Tag Archives: Mouse in Art

“‘I breathe when I sleep’ is the same thing as ‘I sleep when I breathe’!”

Felinka Mouse 2013, Mister Finch

The sculptures of Mister Finch, a British textile artist, conjure up a mesmerizing world of sleepy dormice and March hares, magical mushrooms and mischievous fairies, of Victorians romancing fantasy and nature. One of the works in particular (pictured here) caught my eye. The mouse is titled Felinka, but unlike the mice of Fairy- and Wonderland, Mister Finch’s mouse happens to be gigantic—at least for a mouse. Rivaling the capybara, the planet’s largest rodent, Felinka measures more than three-feet across and has a tail that’s five feet long.

Often referred to under the umbrella of the cuddly-sounding art form “soft sculpture,” each of the works Finch creates are sewn from remnants of new and vintage cloths, recycled clothing and table linens. The pieces are as meticulously realistic as they are fanciful; they’re as hard as they are soft.

While articles about Finch’s work almost invariably point to the Pop artist Claes Oldenburg, considered ‘the creator of soft sculpture’ with his three-dimensional interpretations of everyday objects, the use of non-traditional, malleable materials—felt, foam and fabric and animal skins sewn and stuffed for example—can be traced back to the first half of the twentieth century and the works of the Surrealists, including Marcel Duchamp, Man Ray, and Meret Oppenheim. That being said, perusing his website and the press, I get a sense that Finch (the Mister he added to reference his gender, meaningful in that he is a man who sews) is hardly the sort who is preoccupied with his place on art history’s spectrum. He seems to prefer to spend his days in his studio working late into the night, sewing his sculptures to the steady patter of the Yorkshire rain.[1]

He completed Felinka in April of 2013. In an email, he wrote, “I’m drawn to creatures with eyes closed as it has more room for interpretation,” and added, “a huge mouse was something I always wanted to make…”[2]

“Do we need [enchantment] now more than ever?” a journalist recently asked him what feels to me today like an urgent question. To which Finch replied, “I don’t believe it ever went away.”[3]



[1] Laren Stover, “Faeryland and Toadstools Arrive in Chelsea, Courtesy of Mister Finch,” The New York Observer, June 10, 2015.

[2] Email to author, December 28, 2015.

[3] Stover, “Faeryland and Toadstools Arrive in Chelsea, Courtesy of Mister Finch.”

Additional sources: Steven Kasher Gallery, NYC; “Viewfinder,” T Magazine, The New York Times, December 3, 2015.

(Image: Felinka Mouse, 2013, 
unique hand-sewn sculpture made from a mixture of fabric, paper, wire and plastic details.)

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)









The Hidden Snare

Frank Bartolozzi, after Bunbury,   The Mouse's Peitition, 1791Like Robert Burn’s “To a Mouse,” Anna Letitia Barbauld’s poem “The Mouse’s Petition” was in the form of a supplication. Only this time man wasn’t imploring mouse, mouse was imploring man; and as such, compassion shown for animals had entered a new territory. The year was 1773.

At the heart of the poem is a mouse who’s been trapped to become the subject of a certain Dr. Priestley. The mouse pleads for his freedom:

OH ! hear a pensive captive’s prayer,
For liberty that sighs;
And never let thine heart be shut
Against the prisoner’s cries.

His appeal continues on a high note of desperation that’s left others since to reconstruct the story behind it with an equal degree of distress. First the facts: Joseph Priestley in 1700s England was a leading political thinker as well as a scientist. He was credited for the discovery of an air-like substance that we know today as oxygen—but not before he used live mice in experiments with deadly gases. Meanwhile Barbauld, according to William McCarthy’s biography, considered Dr. Priestley and his wife to be her second family.

One evening the poet, who was often a guest in the Priestley home, witnessed a mouse caught in one of the doctor’s live traps. Since it was already nighttime, Priestley’s servant took the mouse to the lab where the small rodent was destined to sit in a cage till the following day. When the doctor entered the lab the next morning he found the mouse with a rolled-up piece of paper stuck in between the cage’s metal bars. On the sheet was written none other than “The Mouse’s Petition” with the pointed inscription “To Doctor Priestley.”

