Rigor Vitae: Life Unyielding

Thursday, November 19, 2015


On November 19, 1915, thirty-six-year-old Joe Hill was shot dead by a firing squad at the Utah State Prison, on a site in what is now Sugarhouse Park in Salt Lake City.
A troubadour of the robber-baron age, Hill was born Joel
Hägglund. He left his native Sweden in 1902 for the US, working his away across the country to California, where he joined the Industrial Workers of the World, or “Wobblies.” He became active in organizing workers and served as strike secretary for the IWW in San Pedro. He rose to prominence writing satirical songs for the Wobblies, such as “Casey Jones the Union Scab,” “The Rebel Girl,” inspired by Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, and “The Preacher and the Slave,” whose refrain is still remembered today:

You will eat bye and bye in that glorious land in the sky
Work and pray, live on hay, you'll get pie in the sky when you die.

Working on the California docks, he befriended Otto Appelquist, also a Swedish immigrant. In the summer of 1913, he followed Appelquist to his adopted home of Salt Lake City, where he found work at the Silver King Mine in Park City.
The following winter, on January 14, 1914, the Salt Lake City police arrested Joe Hill for the murder of a grocer and former policeman and his teenage son. Four nights earlier, two men masked in red bandanas had entered the store of John G. Morrison and shot him and his son Arling dead. Hill had been treated that night for a gunshot wound, one of five such injuries in the city. He claimed that it had been received in an altercation over a woman, but he refused to say any more or identify the parties. Police found a red bandana in Hill's room. Thirteen-year-old Merlin Morrison, witness to the murder of his father and brother, said that Hill resembled one of the killers. The prosecution was not able to suggest a motive or place Hill at the crime scene, but rested their case solely on circumstantial evidence. In his instructions to the jury, Judge Morris Ritchie called circumstantial evidence “the proof of such facts and circumstances connected with or surrounding the...crime,...and if these facts and circumstances, when considered all together, are sufficient to satisfy the...jury of the guilt of the defendant beyond a reasonable doubt, then such evidence is sufficient to authorize a conviction.”
Hill's own behavior was not helpful to his case. He fired his attorney and argued with the judge over his right to represent himself. His prominence with the IWW was a liability, and the two major powers in Salt Lake City at the time, Kennecott Copper and the LDS Church, wanted to see him convicted. After what can only be seen in hindsight as an unfair trial, Hill was found guilty.
For nearly a century, the question of Hill's guilt has been an open one. In his 2011 biography, “The Man Who Never Died,” William M. Adler further weakened the prosecution's best evidence with documents pointing to Otto Appelquist and his former fianc
ée Hilda Erickson as Hill's mystery shooter and the object of the dispute, respectively. Adler also produced evidence that the Morrisons were killed by career criminal Magnus Olson, alias Frank Z. Wilson, whom police had arrested earlier in the case, but transferred to Nevada authorities to face a lesser charge.

Wednesday, November 04, 2015


In honor of the wintery nip the weather is finally starting to carry, I'm recycling an old post from September 2006.
The temperature in Salt Lake City has yet to drop below 50ºF, but signs of summer's senescence increase daily. Bird migration is well underway, and our least cold-tolerant summer residents, the nighthawks and hummingbirds, are gone. As the sun's increasingly oblique rays approach the horizon, the red and yellow maples and aspens on the surrounding hillsides cast an orange evening glow into the valley. I wasn't struck hard with an awareness of autumn, though, until last night, when I joined a friend for drinks shortly before dusk. As we entered the club, the assiduous squawking of a thousand Common Starlings (Sturnus vulgaris) met us from the interior of an overhead billboard. It's a sound that I know well, and associate strongly with cold weather. For many years, I was obsessed with hawking starlings with Cooper's Hawks (Accipiter cooperi) and, for one season, with a Merlin (Falco columbarius). A major benefit of flocking is evident when watching a raptor chase a group of starlings or other birds. Upon sensing danger, the flock condenses to a nearly solid mass, and appears to move with a singular intention. The skill with which flocking birds can cue each other and fly as one seems supernatural. Unable to snatch an individual from the fluttering swarm, the pursuing predator is reduced to taking swipes at the entity until one bird loses its head and its timing and finds itself alone and vulnerable. The effort needed to take a starling from a flock exceeds that expended on a single bird by a sizable factor.

