observed, highly detailed illustrations informed us humans of the natural world, much of which was out of reach and out of sight. Before John James Audubon painted portraits of birds as well as quadrupeds, there was Maria Sibylla Merian, at the turn of the 18th century, traipsing through the Dutch colony of Surinam, capturing in brilliant colors insects’ metamorphoses. And before her there was Leonardo da Vinci, filling his notebooks with studies of wild cats and crabs, feathers and wings. The camera’s invention, however, was a boon to the animals; they no longer had to die and be stuffed in order for their likenesses to be rendered.

Badyaev was hiking through Montana’s Blackfoot Valley when he came across a giant puffball—an amazing mushroom that can inflate to more than a foot in diameter—which piqued the curiosity of a coterie of small animals. Running across the mushroom’s surface, the chipmunks and squirrels, like ancient travelers, made hieroglyphs with their tiny toes. The photographer lay on the ground, observing the nocturnal activity, patiently waiting for the right moment.[3] In an email he said that although he was in the midst of another research project, which included photographing mountain lions and beavers, “It was just hard to resist the combination of inquisitive mice, full moon and a giant mushroom that looked like a planet surface when a mouse stood on it.”[4]

One deer mouse hesitated. A mosquito had caught his attention. In an instant, an ephemeral, faraway moment was captured for the world to see.



[1] BBC Wildlife, July 21, 2011, Alex Badyaev’s website.

[2] Interview with Neil Losin, “Meet Biologist/ Photographer Alex Badyaev,” October 2011.

[3] London, England, Natural History Museum, “Wildlife Photographer of the Year 2014.”

[4] Email with photographer.

(Image: copyright Alex Badyaev, 2014, courtesy of the photographer.)

A Virtual Feast

Rachel Lee Hovnanian, In Loco Parentis, 2014In Rachel Lee Hovnanian’s installation In Loco Parentis, a gigantic white mouse stands in front of an open refrigerator, stuffing his face, while a toddler sits in a high chair looking down at her iPad; mounds of Cheerios cover the floor. But there’s a twist to this: the child is a video image on a LCD tablet-like screen and the white mouse is but a video projection.

Asked about the work, which was shown recently in her solo show “Plastic Perfect” in New York, Hovnanian told the interviewer that when she was growing up in Texas, she had two pet white mice. She said, “[The albino mouse] was a very rare animal. But through technology we created all these white mice to do testing on. So for me it represents technology itself. Even if you think you can get away from technology, you can’t. …The lab mouse has total freedom; that’s why it’s eating out of the refrigerator. It’s like the white elephant in the room—it’s so big and we’re not even aware it’s there because we naturally accept it.” [1] And because everyone has forgotten about the mouse, being preoccupied with all their gadgets.

In Loco Parentis along with Hovnanian’s other multi-media installations Dinner for Two: Wedding Cake and New Year’s Feast: Beijing 2014—each of which also features a virtual mouse, munching away on a festive cake set in the center of a table at which sits a digitally-produced couple or a family—effectively evoke a discussion about how our gadgets have changed the way we communicate, how our obsession with them has given rise to a preference for interacting with those farthest away over those who are near, casting a chilly spell over intimacy as well as parenting.

Each of these mice in her works, though hardly alive, is ironically the liveliest element within the domestic tableaux. Thus inasmuch as the tiny fellow may be intended to represent technology—genetically engineered in the case of the lab mouse—to my mind the tiny insatiable rodent could just as easily be regarded as the age-old symbol of a ceaselessly gnawing entropy.

Today Hovnanian keeps two mice in a cage in her studio, “her sometimes-actors,” her collaborators.




[1] Rachel Small, “Rachel Lee Hovnanian Versus the Future,” Interview, September 3, 2014.

Additional sources: Artist’s website; Robin Peckham, “Dining Partners: Beyond Weak Ties,” New Year’s Feast Beijing 2014, Rachel Lee Hovnanian, catalogue.

(In Loco Parentis, 2014, installation with rear projection video, HD video, acrylic, Cheerios, refrigerator, high chair, metal, diamond dust; dimensions variable, reproduced for non-commercial purpose only.)


Southern Comfort

The Surprize, 1871, William Aiken WalkerIn 1871 a mouse ran onto the palette of William Aiken Walker and posed at the edge in front of dabs of lead white, Van Dyke Brown and vermillion. Witnessing the tiny creature’s bustle was the painter himself. Now inspired, Walker picked up his brush and transformed the moment into oil on board, measuring 12 x 16 inches. The Surprize [sic] is complete with the small rodent’s tail colored red from his shortcut through the vermillion.[1] Walker would go on to paint Old Shoe with Mice, in which a handful of critters gnaw holes in the footwear’s leather. And in 1872, Walker showed more mice, this time on a tabletop, joyfully devouring fruit and crackers; he called that painting A Free Lunch. Four years later, hungry mice still seemed to be on Walker’s mind when he painted another group feasting on a generous wedge of cheese, fruit and nuts. Still Life with Cheese, Bottle and Mouse—with the cheese, a common symbol for longevity, now half-eaten—ostensibly sounds like the stuff of a vanitas, an homage perhaps to the seventeenth century Dutch artists as Walker had recently spent time in Europe visiting artists studios, galleries and museums, looking at works “on which he based [several of] his own still-life paintings.”[2] But from all appearances the rodents of this Charleston, South Carolina-born painter were not, as they were in Holland, reminders of the impermanence of earthly life as much as they were reminders of the mouse’s sybaritic nature.

