December 16, 2010

THE ART OF RUSSELL RISLEY

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, people traveling along a certain road in Kirby, Vermont would experience “magic”. In front of a weathered old barn, they’d see a transparent row of ghosts.

Upon closer examination they’d realize they were paintings, life-like works of art rendered with conventional house paint. They’d recognize neighbors, local dignitaries, politicians.

Occasionally people would see themselves.

The scene of this extraordinary strangeness was the Russell Risley farm. In addition to the barn paintings, Mr. Risley carved faces on firewood. Fashioned heads atop fence posts. Transformed ordinary field stones into busts or wildlife. He painted a mermaid above the manure pile and an attractive young woman, perfectly proportioned and perfectly naked.

Apparently Mr. Risley could not stop creating. Every surface inside his farmhouse was covered: Landscapes between pantry shelves. Faces peeking over countertops. Carved animals occupying every room.

Russell Risley was born on that farm in 1842. He lived there most of his life with his two sisters Achsah and Hannah.


None of them ever married. They were timid people and didn’t care much for visitors or the curiosity seekers that arrived to fuss over Russell’s art.

In an effort to keep the uninvited away, Rus kept a hand painted sign on the gatepost of the road leading up to his house. Typically taciturn, it said simply “SMALL POX”.

As a consequence of all this, his neighbors judged him “a tad peculiar”. But Mr. Risley was an eccentric genius, a self-taught artist who studied foreign languages in his spare time, and built wild inventions to make farm work easier.

For example, he created a system of pulleys that whisked him back and forth between house and barn. A similar contrivance transported heavy milk pails.

In addition to dairying, his vast sugar bush contained a system of pipes to carry sap to the sugarhouse -- possibly Vermont’s first tubing system.

Today few people remember the Risleys.

Nor is there much written history. The few accounts I found suggest they were quintessential Vermonters: hardworking, thrifty, and loath to venture far from home.

One neighbor -- quoted in an old account -- said, "Rus Risley was a temperamental old codger. Sometimes he would talk and sometimes he wouldn't, but chances were ten minutes after you left his place he would have your face carved on a piece of wood!"

Today I want to recall this extraordinary artist who worked his magic in an era when no-nonsense Vermonters didn’t place much value in such folly. The result, it seems, is that every single Risley painting and piece of sculpture has vanished from the face of the earth.

But then again, maybe that’s exactly how Russ would have wanted it.

©2010 by Joseph A. Citro

Many thanks to Pat Swartz of the Fairbanks Museum and Carla Occaso for research support.

Risley images from the Joe Citro collection. I am uncertain about who may own these images. Please let me know if I am using them improperly.

And please let me know if you have more!

December 1, 2010

PIGMANIAC



Have you heard about Pigman?

My pal Steve Bissette says this about my “Pigman” story:

“This was one of the many previously unknown and undiscovered ‘weird’ tales Joe ‘broke’ during his career as Vermont’s premiere gatherer of ‘tales that might not be fiction,’ and among his most unusual regional monster tales.”

Unusual indeed.

Steve and I worked together on several projects involving the Pigman. Steve provided a color portrait of the critter for my book Weird New England (2005), and an additional rendering for The Vermont Monster Guide (2009), a book we did together.

Today (December 1, 2010), and for a few days more, Steve is selling his cool Pigman art on his website (http://srbissette.com/).

A pig-perfect $mas gift, wouldn’t you say?

For those who may not know the pigman story, here’s the very abbreviated Reader’s Die-jest version.

MEET THE PIGMAN

It all started in Northfield, Vermont in 1971 when a man on an isolated Turkey Hill farm heard animals rooting in his trash cans.

He rushed to the window and flicked on his floodlights. There, at the edge of the illuminated circle, he saw a man-sized figure standing upright.

As the two glared at each other, the man couldn't believe his eyes. The intruder was naked, covered with light, possibly white, hair. And – most terrifying of all -- it had the hideous face. . . of a pig.

Seconds later the abomination bolted into the woods.

Shortly afterwards a cluster of terrified teenagers met the creature behind the high school. They ran into the safety of the gymnasium, white with fear.

Again the description was the same: It was hairy, walked like a man, and had the horrible face of a pig.

Recounting the events later, one of boys referred to the creature as "Pigman." The name caught on.

THE DEVIL’S WASHBOWL

More sightings occurred on an isolated road near what locals call the “Devil's Washbowl”.

There numerous drivers had nighttime encounters with an odd, oversized "animal." It appeared ghostly white in their headlights, darting from tree to tree or dashing in front their vehicles.

One terrified traveler reported that the beast jumped onto the hood of his moving car before it leapt off into the bushes.

ASSAILED BY THE PIGMAN

Another young couple parking at a nearby turnoff claimed that when the boy got out to relieve himself he was seized and brutally smashed against the side of his own vehicle.

His girlfriend heard him yell, felt the impact of his body against the car. The shaky lad swore his assailant was the Pigman. He’d seen it clearly. It was a five-foot-eight to five-foot-ten. It had white hair with that monstrous boar-like face. But he added this detail: the creature's hands were not like those of a man or a pig. It had long claws or talons. To prove it, he displayed livid slashes across his chest and arms.

WHERE’S PIGMAN?

Civilian and police searches revealed nothing and eventually the “Pigman Encounters” ended just as suddenly, mysteriously, and unexpectedly as they began.

A QUESTION

So here’s the question: Why is Vermont’s Pigman so little known? Why hasn’t he been elevated into the National Bizarre Bestiary along with such mystery superstars as Champ, the Dover Demon, Mothman, the Jersey Devil, and the ubiquitous Bigfoot?

Don’t you think Northfield should have its own unique monster? Maybe we could call it something like. . . “Pigfoot.”



(This is Steve's picture. I don't mean it's a picture of Steve. Rather, Steve created it and all the Pigman images).

All images @ Stephen R. Bissette

©2004 by Joseph A. Citro