Starlings aren't alone in their propensity to get close in the winter, in fact, winter flocking is more the rule than the exception. Starlings' fellow immigrants, the English Sparrows (Passer domesticus), are forming similar coalitions in the city, and soon they'll be joined by a host of other flocking species. In summer, Dark-eyed Juncos (Junco hyemalis) are uncommon and inconspicuous solitary birds here, occasionally glimpsed as a single bird flits through high-elevation undergrowth. As soon as cold weather hits, though, flocks of the fat little birds with their executioners' hoods will be ubiquitous throughout the region. In fact, it seems that on the first really cold morning of each year I see my first junco flock, as if winter were dragged right into the yard on their white-edged tails. In my three Pinedale Anticline posts, I described the impressive winter flocking of Sage Grouse (Centrocercus urophasianus) and Horned Larks (Eremophila alpestris). Clearly, flocks are less susceptible to predation, but why do birds concentrate only in the winter, when food tends to be scarce, and competition more of a concern? Since the days of Aristotle, observers have pondered this question. In the thirteenth century, Frederick II of Hohenstaufen asserted that flocks protected birds from predators on their long migrations. Other writers have pointed to birds like robins (Turdus spp.) and waxwings (Bombycilla spp.) that feed largely on berries in the winter. These foods are abundant where they occur, but can be difficult to locate. A large group of birds stands a better chance of discovering a large lode capable of feeding the whole. Flocks have an advantage not only over predators, but over competitors, as well. Chickadees (Poecile spp.) and other small birds show far more aggression to single conspecifics than to groups.
But birds aren't the only creatures that show this behavior. In my Pinedale Anticline posts, I also discussed winter herding of Pronghorns (Antilocapra americana), which is similar to the behavior of cervids. Even tropical deer like the Indonesian Sambar (Cervus timorensis) congregate in small groups during the boreal summer, which is the dry season there—the season when food is most scarce. When I painted The First Phalanx (above), I had read that troops of Mandrills (Mandrillus sphinx) periodically coalesce into large herds led by a coalition of alpha males. I naïvely painted four big males surrounded in a riot of Central African blooms, unaware that these herds form only in the dry season, when such flowering isn't likely. Five years later, I tracked a large herd of the closely related Drill (M. leucophaeus), an easy job, since their fastidious searching of the dry-season forest floor gave the impression that a Zamboni had driven through the jungle. It makes sense that these large monkeys might find it easier to discover populations of mushrooms and small edible animals in large groups, which are also more intimidating to Leopards (Panthera pardus).

All of these benefits, and surely others as well, accrue to the flocks, herds, murders and gaggles, but I think to better understand the problem, the question should be turned on its head. It seems to me that most animals that congregate in winter are better described as gregarious animals that leave the pack to breed. Competition for food may be more severe in the winter or dry season, but even modest competition is too much for inexperienced juveniles. Most creatures are born during the season when foraging is the easiest, but even so, for many species the protection of the flock is less of a benefit than a liability during this crucial period.
upper: WORKING THE FLOCK--MERLIN & STARLINGS (1988) acrylic 30" x 20"
lower: THE FIRST PHALANX--MANDRILLS (1990) acrylic 20" x 30"

Monday, August 03, 2015


About his piece "Walrus Souvenir," the artist Andrew Krasnow says:

"As president of the United States, George W. Bush pushed for exploratory drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. More concerned with the need for energy than the harm it might cause Walrus habitat, President Bush argued for drilling because there were 'scientific uncertainties' around climate change. For the Walrus, however, the episode may harken back to President Chester A. Arthur (ironically known as 'The Walrus,' for sporting the manly mustache popular at the time) who entered office as the Walrus was on the verge of being hunted into extinction for the oil in its flesh that fueled gas lamps.

Walrus Souvenir is a meditation on the uncertain future for the Walrus and for the natural world when confronted with the priorities of Man. As a memento made from Man's own skin, it suggests that the product of his handiwork may one day be mass extinction, not only for the Walrus and for other animal and plant species, but 'humanity' itself, as their fate is closely tied with ours. As John Lennon sang, 'I am he/ as you are he/ as you are me/ and we are all together...I am the Walrus'"

Friday, June 05, 2015


On May 30, 2015 I was hiking in the Wasatch Mountains in Salt Lake County, Utah, just after dark at a elevation of about 7,000 feet, when I observed two Poorwills (Phalaenoptilus nuttallii) perched about half a meter apart on the ground. I watched the two birds in my headlamp beam through binoculars from a distance of about 10 meters. After some 30 seconds, bird B fluttered into the air briefly and landed, increasing its distance from bird A by about two meters. Ten or fifteen seconds later, bird A flew towards bird B, restoring the distance between the birds to roughly what it was before. About 45 seconds later, bird B flew away. some 10 seconds later, bird A also took off in the same direction. It wasn't until the next morning, when I looked at the photographs I took of the birds, that I was able to tell that both birds were males. In the photographs where both birds were perched close together, they were both clearly flaring their white throat patches and displaying them. Bird B also appeared to be spreading its tail, displaying the white patches there. Bird A's tail was obscured in these photos. I inferred this interaction to be a territorial rivalry, but the actual nature of the display is not clear. I was unable to discern any other behavior such as head-bobbing, but viewing conditions were far from ideal.  