For here forlorn and sad I sit,
Within the wiry grate;
And tremble at th’ approaching morn,
Which brings impending fate.
If e’er thy breast with freedom glow’d,
And spurn’d a tyrant’s chain,
Let not thy strong oppressive force
A free-born mouse detain.

The good doctor, it was reported, set the mouse free.

Upon publication the deceptively sweet poem found its many fans. “The Mouse’s Petition” was critically received and applauded for its condemnation of animal experimentation by the same people who were finding their voices to courageously speak out against animal cruelty and for the rights of animals. As a ‘petition’ the poem, they viewed, could be none other than a political text. It accorded the mouse a consciousness and basically asked: What gives humans the right to have dominion over another creature?

That, however, was not the end of the story. Stirring the pot, Barbauld tossed in a pinch of doubt with the third edition of her poem a year later. She went it seems out of her way to separate herself from her reviewers. She wrote in a note that accompanied the poem’s new publication: The Author is concerned to find, that what was intended as the petition of mercy against justice, has been construed as the plea of humanity against cruelty. She is certain that cruelty could never be apprehended from the Gentleman to whom this is addressed; and the poor animal would have suffered more as a victim of domestic economy [i.e., in a mouse trap], than of philosophical curiosity.

Scholars on the right have taken her coda at face value, embracing the mouse’s plight as a mere metaphor for a number of injustices prevalent in the poet’s Georgian society, while critics on the left, then and now, have stood by the verse’s literal interpretation. McCarthy, who spent twenty years researching Barbauld’s life and her works, argues that there really is no ambiguity when it comes to the poem’s meaning, that the poet’s intention is clear. Barbauld, unusually highly educated for a young woman at that time, had a teasing relationship with Priestley and would often enter into a lively discussion about his actions “from the stance of alternative ethics.”[1] The note she attached to the poem’s new edition was nothing more than a realization she had, with her friend, regrettably gone too far.


[1] William McCarthy, Anna Letitia Barbauld: Voice of the Enlightenment, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008.

Additional sources: Jerom Murch, Mrs. Barbauld and Her Contemporaries, London, 1877; Kathryn Ready, “‘What then, poor Beastie!’: Gender, Politics, and Animal Experimentation in Anna Barbauld’s ‘The Mouse’s Petition,’” Eighteenth-Century Life, Winter 2004.

(Image: The Mouse’s Petition, etching and stipple, print made by Francesco Bartolozzi, Henry William Bunbury, 1791, The British Museum, reproduced for non-commercial use only.)

“Enslaved by a metaphor.”

Art Spiegelman first glommed onto the idea of depicting the mouse as a metaphor for the oppressed during his stint as an underground ‘comix’ artist when he was asked to contribute a piece for a comic book called Funny Aminals [sic]. This being 1971, the twenty-three-year-old Spiegelman thought mice tyrannized by cats befitted the Black experience in America. While his efforts didn’t pan out—“just felt problematic”—he saw how neatly his “Ku Klux Kats” could be Nazis instead; injustice writ large if not anthropomorphically. And quite unexpectedly, he saw too in cats chasing mice a relevance to his Polish Jewish family’s history. So he wrote and drew “Maus.” His three-page Funny Aminals story would, fifteen years later, swell into the first volume of Maus, his Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic memoir.

With mice standing in for Jews, for the small Spiegelman clan, the narrative shifts back and forth in time: from the comic book artist getting his father to speak about the past; to his father and his mother during the Holocaust; to his and his father’s complicated relationship, replete with recriminations, disappointment and guilt as he continues to work on Maus—all very meta.

