Midwinter Chills: Ghastly Ghosts and Comical Phantoms

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It’s the middle of winter in Melbourne and there have been icy winds, frosts and dull days. A good time for ghost stories as these are so much more enjoyable when it’s dark and cold. Reading a modern ghost story has brought back memories of the classic old spooky tales, which I have always loved. Not all are serious and a bit of humor is needed when it is chilly. These stories stimulate the imagination and have led to endless interpretations of this intangible world.

Belief in the supernatural has provided plenty of material for artists and writers over the centuries. Shakespeare gives a chilling account of a ghostly apparition in the form of Hamlet’s murdered father, which has given visual artists inspiration for some beautiful illustration.

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In the 19th century ghost stories were very popular. They were so much more convincing at a time without electric light. In winter one could imagine terrible spectres lurking in the dark of night. Some of the stories are quite creepy, like those by the Irish author, Joseph Sheridan le Fanu, who wrote some truly disturbing tales. A couple about haunted houses, like An Account of Some Strange Disturbances in Anger Street (1851) and An Authentic Narrative of a Haunted House, are full of terrible apparitions and shadowy figures on the walls (click on titles to read stories). Read these late at night when the wind is howling for full effect.

Ghostly legends can also be very funny. The Ingoldsby Legends (1840) by Thomas Ingoldsby (Rev Richard Harris Barham) contains many humorous stories and poems about ghosts. Tales such as The Spectre of Tappington; The Ghost; The Legend of Hamilton Tighe; and The Dead Drummer are accompanied by quirky black and white illustrations (click on titles to read stories), which include skeletal spectres, headless figures and phantoms done by well-know artists of the time. These stories are wonderful parodies of ghostly folklore.

Another writer and illustrator who dealt with ghosts in a humorous way was W S Gilbert, the lyricist of Gilbert and Sullivan operetta fame. His collection of poems, Fifty “Bab” Ballads (1884) contains a nonsensical poem that I have included below called The Ghost, the Gallant, the Gael and the Goblin, complete with Gilbert’s (Bab) delightful drawings. It’s about competitive haunting that does not go to plan. A very quaint story with the witty use of words you would expect from the man who wrote, “I am the very model of a modern major-general, I’ve information vegetable, animal and mineral…etc.

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Probably the most famous ghost story of the 1900s is Charles Dickens A Christmas Carol. We have a copy from the 1890s that has drawings by Fred Barnard, who was one of the illustrators of Dickens works. The grotesque depiction of Marley’s ghost became the prototype for many film versions of the tale. Michael Hordern as the tormented Marley in the 1951 version of Scrooge starring Alistair Sim, seems to have stepped out of the illustration. Below is a colourized version of the scene.

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The magic of film has made it possible to depict transparent ghosts and ghastly hauntings. From the earliest days of film we can see attempts to bring the spectral world alive for the viewer often with unintentionally hilarious results, as for example in George Melies The Haunted Castle, 1896.

Since then there have been some very terrifying movies, such as The Haunting (1963), with its horrifying haunted house. You would not want to watch this one alone on a dark winters night. It uses sound to a frightening degree (warning: even the trailer is really chilling). Often films that leave much to the imagination are scarier than those with lots of special effects because of the mystery.

There have also been many entertaining comedy films about ghosts, such as Topper (1937) starring Cary Grant and Constance Bennet, a hilarious story about a dead married couple haunting a crusty old bachelor that lead to some ridiculous situations.

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Plains of the Darling, NSW, detail by Edward Officer

In Australia there are old bush ballads about ghosts, such as the swagman who haunts the billabong in Waltzing Matilda (Matilda was his swag, not a woman). Like Washington Irving’s story, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, the idea of a ghostly horseman riding through the countryside has also peaked Australian writer’s imaginations. One of my favorites is the poem Rafferty Rides Again (1940) by Thomas V Tierney about a bushranger’s ghost that is seen riding in the bush on moonlit nights. As it is still in copyright click on title for a link to the poem. The song Ghost Riders in the Sky is in this tradition and Johnny Cash does a great version.

Whether you believe in ghosts or not, in wintertime it is fun to read or watch spooky stories, especially when you are inside near a fire or heater and you know you can turn up the lights any time you like.