I have not seen nor heard of Poorwills displaying in this manner. I sent this photograph to R. Mark Brigham, a Poorwill expert at the University of Regina, who told me he had never seen Poorwills do this either.
These birds are very interesting for a number of reasons, most famously for their manner of surviving winter's cold temperatures and lack of food resources. Hibernation is a common way for animals to deal with winter. Many birds, bats and even insects opt instead for seasonal migration, exploiting distant habitats during different seasons. A few, like the Monarch Butterfly (Danaus plexippus) and our friend the Poorwill use a combination of the two. Poorwills, relatives of Nightjars, breed in arid parts of western North America from southern Canada into northern Mexico; northern individuals seem to winter in the desert southwest. A number of bird species use daily torpor to minimize energy loss during cool nights or brief bad weather. Members of three related orders, the goatsuckers, hummingbirds and possibly the swifts, all show some abilities at metabolic adjustment, but none to the degree of the little Poorwill, which, in addition to its natural tendencies toward torpor, feeds heavily on beetles, rich in polyunsaturated fats, which remain liquid and metabolically 
available at low temperatures.I've watched Poorwills feed on darkling beetles on the ground, and have noticed that medium-sized ground beetles are usually common where there is a dense population of Poorwills.In the laboratory, these birds have been observed sustaining periods of torpor for over 80 days, and in the wild as long as 25 days. A shallow shelter, open to the southern sun is selected: a patch of cactus or rock niche to which the bird develops substantial fidelity. After sundown, the torpid Poorwill's body temperature begins to fall, until the ambient temperature reaches 5.5°C, an apparent optimum hibernating level which the bird tries to maintain. Solar radiation raises the body temperature daily, presumably allowing the option to forage during warm nights. I know of no human witnesses to a Poorwill rousing from torpor in the wild, but I imagine the bird backing out of his shelter to fully bask in the final evening rays, periodically flapping his wings to elevate his body temperature. It's not known how severe a winter these birds can survive, but a sufficient winter insect population, rather than temperature, is probably the limiting factor.

(top): Photo by cpbvk
(center): Poorwill field sketch; pencil 11" x 8.5"
(lower): REANIMATION: POORWILL (2012) acrylic 30" x 20"

Friday, February 27, 2015


This great optical illusion has been all over the internet over the past day, but in most cases people are asking the wrong questions about it. What's interesting is not whether you see a white dress with gold bands or a blue dress with black bands—it can appear either way to most of us. If you haven't seen both color versions of the same photo, keep checking back at the image, it's amazing to see the shift once it happens, and well worth the effort. I've been working with color professionally for nearly 30 years, and this is the first time I've been confronted with this illusion.

So what's going on here? During infancy our brains learn how to make sense of the confusing signals picked up by our senses, including sight. The wavelengths of light that enter our pupils are affected by many things, and don't necessarily represent the actual hue of an object very accurately. For example, the light bouncing off of a bird in a leafy tree will be tinted green by having also been bounced off of leaves. This is particularly easy to see with white objects. A white bird in that tree will appear quite green, although we will understand upon seeing it that it's actually white. Over the years, people have come to understand the way the brain interprets true colors from the false signals it's presented with, and codified it in the system of color theory.

One of the principles of color theory is the phenomenon of "simultaneous contrast," where one color seems to push an adjacent color towards its complement, or inverse color (blue, for instance, gives adjacent colors an orange tint and vice-versa). A well-known example of this principle happens when you stare at a red dot for a minute or two, then transfer your gaze to a white wall...a green dot seems to appear, the complementary of red. 

 The actual dress is blue with black bands, and these pigments are represented in the photo in question with various shades of two complementary colors: a purplish-blue-gray and greenish-golden-brown (above). The primary colors of light (blue, red and green) are different from those of pigment (blue, red and yellow), so pairs of complementary colors on a computer monitor differ somewhat from those on a painting; this illusion would not work with a printed version of the photo. The brain can translate the gold-brown and blue-gray bands correctly as the black and blue of the real dress. In that case, simultaneous contrast makes the blue look deeper than the actual colors in the photo. The brain can also assume the purplish-blue is color being reflected off of a white surface. This color, a sort of dirty light ultramarine, is very commonly reflected off of white surfaces that aren't illuminated brightly, which is probably why the the brain is so quick to make this mistake. In this case, it presumes that blue gray is really white, and that the golden-brown hues represent actual pigment, and simultaneous contrast intensifies them to make gold.

