Beware! Here there be Horndribbles.
They slink with squishy tentacles and fuzzy antennae, a menagerie so grotesque it makes the denizens of Where the Wild Things Are look like Beanie Babies. Only a few dozen of the creatures have ever been seen by human eyes, tracked down in the wilds of New Zealand and other such exotic environs by a team of three brave explorers led by Lucas Richards, an intrepid, Indiana Jones-esque adventurer with nerves of steel. His fiancée, Sarah Cassidy, is the compassionate, Jane Goodall type who tries to build a rapport with the strange animals. And Brett Duesing is the snooty, stuffy professor who's only interested in the Horndribbles as a means to augment his academic glory.
Together they're a new breed of researcher that Duesing has dubbed "Monstrologists: the punk rockers of the hard sciences."
And there is something very punk rock about the three of them creating a whole world filled with their own brand of small, plush creatures as uniquely freakish as they are lopsidedly adorable. To bring the brood to life, Richards, a cartoonist who is known for his work on the surreal comic book Captain Missiletoe, starts by sketching out each Horndribble on paper. Then he and Cassidy draw patterns, select materials and start the laborious twelve hours or so that go into stitching and stuffing each one.
"If someone saw me, they'd say I needed psychiatric help," admits Richards, who by day slings plates at the hip Bump & Grind cafe. "For four and a half months, I've been sitting on the couch, sewing. We have a whole room filled with fleece, felt, googly eyes, thread -- everything."
"It started out with both of us sewing all day and drinking coffee, or sewing all night and drinking wine," adds Cassidy, a waitress at WaterCourse Foods. "But now they've taken over. Lucas is obsessed."
And the obsession doesn't end there. What helps propel the Horndribbles from stuffed animals to fine art -- Andenken Gallery is devoting its entire space to the varmints for an exhibit that opens with a reception on February 3 -- is the text that accompanies them. Penned by Duesing, who writes copy for a local PR firm, these two-paragraph descriptions are a witty mix of taxonomy and bloated scientific jargon that minutely details the habits and habitats of each Horndribble. His work would make the legendary cryptozoologist Charles Forte proud.
"We use a lot of satire," Duesing says. "I try to make fun of science. I know enough big words, like 'endosymbiosis.' I like old biology texts, like before 1950; they just seem so pompous. They use this really refined and elevated language, and there's such a distance between themselves and the subject that is actually kind of funny. So I use that language to talk about their habitats and their mating practices. How they pee."
"What Brett does gives the project a broader span," Richards adds. "There are ecosystems. There's geography. There's evolution. There's a history for all of them. They all intermingle and relate to each other, almost like Pokémon. It becomes its own world.
"We might be," he adds without a trace of sheepishness, "our own Horndribble Trekkies."
There's a little kid in each of us -- but Richards's inner child is running the show. Before the Horndribbles became his obsession over a year ago, the thirty-something, five-foot-five ("He always tells people he's four-foot-eight," notes Cassidy) artist showed his affinity for miniatures with an exhibit that involved the painstaking renovation of old army men and action figures. His first batch of forty Horndribbles was exhibited last January at WaterCourse, and the reception was so overwhelming that he and Cassidy wound up showing the critters at Dazzle and having an animated, interactive Horndribble installation at last summer's LoDo Music Festival.
"I think I never grew up," Richards gleefully admits. "I don't like watching grownup movies; even talk shows freak me out. Real life is scary to me. When I was a kid, my pops used to paint Civil War soldiers. In our basement, he made a huge train set with papier-mâché mountains, and since he was a doctor, he used tongue depressors to make cabins and stuff. I just played in there for hours.
"I've had enough amazing people in my life who take care of me and allow me to be creative and to be a kid," he continues. "I think for that very reason, I've been able to enter another world."
Among the cast of creatures in that world is the Imperial Flatupotamus, an amphibian that harnesses its own flatulence to move through the water and turns its body into a bagpipe; the Crepeasaurus, an incredibly dense specimen that flattens its prey into pancakes before eating it; and the Puppeteer, an octopus-like creature that has developed the ability to make hand puppets and throw its voice -- an adaptation that has evolved to an acute multiple-personality disorder.
"A lot of the animals have human characteristics and social problems and neuroses," Duesing explains. "One of them is bipolar. That's what's interesting. These guys make these stuffed animals that are brightly colored and furry like Muppets. And then I'm the writer guy who is dark and caught up in my gag. If you just had the brightly colored stuff, it would be too syrupy. Together it becomes something more. It's like Lennon and McCartney."
"He puts the word 'penis' in there," Richards points out. "He's a real perv. That guy's got real issues."
"You start reading these descriptions," Cassidy confirms, "and by the end you're like,'This stuffed animal's really fucked up.'"
"We kind of have the conceit that these creatures are real. And once you play along, you're in it," Duesing sums up. "When you start getting interested in this stuff, it becomes a bigger world, a conceptual world. And I think that's something artistic."
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Not everyone agrees. "When the Horndribbles were up at WaterCourse last year," Cassidy remembers, "I'd be working, and people who didn't know I was involved with the project would ask me questions like, 'This doesn't really qualify as sculpture, does it? This is just a bunch of felt. Come on, it's a stuffed animal. Lame.' And I'd be like, 'Well, um, actually...' It's awkward. And I know that might happen again. Sewing is not an accepted medium right now at all. I hope that there will be enough people who see it and can understand it. It is an art."
"Usually you go in a gallery, scan the room, look at a picture for a few seconds, scratch your chin and then move on," Duesing notes. "It's a very dry experience. I don't know where the Horndribbles fall between high art and low art, but people are genuinely entertained by them."
And while Richards is open to the idea of licensing his hordes of handmade monstrosities for manufacture, he's still very wary of taking that step into legitimacy -- not to mention adulthood.
"If I mass-produced them, I'd be finished with the Horndribbles," he says. "If that happens, it'll be the thing that pays for my house in Hawaii, but it won't be my baby anymore. But I am realizing that with the comeback of The Lord of the Rings and video games and comic books, people still want to be kids. They're sick of having to grow up so fast. That's what I want the Horndribbles to do, to take what people had as a child and keep it as a grownup and look at it from that aspect. I don't think it's about art. It's about being a kid again."