And what better way to end this post than with Australia’s Kransky Sisters, singing Talking Heads Psycho Killer as only they can.

Kat

Nonsense Poems, Funny Pictures and Laughter

I was looking at some classic old humorous books from the 19th and early 20th centuries and found that, although written and illustrated at least 100 years ago, they still are funny and make me laugh. Humor that is based on topical events seems more dated than that which deals with universal themes and one can learn a lot from these inspiring writers and artists. I especially like the nonsense poems and their accompanying illustrations and I thought I would share some of these delightful pieces for those who may be unfamiliar with these works.

One thing that I noticed was there seemed to be an obsession with bizarre noses in a couple of the books. English artist and writer, Edward Lear (1812-1888), who popularized the limerick and nonsense songs and poems that were published in his Books of Nonsense, was especially fond of exaggerated noses. There were a number of limericks devoted to this part of the anatomy and here are a couple of my favorites.

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Lear’s ink drawings are pure whimsy. He was a landscape painter and illustrated books of natural history and his free and imaginative ink drawings are in complete contrast. Yet there is something very tangible about those birds sitting on a nose and Lear’s poems and “sight gags” still have great appeal.

The other nose related reference occurs in American writer Max Adler’s (Charles Heber Clark 1841-1915) Out of the Hurley-Burly or Life in an Odd Corner (1874). We have the Australian edition published by E W Cole (188?). The book is a portrait of Clark’s life in Conshohocken, PA, disguised as fiction and is filled with the comic illustrations of A B Frost. There are also some funny poems. The following Tim Keyser’s Nose tells a wonderfully ridiculous story that is still enjoyable today.

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From noses we move onto another American writer’s take on mythological creatures. Artist Oliver Herford (1863-1935) wrote witty and humorous poetry. We have a first edition copy of The Mythological Zoo (1912) that came from a relative and I recently had a good look at the book. The poems, although written over 100 years ago are still a lot of fun, together with Herford’s amusing illustrations. I have included a couple of poems that show his clever turn of phrase and a modern view of some ancient beasts.

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Every summer someone will still say the annoying words in the last line of The Salamander. Herford had a sharp wit and has been compared with Oscar Wild, as someone who also made very incisive quips.

Cartoons can sometimes become dated when an audience can no longer relate to the subject matter. If it deals with obsolete attitudes or long forgotten events the humor is often lost. Universal themes about basic human nature are less likely to date. These types of cartoons can be found in Melba’s Gift Book (1915), instigated by opera singer Dame Nellie Melba to raise money for The Belgium Relief Fund during WWI and full of works by Australian artists and writers. I’ve singled out a couple of the cartoons that deal with human nature in an amusing way.

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With a change of clothing those partygoers could be a modern couple and procrastination is still a problem for creative people. Everyone needs a nagging pet like that cat.

Sticking with the theme of funny pictures we can still laugh at the visual and physical antics of such comedic masters like Charlie Chaplin in old films.  Chaplin’s little tramp trapped in a sleeping lion’s cage is a hilarious example.  Classic “man out of his comfort zone,” that creates great comedy.

Humorous Music is a bit more difficult. Some old comedy songs just don’t transfer to the present day but there are others that have travelled better. For example Ragtime Cowboy Joe was first recorded in 1912 by Bob Roberts, done again over the years by various performers, including a The Chipmunks version in 1959 and has been given the Muppets treatment. It is still a popular song for the ukulele. I think this a lot to do with the catchy turn of phrase and crazy images it brings to the mind. And it’s a cowboy song.

As well as the feel good value of old humorous works, studying these also provide timeless clues about the crafting of words and visual art for its comic effect. To make others laugh is a wonderful aim. We all need a bit of nonsense in our lives.

Kat

Before there were Emoji

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Washi Ningyo (paper dolls)

I was looking at some of our Japanese doll collection and noticed that the simplified faces were like emoji, first used by the Japanese in mobile phones. These traditional dolls have been around for a long time so maybe this type of art inspired the creators of emoji.  The following photos demonstrate the similarity.  But whether there is any relationship or not it is still fun to speculate and to enjoy the skill and creativity of Japanese doll art.

The paper dolls above are tiny examples of the art of using origami (folded paper) to make beautiful paper dolls.  The boy on the left has a thoughtful expression while the girl’s face is blank so I would liken them to questioning emoji faces.