Spiegelman elevated balloons of dialogue and bubbles of thoughts to literature; his graphic memoir is now considered a ‘modern classic.’ It’s been hugely influential; it’s sold over three million copies worldwide, translated into more than thirty languages. And inasmuch as he dragged his heels to revisit “the book that both ‘made’ [him] and has haunted [him] ever since,” he finally agreed to do a follow-up. His aptly titled MetaMaus is based on a series of conversations Spiegelman had with the scholar Hillary Chute. Covering practically every aspect of the creative process behind Maus,* he answers the three questions that have bombarded him ever since Maus, Volume I: My Father Bleeds History appeared in 1986, “Why the Holocaust?” “Why Comics?” and surely the single most important: “Why mice?” To which he nods to Funny Aminals and says, although he had some vague notion “of Jews as defenseless scurrying creatures,” it wasn’t until he began reading up on the Holocaust, research for the short story, that he discovered numerous works from the 30s and the 40s of Jews pictured as mice and rats, as vermin. “Shockingly relevant,” is how Spiegelman puts it; dehumanization was “a necessary prerequisite” for murder.

Meanwhile, Spiegelman realized, mice and cats were just the beginning; every nationality needed an animal to represent it. The international group of patients at the Czech sanatorium where his mother once stayed quickly became a zoo on the page; and the child of a Nazi and a Jew forced the artist to make some sort of a cat-mouse hybrid. And there were the wartime favorites: American dogs and Polish pigs, British fish and Swedish reindeers… “At a certain point,” Spiegelman sighs, “I did feel enslaved by my metaphor.”



* Mentioned briefly in this earlier post when both a scholar and a critic had found similarities between 17th–18th century Japanese illustrations of mice and Spiegelman’s mice.

All quotes by Art Spiegelman, MetaMaus, 2011; additional sources: Maus I: A Survivor’s Tale, My Father Bleeds History, 1986; Maus II: A Survivor’s Tale, And Here My Troubles Began, 1991.

(Image: Self-portrait by Art Spiegelman, 1999, from MetaMaus, reproduced for non-commercial use only.)

“This way I can’t fight.”

Louise Lawler, the highly acclaimed American photographer, first spotted Maurizio Cattelan’s mouse not in the cacophony of his Guggenheim retrospective (previous post), but ten years before in the pristine silence of a Chelsea gallery space. When she saw the small rodent clinging to a tightrope, she grabbed her camera and took a picture.

Since the early eighties, Lawler has been slipping in and out of museums, galleries, auction houses, booths at art fairs, and collectors’ homes, searching for the ideal composition. She’s often been linked to the Pictures Generation (named for a pivotal show that took place in New York in 1977), a loosely knit group of ‘theory-minded’ photographers, filmmakers, video and performance artists—Sherrie Levine, Robert Longo and Cindy Sherman, et. al.—who pinched existing images to visually snort at the mainstream culture of the era, post-Vietnam. But unlike the Pictures people Lawler eschewed mass media. She, instead, turned her lens on the art world, to make ‘art about art.’ She’s spent the past three decades mostly photographing in situ other artists’ work to comment on the subtle shifts in meaning and in worth and in viewers’ reception due to setting.

In the spring of 2002 the Paula Cooper gallery mounted a group show “From the Observatory,” inviting Maurizio Cattelan to hang his Untitled mouse and inviting Lawler to shoot the installation and de-installation of the exhibition. The show was “about the complexity of vision and its enhancement by a broad, inclusive view.”[1] The mouse was singled out; the New York Times critic Roberta Smith called him “overly cute but conceptually pertinent.” While he graced the gallery’s reception area, the mouse’s focus, we’re told, was on the nearby ink drawings of spiders and webs that Paul Thek produced in 1975. “Meaning,” Lawler said, “is also made through juxtaposition.”[2]

She titled her image of Cattelan’s mouse This Way I Can’t Fight.



[1] Roberta Smith, “Art in Review: ‘From the Observatory’,” New York Times, April 12, 2002.

[2] Douglas Crimp, “Prominence Given, Authority Taken: An Interview with Louise Lawler,” Johannes Meinhardt and Louise Lawler, eds., Louise Lawler: An Arrangement of Pictures, 2000.

Additional sources: Elizabeth Schambelan, “Louise Lawler,” ArtForum, February 2005; Peter Schjeldahl, “Alien Emotions: Pictures art revisited,” New Yorker, May 4, 2009; Rachel Wolff, “Impressive Proportions: Louise Lawler photographs great art—then treats it like taffy,” New York magazine, May 1, 2011; Metro Pictures.

