ISFA News, Volume 9, no. 2 (September, 2003)

Tenth Bulletin Preview

Articles for the 2003 Bulletin are currently being edited and illustrated. This year’s volume is likely to be slimmer than last year’s record-setting 366 pages for three reasons: (1) Our budget for this year’s issue is smaller due to overspending of funds last year on impressive but costly color plates; (2) Last year’s Bulletin was too thick for its size, making it difficult to open without breaking the spine; (3) Our volunteer editorial staff can only process a limited number of articles before our anticipated press run in mid-December.

Nevertheless, the forthcoming issue is likely to be highly educational and vastly entertaining. The volume will open with a tribute to John L. Cox, the Victorian gentleman who collected so many wonderful Klamath Indian string figures for Caroline Furness Jayne way back in 1905. The bulk of the article will consist of biographical material and anecdotes supplied by JLC’s living descendants, including his son James, his daughter Mary, and his grandson John L. Cox III. Author Mark Sherman will also examine the circumstances that allowed JLC to collect string figures without having to travel far from his home in Philadelphia (most were gathered from Indians attending a local boarding school).

The showcase articles in this year’s Bulletin will examine two unpublished string figure collections made in Quebec. The first was made in 1966 by anthropologist Bernard Saladin-D’Anglure among the Inuit (Eskimos) who live along the coast of Ungava Bay, located at the north end of the Labrador peninsula. For years Labrador has remained terra incognita with respect to string figures. Significant collections have been made in neighboring regions (i.e., among the Inuit of Pelly Bay to the west, and Greenland to the east), but until now collections from northern Quebec and/or Newfoundland have remained elusive. Unfortunately, Dr. Saladin D’Anglure was unable to record methods of construction for the 57 figures he gathered at Wakeham (Maricourt), but the patterns and accompanying titles he recorded are valuable nonetheless.

Before his untimely death in 1992, anthropologist and missionary Guy Mary-Rousselière (author of a classic book on Netsilik Eskimo string figures) spent a great deal of time studying the Ungava specimens gathered by Saladin D’Anglure. Fortunately, his comparative notes survived the fire that claimed his life. In many cases he was able to equate the Ungava figures with figures he gathered among the Netsilik and/or Iglulik and published in his book, but since the instructions he published are written in French, they remain inaccessible to the majority of string figure enthusiasts. Therefore, in cases where the Ungava figure is identical in name and pattern to a figure published by Mary-Rousselière, an English translation of the method he published will be provided, even though there is no guarantee that the Netsilik/Iglulik method was the method utilized by the Ungava tribe. Cultural notes will also be provided to enhance the reader’s appreciation of the collection.

The second showcase article will examine string figures gathered among the nomadic Naskapi-Montagnais Indians that inhabit the sparsely populated interior of the Labrador Peninsula as well as the North Shore of the St. Lawrence River. The collection, which includes methods, was made by Frederick Waugh in 1924 at Sept Îles (Seven Isles), a North Shore trading post where Indians gathered in the summer to sell furs and mingle with fellow tribesmen. Ironically, Waugh’s principal informant (Peta’banu) was a member of the so-called Ungava band of Naskapi-Montagnais Indians, a band that often interacted with the Inuit who lived at Fort Chimo on Ungava Bay hundreds of miles north of Sept Îles! As a result, many of the string figures Waugh collected are also present in Saladin D’Anglure’s Inuit collection. The two collections therefore provide us with an intriguing glimpse of how string figures diffuse from one ethnic group to another. Even more intriguing is the fact that Waugh’s collection appears to be nearly identical to a collection assembled by Dr. Dorothy Kern Hallowell in the summer of 1924 at Sept Îles (her informant was likewise Peta’banu). Hallowell’s collection of 42 figures sewn on cards is described in Frank Speck’s book Naskapi, published in 1935, but only titles and a comparative table are given — no illustrations or instructions appear in Speck’s book. In recent years attempts to locate Hallowell’s mounted specimens have not met with success. Attempts to contact Dr. Hallowell directly were abandoned when it was learned that she was brutally murdered by her adopted son, who is currently serving a life sentence at a prison in Pennsylvania (details will appear in the article). The article will also provide readers with details about the mysterious disappearance of Frederick Waugh, which was mentioned in the Ojibwe article that appeared in our 2001 Bulletin. Waugh disappeared in 1924 (shortly after making his string figure collection) while en route from Sept Îles to his home in Ottawa.

