The carpenter Levi Fisher Ames left Monroe, Wisconsin, to fight for Abraham Lincoln in 1861. Injured in the war, he returned home in 1865 and--unable to continue with heavy labor--turned to the more delicate work of crafting musical instruments. In his spare time, through long northern Decembers, he carved hundreds of detailed miniatures in wood, most of them animals: exotic and local species, beasts of lore, and whatsits of his own imagining. After a few years, once he'd whittled himself several hundred critters, he built and glazed display cases for his sculptures and began to show them off at summer fairs and Cheese Days celebrations, entertaining crowds with tales of the creatures' adventures.
It was the heyday of the traveling circus and the minstrel show, so Ames--who played the violin--eventually collared several of his musical offspring to bring song and dance to the revue. Another costar was his wooden marionette, a slender figure Ames dressed in priestly black, its jet-and-crimson face a minstrel stereotype but for the pupils: while the left aims straight ahead, the right is carved to tilt skyward; the artist seems to have frozen the thing in the instant of an upward glance, lending a look of terror to the icon's bug-eyed mug. It isn't vapid and it hasn't got stage fright. It's seeing the tent catch fire.
The traveling Grand Museum of Art and Natural History, Whittled out of Wood was a smash with Dairy State audiences of its day, but by the mid-20th century Ames's work was largely forgotten. He didn't get a retrospective show till 2001--at the Kohler Arts Center in Sheboygan, which safeguards his whole known oeuvre. But the outsider art movement has since zoomed in on the self-taught sculptor, and this month Chicagoans can step right up and gawp at his creatures at Intuit: The Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art.
Ames drew inspiration for his animals from tall tales of the times--"fanned by the fires of lumberjack camps, the local circus culture, and a European heritage rife with legends and fairy tales," writes Kohler Center curator Leslie Umberger in the 2001 exhibit catalog. But he also responded to public fascination with natural science. Circuses like P.T. Barnum's trafficked not only in human freaks but in exotic and deformed animals like two-headed serpents and giant lizards as well.
"In the early days of foreign exploration, people had not seen many animals from other countries, and science and medical knowledge was not prevalent enough to explain the physical conditions sometimes on view in the sideshows," writes Umberger. "Like many intrepid entertainers, Ames was aware of the draw of the rare and exotic."
But however fanciful the wings and beaks, it's the eyes that suck you in to most of Ames's melancholy totems. The Dreaded Hellico-Bentum is a two-headed lizard whose vacant orbs and broad snouts strain against each other. The Good Fisher, a sort of kangaroo with the head of a rhino, curves its long tail up to fall over its face; one fish bites the graceful appendage while the animal chows down on another, a sweet, mournful look in its almond-shaped eyes.
Many of the creatures embody a human trait or archetype; several strike poses echoing classical European sculpture: the Grizzly Bear walks upright, cradling a dead deer in its arms like a ravished woman, its neck falling back over his arm in the shape of a horseshoe arch. Other images, says Intuit executive director Jeff Cory, appear "vaguely reminiscent" of what might be seen on a Grecian urn. "I'm not sure about Ames's exposure to classical art, but I would tend to doubt that it was that extensive given the times and his relatively isolated location."
Though raised in Pennsylvania, Ames featured local legends in his show to reel the Wisconsinites in. Most famous was the hodag--a foul-smelling, four-legged, fire-breathing lizard said to contain the revenge-obsessed spirits of dead oxen, beasts of burden for the north woods lumber industry.
Another mythical creature, Ames's Ring Tailed Doodle Sockdologer, depicted at the moment of attack, looks like the offspring of a tryst between a brontosaur and Warren Sapp. Horrible spikes grow from its spine; its vulpine beak and soft, delicate hands all bear down on a little dog.
The word sockdologer, slang at the time for a knockout punch or argument-ending zinger, has a curious link to Ames's old commander in chief. According to the Web site funwords.com, "As an actor, John Wilkes Booth knew that the biggest laugh line in the play Our American Cousin would be, 'Well, I guess I know enough to turn you inside out, you sockdologizing old man-trap!' So Booth waited until that line, and then as the audience roared, he fired his gun and fled."
Lincoln was shot in 1865; Ames's beastie was carved between 1896 and 1910. "That sockdologer stuff is interesting," says Cory. "Who knew of the importance of the term in charting the course of U.S. history? It may be a bit of a stretch to tie the term to the Lincoln assassination in the context of Ames's work, but who can say for sure?"
The Ames exhibit runs through March 1 at Intuit, 756 N. Milwaukee; gallery hours are noon to 5 Wednesday through Saturday. At 2 PM on Saturday, February 1, Umberger will give a free talk and lead a tour of the exhibit. Call 312-243-9088 for more information.