The above traditional wooden kokeshi dolls are from the mid-twentieth century.  The girl and the older woman with a child both have a very typical calm expression but the little boy is smiling brightly to indicate youthful happiness.

Love the look on the face of this Japanese pin knitting doll that I bought to use for my textile work. She seems to be really pleased and content with the world like she has just eaten chocolate.

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Vintage Daruma Doll

The fabric Daruma doll is a depiction of the founder of Zen Buddhism, Bodhidharma, who meditated for nine years so that his arms and legs atrophied and fell off (for more info on these dolls go here).  His eyes seem to be looking inward like he is in a trance and his mouth seems very determined.  Maybe this expression would indicate quiet reflection if it were an emoji.

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Ceramic Toy Bells (Left to Right) Benzaiten, Ebisu and Daikokuten, three of the Seven Lucky Gods

The Seven Lucky Gods are popular figures in Japanese art.  You often see depictions of Ebisu in Japanese stores and restaurants because he is the god of prosperity and wealth in business.  Daikokuten is also a god of wealth and a demon hunter while  Benzaiten is the goddess of music and beauty (based on the Hindu Goddess Saraswarti).  Ebisu and Daikokuten have very happy contented expressions, as you would if you always caught the big fish or had a bag of  valuable objects and a mallet for killing demons.   Benzaiten has a wistful look as she plays her instrument.  Useful emoji characteristics.

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Kaibina Dolls (Clamshell Dolls), Omamori Amulets

This pair of kaibina dolls made from clam shells are good luck charms (omamori).  They are covered with Kimono fabric.  The pair are supposed to represent a united couple.  While the female doll looks very happy her male counterpart has quite a sour look on his face.  Maybe this is supposed to be an expression of strength and seriousness but it’s more like he has eaten a bad clam.

Japanese dolls are made from all kinds of materials and display a variety of facial expressions and emotions in a simplified manner.  There is probably a lot of tradition involved in these choices, especially with the vintage dolls.  The pin knitting doll that I purchased new a few years ago seems to have a more modern exuberant face than the older dolls like many emoji.

Whatever the origin and influence of emojis, our brain can make all kinds of visual connections between these and Japanese dolls.  The past appears to influence the present and the present adds to tradition.  That’s the way creativity often works.

Kat

Sticking with the Japanese theme I have included a traditional Japanese piece Sakura Sakura (Cherry Blossoms) played on the ukulele and a Japanese animation with the crocheted duo U900 playing the Beatles Twist and Shout on the ukulele.

The Art of the Squiggle

A great way to free up your drawing and to think in an imaginative way is to do squiggles.  A squiggle is a random set of various lines drawn onto a page.  Either oneself or someone else then connects these lines to create an imaginative image.  This type of squiggle drawing originated in the Australian children’s Television program, Mr. Squiggle, which ran from 1959 to 1999 and was beloved by several generations.

Mr. Squiggle was a marionette with a pencil for a nose.  He came from the moon in a rocket and with the help of a grumpy blackboard and a presenter, created his drawings using the squiggles sent in by the child viewers.  It was a form of interactive drawing long before children had access to computer drawing programs.  Mr. Squiggle was the brainchild of puppeteer, Norman Hetherington.  He usually did the drawings upside down from the viewer’s perspective because that is the way he would see the page while operating Mr. Squiggle.  Then the finished drawing would be turned right side up and the image revealed.  Here is a five-minute episode of the program found on You Tube.  It is still delightful to watch.

As children, Mr. Squiggle and his clever drawings fascinated Ellie and me.  No squiggle was too difficult for him to transform.  It seemed like magic when the random lines became something recognizable and usually whimsical.  He must have done thousands of drawings over the 40 years that the show ran.

This drawing concept was so simple yet so inspiring for children.  It taught us how to use our imaginations with just a pencil and an eye for the image long before we learnt about great artists and their techniques.  There was no pressure to produce a great work of art. It was about the pure joy of the act of drawing.  And it was something you could do yourself.  We never sent in a drawing to the show but Ellie and I would do this type of drawing together, each transforming the other’s squiggles into a fun image.  It was a great game to play on rainy days.