(Image: This Way I Can’t Fight, 2002, by Louise Lawler, Cibachrome print mounted on aluminum 40 x 50 in. (101.6 x 127 cm.), reproduced for non-commercial use only.)

Willem van Aelst’s Missing Mouse

At three hundred and eighty-five years old, Willem van Aelst must be the oldest artist ever to have his first solo show. This past spring the Dutch painter’s works debuted at Houston’s Museum of Fine Arts and have since landed at Washington’s National Gallery of Art,* making his parents proud. The van Aelsts of Delft, Holland, had seen to their son’s early training, pushing him to study with the elder van Aelst’s brother, the still life painter Evert van Aelst, before his admittance into Delft’s Guild of Saint Luke—the same trade organization of painters to which the younger van Aelst’s contemporary Johannes Vermeer belonged.

After a ten-year sojourn abroad—in France where he learned the commercial value of choosing imagery to appeal to the tastes of his aristocratic patrons, and in Italy where he painted for the Medici—he returned to Holland in his late twenties. He spent the rest of his life, tirelessly and meticulously painting the still life—never a landscape, never a portrait but variations on the arrangements of things, switching out subject matter to keep the works fresh, to keep I would think himself entertained. Sometimes we see a peach in place of a plum, a partridge in place of a pocket watch, and more often than not, a huge bouquet of flowers. Van Aelst, a brilliant technician who understood composition, was clearly fond of depicting the mouse. Perhaps because the mouse symbolized intemperance (vanitas again and again and again), perhaps because the mouse’s fur coat simply added the right texture.

Of the artist’s more than 150 extant works, the curators chose twenty-eight for the two-city exhibition, and of those works are four with a mouse. There’s Still Life with a Mouse and a Candle, which I find lovely for its atypically quiet tones and pared down objects—and I might add for its dark neutral background that doesn’t remind me of air-siphoning black velvet. There’s also Fruit Still Life with a Mouse: a jewel of a painting, measuring approximately 11 x 9 inches, in which the mouse and the vines that the small creature clings to wondrously float between the edges instead of resting on some fusty fragment of marble. With the other two paintings, you have to look closely to find the tiny rodent; their titles, Vase of Flowers with a Watch and Forest Floor with Thistle, don’t give the mouse away.

But there’s one van Aelst mouse who, alas, missed the show, staying at home in the Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister in Kassel, Germany. According to the exhibition catalogue, Still Life with Fruit, Mouse, and Butterflies didn’t quite measure up to the selected—and to my mind rather stilted—Still Life with Fruit, Nuts, Butterflies, and Other Insects on a Ledge. The curator Tanya Paul writes, “the Kassel painting” is compositionally “less focused.” She adds, “The two paintings are undoubtedly related to one another and yet remarkably different in character and ultimate effect.”[1] She points to the grapes and the grapevine in each; she fails to mention the mouse.


*The NGA show ends October 14, 2012.

[1] Tanya Paul, James Clifton, Arthur K. Wheelock, Jr., et al., Elegance and Refinement: The Still-Life Paintings of Willem van Aelst, SkiraRizzoli, 2012.

Additional sources: Ken Johnson, “Pronks for the Memory: Rendering Luxury,” New York Times, August 9, 2012; Philip Kennicott, “At National Gallery of Art, Willem van Aelst’s object lessons,” Washington Post, June 21, 2012.

(Image: © Willem van Aelst, Still Life with Fruit, Mouse, and Butterflies, GK 447, Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Museumslandschaft Hessen Kassel, approx. 30 x 23 in., 1677, reproduced for non-commercial use only, with grateful acknowledgement to JL.)


When the contemporary Spanish artist Juan Muñoz died suddenly of an aneurysm at the age of forty-eight in 2001, he left us with his last completed work that was surely his most ambitious art installation ever, entitled Double Bind. It was described a meeting of Magritte and Dante and Piranesi and Fritz Lang, described in words of astonishment, touting critical success. Erected at the Tate Modern less than three months prior to his death, the ephemeral installation contained two industrial working elevators, a series of shafts that guided our eye visually upward to an ersatz second floor, which cut horizontally in half the enormous expanse of the museum’s Turbine Hall. Peering up into the shafts you could see enigmatic gray-colored men motionlessly walking, populating the narrow cutaway corridors.