In last year’s Bulletin Joaquim Paulo Escudeiro of Portugal entertained readers with pages of stylized drawings that illustrate how children in Lisbon vary the ever-popular ‘Cat’s Cradle’ series. In this year’s Bulletin he describes the “rules” the children have developed in an effort to make the game more competitive. His article is called “Street Cat’s Cradles”. The article includes a series of drawings that illustrate what happens when the “rules” are applied during a typical session.

In the September 1997 issue of String Figure Magazine, co-editor Joseph D’Antoni illustrated a clever two-figure series from Alaska called ‘The Kayaker and the Mountains’. The upper part of the final figure consists of five triangles that represent five mountain peaks. According to the Alaskan natives who make this figure, if the peaks appear distinctly then the weather is said to be clear, but if the upper strings clump together obscuring the peaks, the mountains are said to be shrouded in fog. After playing with the figure for several days Joseph D’Antoni discovered a way to make a mountain range with any number of peaks. He later expanded his investigations to include figures made with two loops. A fine set of computer generated line drawings will illustrate the article.

Anyone who has read recent issues of our Bulletin knows that James Murphy is one of the most prolific and innovative string figure artists of our generation. His systematic approach and appreciation of fine structure within each design is unrivaled. Granted, not everyone fully understands his elaborate systems, nor can everyone make all the figures he designs, but those of us who can are consistently amazed and amused!

Those of us who know James Murphy personally are grateful that he is willing to share his creations freely via eloquently composed email missives that he often illustrates with digital photographs. Sometimes the resulting discussion threads last for months! In the forthcoming issue of our Bulletin, one such discussion thread will be reproduced so that readers can appreciate how string figure artists feed off each other, and how the sharing process drives the evolution of modern string figures. The article will include variations of a Fijian figure that Joe Ornstein stumbled upon many years ago, plus a discussion of how various string qualities (stiffness, size, surface, and span) affect the “blossoming” of an extended design.

As usual, the Bulletin will conclude with an entertaining assortment of “Letters to the Editor”.

New Members

During the past six months the ISFA acquired 21 new members. In addition, two previous members rejoined. 34 of last year’s members failed to renew their memberships this year. As a result, we now have 224 members living in 21 countries.

Our new overseas members are: Dona Nazareth, Basel, Switzerland and Mark Chadwick, Gwynedd, Wales, United Kingdom. From Canada we welcome Lucina Pinto of Toronto, Ontario. Our new US members include: Lee Enger, Iowa City, Iowa; Jo-Ruth Strange-Mosteller and Bennett, Fayetteville, Arkansas; Michael J. Cox, Allentown, Pennsylvania; Anita Friedman, Lompoc, California; Mary L. Cammann, Portland, Oregon; Catherine G. Landry, Stanford, California; Andrew Kedl, Minneapolis, Minnesota; Patti Lyon, Albuquerque, New Mexico; Anne Marie Richards, Warrensburg, New York; Tee Swan, Kailua, Hawaii; Jean-Paul Valjean, Albany, California; John Cooper, Forest Park, Georgia; Jonas Kerner, Oceanside, New York; Josh Lachman, Berkeley, California; Leonard Farina, Harrisville, New Hampshire; and Sara Tittizer, Cedar Park, Texas. Rejoining us is Edward Jackman, Los Angeles, California and Anne Glover, Victoria, British Columbia. We are grateful for your support!

String Figure Angels for 2003

In an ideal world membership in the ISFA would be free. Unfortunately the cost of printing and mailing our publications exceeds the financial resources of our volunteer staff. We therefore request $25 from members annually to partially offset our costs (plus $10 for overseas postage). For the balance we rely on the generosity of devoted members who love our publications. Although we greatly appreciate every extra dollar that members contribute, we like to acknowledge the generosity of large contributors by dubbing them String Figure Angels. By definition, an angel is someone who contributes at least $25 more than the requested amount, or someone who recruits a new member. Archangels are members who contribute $100 or more.

This year we wish to acknowledge the generosity of the following String Figure Angels: Bob Grimes, Dean Abel, David Titus, C. J. Hartman, Randy von Smith, Belinda Holbrook, Agnes Tomorrow, Mayme Strange, Mary Ellen Shu, Catherine Salika, Beth Anderson, Wyatt Phillips, Beverly Matson, Ron Read, Julie Hocking, John Sigwald, Frederick Dick, Deirdre Cheallaigh, Yonah Lempert, James Craddock, Fred Alcantar, Mike Sloey, Fred Schreiber, Marcia Gaynor, Richard Brudzynski, Eugene Bowen, Daniel McCarthy, Andrew DeValpine, Thomas Kubota, Audrey Small, Allen Tans, Yukio Shishido, Michael Grigsby, Ian Ferguson, Claire Miller, and Camilla Gryski.