I still like to do squiggles.  This type of drawing makes you come up with creative and often amusing ideas because you must use all the lines.  You can do it with someone else but usually I do these drawings for myself.  To make sure that the lines are completely random, I close my eyes and scribble on the page.  Then I look at what I have done and turn the drawing around and view it from different angles.  Sometimes it is possible to see an image immediately but at others it takes longer.  It is good to consider all the shapes and their relationship in space from various perspectives.  But eventually something is revealed.

It is not so much about doing a perfect drawing but more about stimulating the imagination and having fun.  If it turns out a bit wonky that does not matter.  And you can always do another one.  That is what is great about squiggles.  They are endless and you can use the simplest of drawing materials.

All drawing should be as enjoyable as a squiggle and it is a way of restoring your childhood creative spirit.

Happy squiggling.

Kat

Ecstatic about Eggs

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I love all types of decorative eggs.  You could say I’m eggstatic about them just like “Egghead” from Batman (aka Vincent Price) with all his bad puns.  Ellie and I have a small collection.  None of our eggs cost very much and many of them were gifts, as well as some being family heirlooms.  I have also decorated some and created one from scratch.

For many people the egg is a major symbol of Easter, of spring fertility and rebirth.  For kids it is about chocolate.  In many cultures it is also the cosmic egg in creation myths.  The egg is the ultimate symbol of creativity and has inspired many artist’s and crafts people to create beautiful objects.

A collection usually begins with one object.  My parents had a Austrian poker work egg brought back from an overseas trip.  It opens up to form two egg cups and has matching napkins rings.  I was always fascinated by it’s decoration and shape so when I saw other interesting eggs on holiday or in op shops I would snap them up.

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Austrian poker work egg and Swiss tin eggs

Some of our eggs have been brought back by family members from holidays overseas as gifts.  Our aunt gave us some cloisonné eggs from China and they came with little wooden stands.  I also had some old ones from a relative that are good for displaying eggs.  On a trip to Japan several years ago we also found some lovely decoupage eggs when visiting an exhibition at the Tokyo Museum that depict images from some medieval narrative scrolls.

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Chinese cloisonné eggs (back row),  Chinese painted real egg (centre),  Japanese decoupage eggs (left and right centre row) Chinese painted wooden eggs (front row).

Because Australia is so close to Asia it is easy to get Chinese eggs here.  Locally we found some real eggs that were painted with the Animals of the Chinese zodiac, like the horse and monkey.  These are quite fragile and need to be stored carefully.

There are also some Asian plant fibre eggs but I have forgotten where they come from as they were a gift.  Shows you should write things down at the time.

Old egg cups are good for displaying eggs.   We have a couple of vintage majolica ones from Italy: a turkey and a duck, as well as a later goose, all found at op shops.  These are quite fun and painted wooden eggs look great in them.

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Polish wooden eggs and Russian painted egg at back

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Russian wooden eggs

Old napkin rings are also good for displaying eggs.  They come in all sorts of shapes and materials and make an interesting collection of their own.  I also find large vintage buttons good for stopping eggs from rolling around.

Eggs come in so many different materials and can be an example of various crafts.  You can find interesting ones at local craft markets or specialist craft stores.

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Australian painted real eggs and Philippines embroidered fabric eggs

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Hand blown glass eggs

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African stone eggs, two painted and hand engraved and a black wooden ebony egg

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Taiwanese Sodalite egg (left), orange simulated marble egg (centre back), Italian marble egg (right), my talc stone egg (front).

I had a go at sculpting my own talc stone egg.  This caused a great deal of dust and took a lot of sand paper to get the right shape.  I now appreciate how much effort it must take to shape and polish very hard stones.

One year I decided to paint some eggs as table decorations.  The most difficult part was blowing out the white and yolks.  Because I thought I would run out of breath, I used an air brush compressor with a syringe needle attached to the end of the tube.  With too much pressure the egg exploded so it was very tricky and messy.  The blown eggs were then coated with layers of acrylic paint and stippled with another colour to make a textured effect.  I added some gold dust left over from gold leaf that someone had given me and applied it with the varnish.  I think that the aqua ones look like real eggs.  The layers of paint has made them less fragile.

