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The Squeaking Sphinx

Tuesday, September 16, 2014


I told you it was going to be a special morning. I could feel it in the air. Little did I know when I turned down Best Hollow that I'd find something that would make me laugh and wonder right out loud.

As I trotted under a huge black walnut tree, I saw a small pale green sphinx caterpillar lying on the cool gravel. My first instinct was to pick up the tubular little guy, who was miraculously uninjured after his fall from who knows how high in the walnut.

I've found great ash sphinx caterpillars who've fallen onto gravel with sadly busted guts, so I was really happy that he seemed healthy and intact. He looked a lot like a great ash sphinx, but the black walnut should have been a tipoff that he was actually a (surprise!) walnut sphinx.

Since I didn't know there was such a thing as a walnut sphinx before this morning, we'll let that one go by.

I bent down to pick him up and the most amazing thing happened. Watch the video!

I love making these little videos, because they really capture the way I fool around with wild things, the way I try to help them and how they delight me. 

On the video, you'll hear me speculating that, because caterpillars lack anything that could be called a vocal apparatus, and have no wing covers to rub together, the caterpillar might be producing the squeak by forcing air out through his spiracles, which are the little holes along his sides through which he breathes. That turned out to be a pretty dang good guess, Science Chimp. I quote David Wagner's writeup in his marvelous book, Caterpillars of Eastern North America.

"When touched, the caterpillar whistles or hisses by forcing air out the spiracles. It is also a thrasher, casting its body violently from side to side when provoked. A good way to see this caterpillar is to go out at night and inspect the lower surfaces of hickory and walnut trees by flashlight--trees where you would be hard pressed to find a single caterpillar by day sometimes yield more than a half-dozen caterpillars at night."

When I read this passage I danced around the living room hooting and high-fiving Bill. That made my day! (A day easily made, but still.)

If you don't have this book, buy it NOW. It will change your life. That is, it will if you are in the habit of wondering about caterpillars.

Which I do, I do.

When I was done making this video, I looked up at the black walnut. There was no way I could reach even the lowest branch of that magnificent tree, and the cat didn't look like he would be good for the climb up the trunk to the first branch, a distance of at least 15' straight up.

So I cradled the caterpillar, now placid and calm, in my hand and ran a half mile until I found a young black walnut whose lowest branch I could reach. I had a heck of a time placing him on a leaf, because he kept squeaking and thrashing. He didn't understand what I was trying to do. Finally, after I cradled him in the leaves for a couple of minutes, he settled down and clasped the midrib. I tiptoed away and left him to growing up and becoming a walnut sphinx.

His pointy, angled little head is at the right side, even though the left end looks more like a head. That's probably the point. :) Bite this end, if bite you must.


Sunday, September 14, 2014


Shadows are so profound on a blue and gold September day that sometimes they're all I see. 

I cast these incredibly long shadows in the morning, and I love to watch me and Chet run across the landscape, all stretched out.  Here, I'm overlaid on dew-wet dogbane, and it looks like I have a terrific idea.

I mess around with some of my photos, trying to bring shapes out of darkness. It's fun.

Chet stands before our favorite rubble pile, now decked out in goldenrod. Mmmm. This would make a cool jigsaw puzzle, no?

The pines etch ink-black silhouettes on the sky.

And always the little auxiliary inkblot to look for, trotting ahead.

The neighbors' Bartlett pear yields honey-sweet fruit, cold from wet September grass. Yes. Thank you. I'll have that for breakfast, beat the deer to it, and feed the cores to the cattle. 

The sun is so low and brilliant in the sky I'm blinded and can't even tell what I'm shooting, but I have a feeling it'll be cool.

And I get an alert sundog and his crazy, inexplicably short-legged Chihuahua shadow. Go figure! 

Always worth pointing the camera toward the sun now and then. You never know what you'll get.

We push on, and I watch our shadows. They make me laugh. I'm glad there's no one around at 7:30 on a Sunday morning to hear me laughing as I clump along with Chet, his toenails clicking and scraping on the asphalt. I would make a lot better time if I had legs like these.

We reach the Shadow barn. Presenting...

The amazing Chet Baker!!

Bill saw this and said, "Don't shoot! It's Bacon!!"

Off we go. I marvel that I got the roofline perfectly lined up in this shot as I ran along. Most of the shots I take on the run are all cockeyed. That's OK. I like them all. 

 Most of my favorite shots are complete accidents anyway. Well, planned accidents. 

Chet's shadow looks like some kind of space bug to me. 

In this one, his form vanishes into the turf edge shadow, and the space bug seems to slide along the asphalt unexplained, unaccompanied. 

At the farm, I find the Concord grapes hanging in the old barn perfectly ripe, waiting for me. I've had my eye on them for several months. Breakfast, Part II. These are so beautiful that I fill myself up on ones I find outside this composition. Chet begs and begs, so I give him one. Grapes aren't good for dogs, but he doesn't know that. 

 Concord grapes perfectly capture the taste, the nostalgia, the wine-sweet loveliness of a September morning. 

Passenger Pigeon Print!