But ten years earlier while Muñoz—considered ‘the most significant of the new generation of artists to come out of post-Franco Spain’—was in the midst of his meteoric rise to art world super-stardom with his human figures that evoked theatrical tension and themes of alienation, figures of dwarves and punch bag clowns, et al., in sandblasted fiberglass resin or bronze, he took a quick turn and created a very different sort of installation. Waiting for Jerry was as simple and whimsically empathetic as Double Bind was complex and oppressive. The installation was ‘built as a gift’ for his young daughter Lucia, with whom he had spent hours watching the cartoon “Tom and Jerry”; Lucia had unconditionally taken the side of the mouse.

A small dark room save for Jerry’s hole that was carved out of the baseboard molding and illuminated from the other side, Waiting for Jerry put the viewers ostensibly inside Jerry’s hideaway as Tom and Jerry battled it out just beyond the artificial glow of the mouse’s doorway; the soundtrack of one of the “Tom and Jerry” shows could be heard, the raucous screeching of the endless chase between the cat and the mouse. Any second Jerry would make his appearance, the viewers just had to wait. Muñoz said in an interview, discussing his two decades of work right before his Tate Modern debut, “The thing with Jerry is that when things get really really bad, he can run away from reality. And I remember sitting there thinking: I want to be like Jerry, you know! I want a place to hide!”[1]

Muñoz often spoke of his “desire to just get back to the studio and draw. Just to draw, and empty his head with a bottle of very good wine. And to astonish, always to astonish.”[2]


[1] Tim Adams, “Breaking the mould,” The [UK] Observer, June 2, 2001.

[2] Adrian Searle, “Juan Muñoz,” The Guardian, August 30, 2001.

Additional sources: Roberta Smith, “Visions That Flaunt Cartoon Pedigrees,” New York Times, March 2, 2007; Juan Muñoz, “Juan Muñoz,” in Comic Abstraction: Image Breaking, Image Making by Roxana Marcoci, Museum of Modern Art, 2007;  Interview with Paul Schimmel in Juan Muñoz by Neal Benezra and Olga M. Viso, 2001; Marian Goodman Gallery.

(Image: Waiting for Jerry by Juan Muñoz, wall, light, audio soundtrack, dimensions variable, first shown at Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven, The Netherlands, 1991, reproduced for non-commercial use only.)

“Lenguage is that we may mis-unda-stend each udda.”

Ignatz Mouse tries to deflect Krazy Kat’s ardor by whomping her on the side of the head with a brick; the county sheriff, Offissa Pupp, arrests the miscreant mouse and hauls him off to jail. Day after day, the lovelorn Krazy takes Ignatz’s brick-tossing; she even seeks it out, while the bulldog ‘kop’ secretly pines for the Kat. Day after day, the drama remains practically the same.

This love triangle unfolded against a barren universe in the comic strip Krazy Kat, which ran in newspapers from 1913 to 1944. The names of  its admirers read like a roll call of the twentieth century greats: Pablo Picasso, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Gertrude Stein; H.L. Mencken, T.S. Eliot and Jack Kerouac; the list goes on. Krazy Kat was the genius of the American cartoonist George Herriman. He gave his characters a language, a Babel’s tower of English and Yiddish and Creole, a rural patois of the Arizona desert, showing that he was as much a poet as he was an artist. He toyed with Krazy’s sex, making her sometimes a him. He was the first to draw frames within frames; to push his scenes outside the panels’ neat borders; to turn a strip at a forty-five degree angle, making it dance and sing, simulating a hill. He was the first to change the background from night to day, day to night, season to season, with no sun rising or setting or leaves falling in between. Yesterday’s and today’s cartoonists and graphic artists—Charles Schultz, Garry Trudeau, and Bill Watterson, Will Eisner, Robert Crumb and Chris Ware to name a few—speak of Herriman’s influence, his astounding innovation.