Our String Figure Archangels for 2003 are: David Eisenberg, James Murphy, William Lawrence, Udo Engelhardt, Analee Perica, Carole Graham, Lois and Earl Stokes, Paul Power, Will Wirt, Joseph D’Antoni, John Burnes, Tom and Karen Storer, David Parkinson, Carey C.K. Smith, Paulo Escudeiro, Henry Rishbeth, and Mark Sherman.

Because of your generosity we are able to continue publishing our Bulletin and Magazine, both of which will continue to delight and amaze readers for years to come. Thank you!

New String Figure Book

String Games, by Richard Darsie (2003). 96 pages. ISBN 1-4027-0089-X (spiral-bound, with strings) ISBN 0-8069-7735-3 (hardcover, without strings). Published by Sterling Publishing Co., New York, New York. Price: US $14.95 (spiral or hardcover). Available from in the United States (30% discount on the spiral-bound edition). Also available from Amazon affiliates in Canada, Great Britain, France, Germany, and Japan as of October 31.

Former ISFA member Richard Darsie is known to most readers as the author and webmaster of a very colorful and well written website called World-Wide Webs: String Figures from Around the World. Darsie’s site was one of the first string figure websites, dating from the mid-90s. When editors at Sterling visited this site in 2001 they immediately envisioned a book and promptly offered Mr. Darsie a publishing contract. The resulting product is well worth the meager asking price.

Darsie’s book is a full-color publication having 96 glossy pages graced with over 200 photographs of hands with rainbow string. Unlike Darsie’s website, intermediate stages for each string figure are illustrated.

Following the Introduction and Getting Started sections is a chapter of Beginning Figures that includes figures named Scissors, Jacob’s Ladder, Walking Sticks of an Old Woman, A Chest Ornament, A Fishing Net, and Lightning. More difficult figures are presented in the next chapter called Now Try These. Here the reader will find instructions for making Hina’s Skipping Rope, Teniako’s Bridge, Ten Men, and Crayfish. The chapter on String Figure Series features Mr. Umake, Crabs, and Mt. Fuji. In Figures for Two People one finds A Mountain, A Looking Glass, and A Sting Ray. Catches and Tricks teach readers how to do the Caroline Islands Catch, how to Cut off the Fingers (2 methods), and how to do the Buttonhole Trick. In the last chapter the author tackles Three-Dimensional String Figures called Two Mountains and a Stream, A King’s Throne, The Howler Monkey’s Mouth, and A Butterfly. Many of these figures are either from Jayne’s book, K. Haddon’s book, or past issues of our Bulletin and Magazine. A few figures from Honor Maude’s books are also featured. A full review of this splendid book will appear in the forthcoming issue of our Bulletin.

2004 Conference Update

In the March newsletter we ran an editorial in which Mark Sherman proposed that members gather next year in either St. Louis (to celebrate the 100-year anniversary of Jayne’s string figure collecting adventures at the World’s Exposition) or in Montreal (to coincide with the 4th World Festival of Traditional Games and Sports, July 30 to August 8, 2004). Those who attended our first gathering in Winnipeg in 1998 were thrilled to meet fellow enthusiasts and are eager to attend another gathering. Nearly a dozen other members have also expressed an interest in attending.

So far, about half of the potential attendees have expressed an interest in having the meeting in St. Louis, largely because it is within driving distance for them. ISFA member Belinda Holbrook contacted organizers of the St. Louis festivities and was told that a bicentennial event will take place March 14th to 17th with President Bush attending. Smaller events are planned throughout the city every weekend from March through November.

The other potential attendees feel that Montreal would be “less humid and more culturally stimulating.” Furthermore, it would provide an opportunity for collecting figures from ethnic delegates attending the games. German ISFA member Lothar Walschik and his 18-member string figure troupe have already been officially invited to attend and perform at the Festival. Day passes, which include 3 meals, sell for $41 (Canadian).

If you have a preference, please send us a letter or e-mail message so we can begin to finalize plans. Who knows — maybe we will end up having two gatherings!

Last updated December 8, 2004
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