Squirreled away in darkest memory
In Microtones, our newsletter-first column.
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MICROTONES by Scott Gordon, editor
In Madison, one quickly gets used to bits of quirky local trivia and eccentric local characters. There used to be a toilet-paper museum, you might occasionally experience a thong cape scooter man drive-by or notice a sunken Statue of Liberty thing on frozen Lake Monona, and so on. After I'd lived here for a couple years, stuff like that kind of faded into the background for me and didn't really feel connected to what makes me love the city. Sure, you need a little weirdness and local lore, but don't overplay it.
There is at least one thing, though, that will never cease to disturb and astonish me. About a decade ago, I learned that a funeral home out on the west side had a basement full of taxidermied hunting and fishing trophies from one of the business' co-owners, Sam Sanfillippo. The centerpiece, though, consisted of a bunch of squirrels and other small rodents posed in all manner of human situations: Drinking Old Style and smoking cigarettes at the local tavern, riding a carousel, even dancing at a topless bar. I helped assemble a video of it ages ago. It still gives me a profound sense of unease—it's more like looking at a Bosch painting than a playful portrayal of animals. Why are the squirrels doing these specific human things? And why are there so many of them?
Members of the public, and (I still don't understand the logic of this) funeral-goers used to be able to visit Sanfillippo's cracked tableau. But Sanfillippo died in 2013. His obituary noted that "His unique 3,000+ piece exhibit of his hunting and fishing conquests is still admired to this day," but didn't say a damn thing about the squirrels and the morbid fascination they engendered. The stuff was all auctioned off in 2014, so the bereaved at this particular funeral home will have to find solace in some other distraction.
I recently got into a conversation about this with my friend Lauren Lauter, who raised this question: Did the squirrels die for Sanfillippo's art? Atlas Obscura claims that Sanfillippo's friends from a Missouri Lions Club chapter just liked squirrels and, when they found a dead one, would "freeze it and send it to Sanfillippo for preservation." See? Normal hobby. Lauren also reminded me about Body Worlds, a traveling exhibit that got in trouble in 2006 for using the corpses of unclaimed bodies, possibly executed Chinese political prisoners, in its bizarrely posed displays of actual dead human bodies. (A similar exhibition came to Hilldale Mall in 2010, with the cadavers occupying "four storefronts next to Macy's," the Wisconsin State Journal reported at the time.) Both displays are memorable in their way, but it's not an afterlife I'd wish on any person or beast.
New this week:
The Democrats running in Wisconsin's gubernatorial primary tell us where they standon public arts funding and arts policy.
Reid Kurkerewicz went to Between The Waves, Madison's taxpayer-funded music industry trade show, and reflects on why it feels so disconnected from the local music community.
On the podcast, cellist Mark Bridges discusses his work in the Willy Street Chamber Players and the electronic duo High Plains.
Elsewhere on the Madison internet: Youngblood Brass Band covers Rihanna. Tone Madison's Mark Riechers visits a Madison beehive for To The Best Of Our Knowledge. Trapo has released his Oil Change EP. Deafheaven has announced a November 11 show at the High Noon. Michael Ian Black has announced two shows at the Comedy Club on State on October 28.
This week's Madison calendar: Mauritanian filmmaker Abderrahmane Sissako's Timbuktu screens at the Central Library. Nooky Jones is among the highlights at the Sugar Maple Traditional Music Festival. Singer-songwriter Matt Joyce says goodbye. And more.