The renowned cultural critic Gilbert Seldes pointed out, “Herriman, a great ironist, under[stood] pity.”[1] Ignatz would alas never know what his brick means to Krazy. For his May 4, 1919 strip, Herriman takes us back to ancient Egypt, 1919 B.C., a time when cats were sacred: Kleopatra Kat tells her small daughter Krazy to remember her exalted position, to beware of lowly mice who will want to catch her off guard. She speaks from experience, of the moment when a noble Roman rodent Marcantonni Mouse had stolen her heart. As ‘the siren of the Nile’ predicted, a mouse came along looking to woo Krazy. Too timid to tell her, the young mouse goes to the Sage of Karnac who advises him to write her a note. The mouse, however, can’t write, so he has a blacksmith chisel his words of love onto a brick, which he then throws, hitting Krazy on the head, conquering her affection. “When the Egyptian day is done it has become the Romeonian custom to crease his lady’s bean with a brick laden with tender sentiments, and true to his trust he has been faithful. Faithful through the ages. Through the tide of dusty years.”

Krazy, alone, remembers her long history, her bloodline. She, the eternal romantic, knows the brick is none other than a message of love; Ignatz instead would forever think Krazy was crazy. Ignatz and Krazy simply “mis-unda-stend each udda.”


[1] Gilbert Seldes, “The Krazy Kat That Walks by Himself,” The Seven Lively Arts, 1924.

Additional sources: Ignatz Mouse website; John Carlin, Paul Karasik, Brian Walker, eds., Masters of American Comics, 2005; Sarah Boxer, “Herriman: Cartoonist who equalled Cervantes,” The Telegraph, July 7, 2007; George Herriman, Bill Blackbeard, Krazy & Ignatz 1919-1921: A Kind, Benevolent and Amiable Brick, 2011; Craig Yoe, Krazy Kat & the Art of George Harriman, 2011.

(Click on image to enlarge: strip by George Herriman, “Reel of Time, Reverse,” Krazy Kat, April 20, 1919, reproduced for non-commercial use only.)

“Then the piper will lead us to reason.”

A ‘secret’ campsite, loosely assembled on a red Persian carpet in a forest with mice scampering about, is frozen in time, frozen in bronze. This is Paul Thek’s Personal Effects of the Pied Piper. The prolonged absence of the camp’s maker, the flute-playing man in multi-color clothing, is keenly reflected in the work: the book and the baguette sport holes, courtesy of the hungry mice; the potatoes are charred; the fire has long been extinguished.

You may recall Pied Piper’s tale: he played his musical pipe and led the rats and mice away from the German village Hamelin to save it from the plague; and when the villagers didn’t pay him for his trouble as they had promised, he lured their children away into the mountains. While countless theories have floated through the centuries of who the Piper was—from the personification of death to a pedophile, from a cult leader to a job recruiter—in the world of contemporary art, this Pied Piper who had left his belongings behind at the encampment was none other than Thek. The curator Richard Flood has noted, like the Piper, the artist saw himself as “half savior and half destroyer.”[1]

Trained at New York City’s art institutions—Cooper Union, Pratt Institute, the Arts Students League—Thek, in the 1960s, was caught in the middle of the Pop Art movement, to which he didn’t relate. He was more closely drawn to self-referential figures and poetry than what minimalism allowed. He ridiculed those around him, critics and artists alike. He took a piece of meat he made realistically out of latex and put it in a Warhol Brillo box. As artist and individual he was, it’s written, both arrogant and needy; he alienated almost everyone. In 1967 he took off to Europe where he remained for the next nine years.

He began working on the Piper’s leftovers in 1973; he had them cast in the winter of 1975-1976 at a foundry in Rome. But rather ironically—I’m thinking about the Piper and all—the foundry wasn’t paid. The foundry seized and destroyed several of the pieces. “The project,” Flood said, “would haunt [Thek] until his death.” He continued to work on variations, groupings of the ‘effects,’ in which he wanted to capture, as Thek wrote, “a scene of nature, an out-of-doors vignette.”