I have a real ostrich egg that I bought at the Melbourne Zoo shop ages ago.  There must have been an excess of eggs in their breeding programs.  Wonder if they made huge omelets.  There were holes in each end of the egg where they had blown out the innards.  These were rather large and not very attractive so I glued in some enamel flower earrings that I did not wear.  This is probably the closest I will get to anything like a Faberge enamel egg and the ostrich did most of the work.  It has such a beautiful creamy shell and is quite heavy.

The following black egg is made from Australian post ice age river red gum found buried in the flood plains of the Murray River.  It is very much like Irish bog oak.  These ancient trees stopped growing about 5,000 years ago and the ancestors of todays indigenous Australians would have been around to see them growing.  This was a gift from a friend who knows the maker.

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The oldest manufactured egg in the collection is tiny.  It is a novelty made in Germany and sold in Melbourne in the late part of the 19th century.  The egg contains the “smallest doll in the world,” a little peg wooden doll that we inherited from a relative.  Unfortunately some long ago child had broken one of the arms because these are movable.  The limb was long gone.  I had to give it an arm transplant using a tiny piece of matchstick and glue (click on the pictures for detailed close ups).  This was really fiddly and I nearly glued it to my finger.  The doll looks a lot happier.

That’s our egg collection.  It is amazing how many creative ways there are to make decorative eggs and these are only a small sample.  It seems appropriate that a major symbol for creation should inspire all sorts of creative, eggceptional ideas.  Sorry, couldn’t help myself.

Kat

Doodle All The Day

Recently I found some of my old doodles that I’d  done on odd bits of cartridge paper.  From a young age I used to doodle all the time.  In front of the TV, when sick in bed, in school books, on scrap paper, in magazines, then later in sketch books, in a doctor’s waiting room.  They tended to be random doodles and had nothing to do with my more developed artwork.  Usually of figures, animals, insects, pixies, fairy tale characters.  Just silly little things.  Amongst my rediscovered drawings there was also a coloured illustration that was developed from the little pixie doodles.  I stuck them all into a visual diary so that they won’t get lost or accidentally thrown out.

Throughout history people have doodled on different surfaces.  Apparently people did them on the edges of clay tablets in antiquity and who knows what can be found on the odd Egyptian papyrus.  Probably doodling became more common with the availability of paper, given that the earlier vellum, made from animal hides, was expensive and took a lot of effort to produce.  You don’t see many doodles on the pages of medieval manuscripts.

Often we discount little flights of fantasy like doodles, but they are a good way of getting ideas for a poem, a story, a larger work of art or illustrations.  I’d forgotten what fun you could have with a pen just aimlessly drawing.  I think I will put a sketchbook and pens in our family room out of the reach of the dogs so that I can doodle when I’m watching TV like I used to.  As long as it is not a foreign film with subtitles, then I won’t get too distracted.

Recent studies have discovered that doodling can aid memory and concentration.  Colouring books for adults have similar benefits and are very popular, but creating you own imagery is so much better.  You are not restricted by boundaries and can go all over the page wherever you like.  Even if you don’t think that you can draw anyone can doodle.  It could be patterns, little cartoons, or stick figures.  The whole point of doodling is to make a mark of some kind in a free manner.  You could start in the middle of the page, at the top or the bottom. There aren’t any rules.

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You can also use paint on canvas and just play around with the paint in a figurative or non-figurative manner.  This is just doodling on a larger scale and is a good way to stop getting precious about your work.  I did a painting like this not so long ago.  On a 30 x 30 inch canvas placed flat of the floor, I swirled around the paint with a brush or dripped it off a wooden chopstick.  This is not my normal way of working and it was fun be free and spontaneous.  I found it totally involving and the painting just evolved.  I still had to use my head and stopped before the paint became muddy and ended up with a painting I would be happy to hang on the wall.

Not everyone has a spare canvas lying around but if you want to use real paint without going to too much expense, you could use masonite board (a thin fibre board) as a surface.  I know there is suitable painting software for a tablet or a computer but it’s a more tactile experience working with real paint where you can create actual textures.  It’s also messier like a lot of things in life.  I had to cover the floor with plastic before I started and still managed to get it on my shoes but they were old ones. The dogs also wanted to help and nearly put their noses in the painting.  Many animals seem to like doodling with paint (chimpanzees, elephants).