But why, we might ask, would the quintessential artist of the South—allegedly a bit of a dandy who became recognized as one of the most important Southern genre painters with his oft-controversial homey depictions of African-American sharecroppers[3]—take time to portray over and over the tiny rodent?

His preoccupation with mice appears to be a perpetuation of the subject matter that he painted in his teens and his early twenties prior to the Civil War, when he exhibited works of animals, fish and fowl, chickens and cows, and portraits of dogs. The artist’s biographers note that Walker’s visual narratives of mice “reflect his interest in the insignificant as well as his quiet sense of humor.”[4]

On the other hand, inasmuch as he was an artist, he was also a savvy businessman ready to meet his clients’ demands. From Baltimore to Alabama, New Orleans to North Carolina, Tallahassee to Tennessee he roamed the South, painting “postcards” with scenes of everyday life. And so it was almost inevitable he would find a market for his mice. A Free Lunch was turned into a lithograph by the famed printers Currier & Ives, speaking to the image’s immense popularity. In the meantime The Surprize sold to a private collector for $15.00.



[1] August P. Trovaioli, Roulhac Toledana, William Aiken Walker: Southern Genre Painter, 2nd edition, Pelican Press, 2008. (1st edition, University of Louisiana Press, 1972).

[2] Ibid.

[3] Criticism revolves around the absence in Walker’s plantation paintings of any signs of the injustices that the sharecroppers had to endure. The laborers appear as happy as the skies under which they pick cotton. John Michael Vlach, “Perpetuating the Past: Plantation Landscape Paintings Then and Now,” in Landscape of Slavery: The Plantation in American Art, eds. Angela D. Mack, Stephen G. Hoffius, University of South Carolina Press, 2008.

[4] Trovaioli, Toledana, op. cit.

Additional source: Cynthia Seibels, The Sunny South: The Life and Art of William Aiken Walker, Saraland Press, 1995.

(Image: The Surprize, 1871, oil on board, 12 x 16 in., private collection.)

Breaking Muse!

Mouse Muse by Lorna Owen


Today I’m taking a detour from our art-inspiring rodent to share a bit of exciting news: a book based on this blog will soon be published!

Mouse Muse: The Mouse in Art — is due out this November 2014.

The idea began to form several years ago when I caught my first deer mouse in an old farmhouse into which my husband and I had just moved. While I saw mice, with their talent to shoot out from the shadows, simply as critters who made my heart race, the minuscule mammal with huge eyes and ears, sitting in the no-kill trap staring back at me, I admit sparked a re-thinking of the entire species. In that mouse, I instantly thought of Beatrix Potter’s watercolors of mice and I couldn’t help wondering how the mouse has been interpreted in art beyond the pages of children’s illustrated stories.

The white-footed fellow propelled me on this unexpected journey both to learn about the tiny creature and to understand just who were those artists who were compelled to use mice in their work. And in the course of my undertaking I found—and continue to find—that the reasons behind the mouse’s role as muse are as revealing as they are surprising. That the otherwise lowly, misunderstood mouse, nature’s most humble creature, has indeed left an astonishing and gigantic legacy in visual art.



 A few facts:

Title: MOUSE MUSE: The Mouse in Art

Publisher: The Monacelli Press

On-sale: November 18, 2014

Available for pre-order: Amazon; B&N; Powell’s; Chapters Indigo, Canada; Amazon UK; Random House Australia (and many others)









Did you ever see such a sight in your life?

Winslow Homer, 1858, engraving, Eventful History of Three Little Mice“Three blind mice/ see how they run/ they all ran after the farmer’s wife/ who cut off their tails with a carving knife…” A horrifying image dressed in a child’s verse. The English it seems gave the German Brothers Grimm a run for their money. This familiar nursery rhyme was allegedly scribbled in honor of Her Royal Highness, Queen Mary I, who also happens to be called Bloody Mary because she had an unquenchable thirst for the blood of Protestants; she, the “farmer’s wife,” who so generously had three noblemen—the eponymous mice—burned at the stake rather than their eyes poked out.

