Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Who will speak for the knees?

This is the root of a cypress tree—what's known as a cypress "knee"—and it's something I see occasionally on my estate sale rounds in San Antonio. Cypress trees are native to this area and they figure mightily into the city's second-most-famous tourist attraction, the Riverwalk. The roots poke up out of the earth like stalagmites, or like prehistoric fingers—don't you think this one looks like it's giving us the finger? It would not surprise me to know that trees were collectively flipping the bird at San Antonio, given how they're razed willy-nilly here to make room for big-box shopping centers and condos.

Turns out that cypress knee art was once quite the thing in the Southeastern United States, especially Florida where the rampant kneecapping of cypresses resulted in laws prohibiting the practice (the knee obtains oxygen for the tree—cut it off and the tree is very sad). Some artists would just varnish the wood and let the biomorphic shapes speak for themselves, perhaps topping it with a lampshade. Others were a tad more literal, carving and/or painting the knees to resemble wizards, witches and gnomes (google images for cypress knee art and you'll see what I mean).

At this website, I learned about Tom Gaskins, the preeminent cypress knee artist, who died in 1998. Check out the completely awesome vintage brochures for his Florida roadside attraction Cypress Kneeland, "a 3 in 1 attraction," comprising a cypress knee museum, the world's first cypress knee factory, and a 2,000-foot catwalk in a cypress swamp. The museum featured knees resembling FDR, Stalin and "a lady hippo wearing a Carmen Miranda hat." The brochure makes some pretty grandiose statements, which I've no reason to doubt:

The collection is fantastic, artistic, humorous. One with a well-oiled imagination can see in the knees nearly everything that was and is yet to be. Animals, birds, and people you will recognize, good and bad.

Gaskin's son had taken over the family business after his father died, and in an article in Roadside America, he gave one of the best quotes I've read in a good long while: "This place is real Florida. It's not a plastic mouse show. I'm a Florida Cracker, a piney woods rooter. I know how to survive on acorns. It'll be a long time before anyone ever shuts us down."

Unfortunately, he had to shut the place down in 2000 after someone broke in and stole many of the best knees. Total drag, right? The only places I've been in Florida are the aforementioned "plastic mouse show" and the place in Miami where the big cruise ships depart. I'm bummed that I'll never bear witness to the treasures Gaskin amassed.

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