Doodling can be an end in itself. Some artist’s have taken doodling to a whole new level, from pages in sketchbooks to huge artworks. Here is a link to some great examples.

creativebloq.com – Doodle Art

Doodling is a form of drawing that can be done anywhere and anytime.  From now on I will remember to doodle. When I’m on the phone, watching TV or when I just want the feel of a pen in my hand.  It’s good to remember that all art starts from making a mark.

Kat

Of Slaters, Microbes and Five-Headed Creatures

 

I was searching through a box of old papers when I came upon some very short stories that I wrote a long time ago.  I did these before we had a computer and the Internet.  I had typed them on an old manual Olivetti typewriter and had done some sketchy illustrations.  They are in a modern fairy tale style, with an absurd, macabre bent.

 

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The Slater and the Meaning of Life (©theartistschild.com 2017)

Have you ever wondered about what also lives at the bottom of your garden besides fairies? What lives in those dark corners or under that rock?  Well, in one small garden rockery lived a slater named Wayne.

Wayne was a typical slater.  He liked to go out with the other slaters for a nice cool drink on a hot night or to lie under a damp rock and daydream.  Despite such an easy life Wayne was dissatisfied.  He wanted to know the meaning of life so he set out on his many slater legs to find it.

The first being he met in the grass beside the rock garden was a slug.  He asked the slug if he knew the meaning of life but the slug couldn’t speak “slater” and slithered on its way.

Next Wayne saw an ant scurrying along carrying the leg of some dead insect but he could not get its attention.  He became puffed trying to catch up and had to rest under a leaf.  Before he could move on a beautiful butterfly landed on the leaf.  Wayne looked up and asked it if it knew the meaning of life but the butterfly was more interested in enjoying the sunshine and told him to push-off.

Wayne plodded on through the grass until he came to a concrete plain and started across it.  At that moment the owner of the garden came driving in and ran over him.

The moral of this story is if you happen to be a slater, don’t become a philosopher.

The End.

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Microbes (©theartistschild.com 2017)

On a shelf in an old pickle jar lived a family of microbes.  They enjoyed feeding and doing microbe things in a sticky green residue of old gherkin.  This might sound quite boring but it was the ideal life for microbes and they were perfectly happy.

One day the person who owned the pickle jar decided to make some preserved fruit and she took the jar from the shelf and placed it in a vat of boiling water.  Of course the microbes were not particularly amused by this action so they put on their heat-resistant suits and went into suspended animation to await a time when it would be safe to enter the world again.

After what seems only a short time to us but an eternity to microbes, the jar was opened and its contents of preserved fruit poured into a bowl.  The temperature gauges on the microbe’s suits were activated and they awakened to find themselves floating in a fruit salad.

Now as this is not a television show or movie, no one came to rescue them and they became part of the dessert.  Unfortunately they were not exactly harmless either, and the poor people who ate them died a rather nasty death.  But the microbes lived happily every after.

The End.

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The Five-Headed Creature (©theartistschild.com 2017)

Once upon a time there lived a creature that had five heads so that it was always at odds with itself.  It would sit under a tree and discuss various things, like the theory of relativity and how to make a yo-yo spin.

One day it said to all of its selves that it would be nice to find a five-headed girlfriend.  It had no idea how to achieve this end so it wrote a letter to the local paper’s advice column and signed it five times just to make sure.

For a week the creature scanned the paper for an answer to the letter and finally it was rewarded for its efforts.  The columnist suggested that the writer of the letter needed his head examined and should visit a psychoanalyst as soon as possible.

The creature made an appointment with one found in the yellow pages after considerable argument with itself.  After a long period of treatment it was pronounced sound of minds if nothing else and was given a large bill, resulting in multiple headaches.

This story shows that while two heads may be better than one, five will mean more money spent on therapy, sunglasses and migraine tablets.

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It’s a good idea to keep all your early writing attempts, as it is fun to look back on what you have done and see how you have developed.  I’d forgotten how much I liked writing quirky little stories.  Life must have gotten in the way.

I also discovered a draft for a short story that I had left unfinished because I did not have enough confidence in my writing ability and started to doubt myself.  That old destructive self censor.  Reading it again I can see that there were some good things in that story so I think I will finish it.  I don’t like leaving anything uncompleted.

Don’t be afraid to go back to something that you have put aside in the past.  It might be better than you thought at the time.

Kat