Charles Wisseman, Mixed Media Artist

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Squirrel Reliquary (September 2013)

Posted on September 30, 2013 at 6:35 PM

Squirrel reliquary-- done during September 2013

My wife found a skeletonized squirrel in our backyard this summer.

I took an OLLI senior learning class on small mammals last year, and I think they deserve more respect.

I decided to make a reliquary for the squirrel saint “Rodentia”, which sounded good and is actually the taxonomic order to which squirrels belong. I removed the remaining fur, soaked the skeleton in bleach for a few days, and was left with clean white fragile bones. The spine pieces were sewn through the spinal canal into a circle , then sewn and glued along with the skull and leg bones inside a robin’s nest.

This nest had been built on a light fixture next to the back door of my shop, then abandoned when the bird discovered how often the door was used. Lightly used, but I mothballed it to kill any vermin.

The container was made from an ash log which came from a tree which I planted when I moved in here 30 years ago, but had to be removed for structural problems. These had been drying for about 3 years, but were still not fully dry, so I had to treat cut surfaces with polyethylene glycol—messy, but effective

treatment for green wood. The box length is about 10 inches, which is the maximum I can cut in my bandsaw. The construction style is a nested bandsaw boxes, a technique I learned in a workshop at the CU woodshop. I split the log lengthwise into two portions, the larger making the bottom of the box. The inner portion of each portion was shelled out. End caps were cut off and replaced to close the ends of the lower box. The larger endcap was cut open to create passageways and a spring loaded mechanism that requires insertion of an acorn to allow retraction of a locking pin which keeps the box closed. The first attempt at the mechanism was not good enough, and fortunately there was enough wood for a second try. The acorn has to be fairly round and of medium size. In case of a jam, there is a wire included with a hole to manually pull back the spring. If things get really stuck, the last resort is to unscrew the hinges to gain entry. A walnut is attached the rod which pushes the acorn. Entering the box requires donating an acorn to the “sacred stash”.

The nest with the bones rests in the remaining cavity in the lower portion of the box. Grey wool left over from a felting class is packed around the nest. The four “sacred nuts of the eastern US” are at the corners of the nest (walnut , acorn hickory, buckeye). A sheet of clear amber mica covers the nest assembly.

The surfaces next to the mica are covered in copper foil to add protection and give an upscale appearance fitting to a saint. An oak leaf is glued on the copper over the entry mechanism. Copper also covers the acorn retrieval chamber and lines the acorn entry hole.

The undersurface of the top has cherry wood labels with the text “Rodentia” “Rody” “patron Saint of Small Mammals” burned in. An inlaid medallion of walnut shell and sticks in a black epoxy matrix form a portrait of the saint, or maybe the squirrel god, looking a little deranged. A brass catch for the closure mechanism and a spring-loaded retainer for the upper sliding bandsaw box is also on this surface.

The top of the box contains a second bandsaw box cut from the inner portion of the top. This can slide out either side , using acorn pulls, once the larger box is opened to release the retaining spring. Inside the upper small box are two compartments. The smaller contains some small loose bones, claws and teeth held under a hemispherical plastic lens for closer scrutiny. The larger chamber contains a slat-style box with four leaves cut from the inner portion of this portion of the box, drilled and strung on a string in the style of traditional Indonesian palm leaf books. An acorn is embedded on the top for decoration. The cut surfaces of the wood are covered with pale yellow paper I made from my prairie patch plants a few years ago. I tried to print directly on this with my inkjet printer ,but it was too rough, even after calendaring in an etching press to flatten the surface. Letterpress would have been a better aesthetic, but I don’t have a selection of smaller fonts.

Text in the book is :

Page 1: Rodentia’s prayer---- Carpe quercum (seize or enjoy the oak)

Et nux eterna ( nuts forever, which may describe Rodentia , or me for doing this)

Deus Balanus (god the nut)

Page 2: Rodentia’s hymn – (to the tune of “Go Tell Aunt Rhody , the old gray goose is dead)

Go tell Saint Rody, the old gray squirrel is dead.

Page 3 : The martyr is believed to have died while leading her colony of squirrels to safety when their ash tree was felled.

Page4: Her pure white bones rest in a robin’s nest cradled within a log from the ash tree, surrounded by the 4 sacred nuts of the east (acorn, walnut, hickory, buckeye).

Page 5: Some believe Rodentia derives from the old Norse “Ratatoskr” (drill tooth or bore tooth)—a squirrel who runs up and down the world tree Yggdrasil, carrying messages between upper and lower worlds. (My wife found this on Wikipedia, and I couldn’t help putting this in)

 

The box closes with hand-forged steel hinges. Brass screws and washes give a suggestion of eyes in the front. An acorn wrapped in its shell makes a nose. Abrasion of the bark at the cut line between top and bottom gives a suggestion of a mouth, which opens.

The base is cut from walnut, with two thick dowels connecting to the log. Copper discs interrupt the dowels, referencing squirrel baffles on a bird feeder.

 

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