Personal Effects might be considered Thek’s parting gesture. He died of AIDS in 1988; he never achieved, while he was alive, the recognition he coveted—or as critics and scholars today say he deserved, the ability to seduce as the Piper had.


[1] Richard Flood, “The Artist and His Doppelgangers,” September 1, 2005, Walker Art Center.

Additional sources: “Paul Thek: The Personal Effects of the Pied Piper,” video, Whitney Museum of American Art; Holland Cotter, “Believing Is Seeing (Or, the Meat Of the Matter),” New York Times, October 21, 2010; Peter Schjeldahl, “Out-There Man,” New Yorker, November 1, 2010.

(Image: Mice and book, objects from Personal Effects of the Pied Piper by Paul Thek, 1975-1976, bronze, Whitney Museum of American Art.)

Laden with Cares

The house cemented their friendship. Or perhaps it was the mouse.

In 1954, the Pulitzer prize-winning poet Theodore Roethke, recently married, rented the house of Morris Graves. Roethke had just accepted a teaching position at the University of Washington, and through various social gatherings and a number of mutual acquaintances, he and his wife Beatrice were introduced to the region’s most famous ‘mystic’ painter.

Graves had called his house, north of Seattle, Careläden; the umlaut was his—the artist anointed the name with the same ‘dramatic’ flair with which he embraced life. Situated on dozens of acres, forested with old growth cedars and maples, Careläden—the diacritical mark regardless—had for Graves been a load of cares. Reportedly the costs, the time, and the labor it took to erect the place had weighed down the painter; Graves himself had leveled the land and pitched in to help with the construction. The house was one of the first to have been built straight out of cinder blocks; the inside, ‘graciously proportioned,’ was completely of wood that Graves and his companion, Richard Svare, ‘rubbed with lye and waxed by hand.’ W.H. Auden, Roethke’s close friend, said it was the ‘most beautiful’ house built in America.

Roethke and Beatrice were thrilled to lease Careläden when, in an angry response to the chainsaws and bulldozers ripping up the earth nearby, suburbia creeping, Graves took off to Ireland. The time seemed to have been idyllic for the poet who suffered from occasional bouts of depression. People would remember Roethke sitting out on the lawn, with a clipboard on his lap, drinking tea. The couple kept a goose and named her Marianne, after the poet Marianne Moore. In the fall the mice moved in. One evening Roethke was writing at his desk when a mouse ran across his foot. In a knee jerk reaction, he clobbered the mouse, clobbered the mouse again, killing him. According to the biographer Allan Seager, Roethke ran to his wife to be comforted, “tears streaming down his face.” As if in reparation, when he later found a baby mouse—His absurd whiskers sticking out like a cartoon-mouse/His feet like small leaves—in the grass, he picked him up and put him in a box; he fed him cheese and gave him water. And he penned “The Meadow Mouse.”

But this morning the shoe-box house on the back porch is empty.
Where has he gone, my meadow mouse,
My thumb of a child that nuzzled in my palm?—
To run under the hawk’s wing,

Under the eye of the great owl watching from the elm-tree,
To live by courtesy of the shrike, the snake, the tom-cat.

All things innocent, hapless, forsaken.[1]

I can’t help thinking Roethke must have written Graves in Ireland about the mouse in their house; Graves drew a small rodent in crayon on brown paper; it’s dated 1954.


[1] Theodore Roethke, “The Meadow Mouse,” second verse, The Far Field, 1965, winner of the National Book Award, published posthumously.

Sources: Allan Seager, The Glass House: The Life of Theodore Roethke, 1991; Linda Robinson Walker, “Theodore Roethke, Michigan’s Poet,” Michigan Today, Summer 2001; Sheila Farr, “The House that Morris Graves Built,” Seattle Times Magazine, 2001; Deloris Tarzan Ament, Iridescent Light: The Emergence of Northwest Art, 2002; Deloris Tarzan Ament, “Morris Graves (1910-2001),” February 15, 2003.

(Image Mouse by Morris Graves, Crayon on brown paper, 3 x 4 inches, 1954, reproduced for non-commercial use only.)