Thursday, September 11, 2014


As an artist who enjoys bringing extinct species to life, I have a fossil bone to pick. What I want to know is this. Why do most reconstructions of extinct creatures wind up looking like this? From a recent USA Today article about what must've been a bitchin' toothed albatross:

I should qualify that question. I want to know why these paleontologists don't get ahold of someone who knows how to draw lively images of related living species. (Why don't they call me??)  I actually know why most reconstructions wind up looking spare and unimaginative, sterile and tentative. It's because many artists simply clutch when asked to draw something out of their imaginations, something they can't copy from a photo. I would wager a bet that this person had never drawn an albatross. Maybe they don't even know how to draw birds. In my opinion, freely and rashly given, there's nothing right about this drawing, from the bulbous, football-shaped body to the feet to the wing structure to the structure, insertion and feel of the head, neck and bill. The expression is blank. Its eye is dead. There's nothing believable going on here, artistically or biologically. I would have LOVED to have a chance to draw this bird. 

Unfortunately, you see the same sterile renderings and blank, boring backgrounds in reconstructions of many extinct taxa: mammals, dinosaurs. It's like they're all drawn by the same person. And I think it's because the artists are clutching. They're not relying on living creatures as their source of reference, aren't bothering to figure out what their habitat might have looked like, so they come up with these tentative, lifeless images.

Here's what you do when you're drawing an extinct bird. You go off what you know of its nearest living relatives. Granted, painting a passenger pigeon is a LOT easier than painting a Teratornis, because there exist some beautiful  photos of living passenger pigeons, and lots of mounted specimens.

Still and all, I wanted to create a scene that hadn't been painted before: a family with a half-grown nestling. I'd show the male's gorgeous coloration off to best advantage, in a classic three-quarters pose, but I'd paint Mom and baby in poses that I know mourning doves assume, that I've drawn many times from living birds. I'd give them dancing sunlit beech leaves as a backdrop, put some color and pizzaz in the picture.

Three of Billions: Passenger Pigeons at the Nest
by Julie Zickefoose
Image size: 9" x 12"
Fits standard 14" x 18" frame when matted.

 Though I'd drawn them, I'd never painted passenger pigeons until Editor/Co-Publisher Bill 
Thompson III asked me to do a Bird Watcher's Digest cover to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the passenger pigeon's extinction, September 1, 2014. It's a story that's been told again and again. Martha, the last remaining passenger pigeon, passed away at the Cincinnati Zoo that day. My dad was two years old. It was a sad, sad day for biodiversity; a sad period, during which man did everything in his power to exterminate a magnificent torpedo of a bird, a bird that operated as a many-celled organism in vast migratory flocks that blotted out the sun. 

 In reading essays and treatises on the passenger pigeon, written in observance of the 100th anniversary of its extirpation, I’m struck by the fact that almost all seem to dwell on the mechanism, the process of its extinction. Perhaps that’s because that’s all we really know of this singular bird. It’s as if we were collectively asleep until it hit us that the thundering flocks were suddenly no more. I wanted to paint a tribute to the passenger pigeon as it lived, not as it died. This is a portrait of its domestic life, the deep investment of a pair in their single squab. I have never seen a painting that depicts a nestling, and I wanted to do that, to draw on what I know of mourning doves to imbue this image with life and feeling. I've raised a few mourning doves, watched them with their parents at the nest, and I wanted to convey the affectionate nature of pigeons in the painting.

Could there have been two squabs in that nest, the story might have ended differently. But the passenger pigeon, like its single child, was one of a kind, with an ancient reproductive strategy. Swamping any potential predators with simultaneous colonial nesting worked fine for raccoons and hawks. But the master predator, ready and able to ship traincars full of pigeons to waiting markets, was nothing the passenger pigeon had faced in its evolutionary history. All these thoughts ran through my head as I mixed the gorgeous peach and slate colors of their feathers, and wished them back to life, if only on a sheet of watercolor paper.

Three of Billions: Passenger Pigeons at the Nest is a digital proof made right here in Marietta, Ohio, at Richardson Printing, using state-of-the-art equipment with UV inks on Strathmore Linen archival paper. I got to breathe over Printer Bob's shoulder as he tweaked the color, and though Richardson Printing knows I'm notoriously fussy about color, I'm really happy with the result. Such one-off digital proofs as Three of Billions are often referred to as “giclees,” which is a fancy French word for a print that’s made on demand. This saves a lot of money and a lot of trees. Instead of firing up a huge press and running an obligatory 3-500 prints, as was formerly done with my Bird Watcher’s Digest cover images, I can now have the image printed only as I receive orders.

Three of Billions is available as an unmatted giclee print directly from Julie Zickefoose.
 Image size is 9" x 12", and it mats up to 14" x 18" (standard sized frame).

 $50 includes shipping; you may send a personal check made payable to

Julie Zickefoose
 Indigo Hill Arts
 Whipple, OH 45788

 To order and pay by credit card, you may use the DONATE button on the right sidebar of this blog homepage. Be sure to include your address! Don't worry--it's not really a donation. You'll get a gorgeous giclee print, signed by the artist. That would be me!

As always, thank you for your support. I'm excited about the potential of giclee prints, and I'm already thinking of other popular paintings of mine that would lend themselves to such a treatment. It's all a big experiment, an adventure, trying to send two kids to college on a freelance artist's income. Every little bit helps.
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