That's basically what's happening here, but it doesn't explain why the two colors don't enhance each other. Normally, when you set two complementary colors like these next to one another they exaggerate each other's brilliance, but in this case our brain seems to know that the colors in one set of bands are real and those in the other set illusory, because only one color or the other pushes the hue of its complementary bands to a more extreme version of itself. This is the strangest part of this illusion, and the one that's hardest for me to explain. It probably involves some assumptions our brain makes based on what we know about dresses and shapes, but more than anything, I think there's an odd (and unknown to me) principle of color theory of light that doesn't apply to pigment at work. I'm interested to hear any explanations you might have.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014


...the Beatles were recording the final session for Abbey Road. Three miles away, at Wessex Studios in Highbury, Robert Fripp and a new band christened King Crimson were recording “In the Court of the Crimson King.” Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, Miles Davis and a collection of jazz virtuosi, many of them not yet well known, were at Columbia's 30th Street Studios in New York City, recording Bitches Brew. While the Beatles wrapped things up on the 20th, both Crimson and Davis would conclude their sessions the following day.

Upon their release, all three recordings confounded the critics, few of whom recognized their importance, but in retrospect, one can't deny that they're three of the most innovative and influential (and, I would add, the best) albums ever made. Strange that they were recorded simultaneously...or is it?

Such multiple accomplishments in the arts have a lot in common with the technological multiples that have received a lot of recent attention, like the invention of the calculus, telescope and television, and the theory of evolution by natural selection, all of which were simultaneously achieved by two or more parties. The simultaneous nature of Abbey Road, ITCOTCK and Bitches Brew had something to do with the level of recording technology that had been achieved by 1969, as well as the introduction of new instruments like synthesizers and mellotrons, and the fact that the LP record album had been in existence for a generation and was now the comfortable standard of music consumption. Most important of all, though, was the artistic culture of that moment, a culture of ambition and innovation—a pale and wimpy version of the zeitgeist of the early 20th Century, but still not too bad, and something even to strive for now.
Abbey Road cover designed by Kosh; In the Court of the Crimson King cover painted by Barry Godber; Bitches Brew cover painted by Mati Klarwein

Sunday, February 16, 2014


I love Giraffes. We all love them: their big soft eyes, their improbable physiques, their quirky but undeniable grace. So it was no big surprise to hear the uproar when the Copenhagen Zoo killed a two-year old male Giraffe last Sunday and fed him to their lions. Nobody likes to see the life of a beautiful, exotic animal extinguished, and the natural reaction to hearing of this being done by a zoo (which is supposed to be a sanctuary for creatures, right?) is indignation at the least. But the basic reason for this giraffe's death stems from that basic love of ours for the animals. Few things draw visitors through the gates of a zoo like a baby Giraffe, so there's a strong financial incentive to produce a young one every year, whether you have any idea what you're going to do with it once it's grown up or not. So there's been an overabundance of zoo giraffes for a number of years. Some of these animals end up in private collections, or in places like “Dave's Roadside Zoo and Front-end Alignments,” or who knows where. Surely, many of them are relegated to lives of malnutrition and misery, and my guess is that less public Giraffe euthenizations are not unprecedented. The Copenhagen Zoo had a couple of offers from individuals and an unaccredited zoo in Sweden, but rather than accepting one of those they chose to kill their surplus Giraffe using a captive bolt stunner, the same way that cattle are slaughtered. I understand the anger at hearing this news, but I don't share a bit of it.

What I don't understand was the equal furor over the necropsy the zoo performed on the young Giraffe, and the fact that they allowed the public, including school children, to watch the process and ask questions about it. Most kids in the industrialized world grow up completely separated from normal ecological processes, from truly understanding how energy circulates through an ecosystem from one organism to another. The idea that sheltering children from this reality and preventing them from fully understanding the world is to their benefit, well, that's pretty hard to fathom. Besides, anyone who didn't want to see the necropsy didn't have to walk through the door. To me, the fact that the zoo put the meat to good use and used the necropsy to advance public education put a distinctly positive overall face on this sad but unavoidable event.

This blog's server doesn't have the capacity to list all the animal species that have been saved from extinction by captive breeding in zoos. We can only speculate at what future good will come from the breeding technology and understanding that continues to be developed in zoos around the world, not to mention their educational role (which I just did). Where you have life you have death, that's as true in a zoo as anywhere else. I, for one, am thankful to live in a world with zoos and am happy to appreciate all the good they do while accepting the less pretty realities that go along with them.
illustration: FLAP-NECKED CHAMELEON & GIRAFFE (2002) acrylic on illustration board 30” x 20”