Taken out of context of 16th century England in which they originated, the unseeing mice today are but a trio of unfortunate tiny rodents, without sight and without tails. And the ambiguity of the lyrics leaves us speculating about the sequence of events—whether the mice were running after or running away from their mutilator when she slashed their tails. The celebrated poet Billy Collins, however, turns our attention to an even more pertinent question: why were the mice blind in the first place? The former Poet Laureate guesses at the answers as empathy sneaks up on him, sneaks into the lines of his “I Chop Some Parsley While Listening to Art Blakey’s Version of ‘Three Blind Mice’”:

…If it was congenital, they could be brothers and sister,
and I think of the poor mother
brooding over her sightless young triplets.

Or was it a common accident, all three caught
in a searing explosion, a firework perhaps?
…the thought of them without eyes

and now without tails to trail through the moist grass


or slip around the corner of a baseboard

has the cynic who always lounges within me

up off his couch and at the window

trying to hide the rising softness that he feels.

By now I am on to dicing an onion

which might account for the wet stinging

in my own eyes, though Freddie Hubbard’s

mournful trumpet on “Blue Moon,”

which happens to be the next cut,

cannot be said to be making matters any better.[1]

But long before the three blind mice softened a cynic’s heart, America’s greatest nineteenth century painter got caught up in the nursery rhyme as well. In his early years as an artist, Winslow Homer earned his keep as a commercial illustrator. In 1858, a Boston publisher hired Homer to contribute seventeen illustrations to a children’s book. Titled Eventful History of Three Little Mice and How They Became Blind, it could almost be read as a direct response to the question Collin’s would one day pose. And like Collins, Homer and the tale’s anonymous author treat the mice sympathetically, showing us that their lamentable fate wasn’t because they were naughty but because they were mice simply being mice—in the pantry of the farmer’s wife looking for food.




[1] Billy Collins, “I Chop Some Parsley While Listening to Art Blakey’s Version of ‘Three Blind Mice,’” (excerpted), Picnic, Lightning, 1998.

Additional sources: Maurice Sendak, “Introduction” in Eventful History of Three Little Mice and How They Became Blind, 1996 edition, Oxford University Press; Garth Stein, “Billy Collins’s ‘I Chop Some Parsley….’,” Shambhala Sun, July 2010, p. 96.

(Image: Winslow Homer, from Eventful History of Three Little Mice and How They Became Blind, 1858, hand colored engraving, publisher: E. O. Libby & Co., Boston, Massachusetts.)



unSwept Away

Detail of Heraclitus's MosaicBones of fish and fowl and stones of fruit, shells of crustaceans and oysters and a walnut or two, as well as capers and olives—these, the remnants of a very large Mediterranean meal. As for the cleanup it was all the more onerous—at least for the minions if not for the mice—since the guests had cavalierly tossed the leavings on the floor. How barbaric! Yet this was not the aftermath of a feast of a band of hungry Neanderthals some sixty thousand years ago but that of a banquet of the powerful and wealthy and educated in Ancient Rome. Perhaps their actions boiled down to what the philosopher Epictetus had to say back then in the first century, essentially that feeding the stomach should be secondary to feeding the mind.[1] If food had to take a backseat to discourse and Homeric declamations then it only stood to reason that keeping your place at the table neat would have been a triviality considered best ignored. Or perhaps the Roman elite were entitled slobs. In any case, the leftovers strewn across the floors of formal dining rooms inspired mosaic artists; they turned them into a trick-of-the-eye motif, using tiny tiles of colored marble and glass, specially cut and arranged.

Aptly called asàrotos òikos, or “unswept room,” it became a genre of its own. The earliest example, according to Pliny the Elder’s oft-cited mention in his Natural History appeared in the 2nd century BCE—about the time wealthy Greeks took a shine to mosaic ornamentation, which superseded decoratively painted wood in their villas. “[T]he most famous exponent [of the style] was Sosus, who at Pergamum laid the floor, [and] represented refuse from the dinner table and other sweepings, making them appear as if they had been left there,” Pliny wrote, identifying the only mosaicist from the cradle of Western civilization known by name.[2]

Three centuries later, the Romans copied the Greeks, filling their residences with mosaic wall and floor decorations. Asàrotos òikos was in demand. They cropped up in posh, private homes in Tunisia and in Pompeii, and in Hadrian’s villa in Tivoli. And in another villa atop Aventine Hill in Rome—that one signed by Heraclitus and said to be a replica of Sosus’s. Like Sosus, Heraclitus saw to include both a mouse and his shadow as he nibbles on a walnut shell.





[1] Epictetus, Enchiridon, 41.

[2] Pliny, Natural History, xxxvi, 184, translated by D. E. Eichholz, Loeb Classical Library, Harvard University Press, reprint, 2001.

Additional sources: Niki Holmes Kantzios, “Edible Imagery in Roman Dining Room Floor Mosaics”; A Companion to Greek Art, Tyler Jo Smith and Dimitris Plantzos, eds; Roger Ling, Ancient Mosaics, Princeton University Press, 1998.

(Image: Heraclitus, Unswept Room, detail, Gregoriano Profano Museum, Vatican Museums)



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