Sunday, August 14, 2011

Finding the "cow-ness" of our cows

Students who've made it to the University of Minnesota campus in St. Paul and seen the cow sculptures on the lawn there will recognize the huge reclining bovine here, part of a series done by Connecticut sculptor Peter Woytuk. Woytuk has said that he wanted to emphasize the mass of the bull, to make it a part of the landscape.

The other sculpture was done by a Maine sculptor, Roger Prince. I was struck when I first saw Roger Prince's sculpture and the U of M bull how these two pieces of art had captured some aspect of bovines. Neither artist had included all the details of the real cow/bull--the reclining animal doesn't seem to have any ears. Yet in its eyes, the way the head and neck are portrayed, the bulk of the shoulders, we have a sense of an animal who has an intelligence and might be sizing us up, too.

Roger Prince doesn't want his cow, small enough to stand on a side table, to be part of the landscape. He seems to want us to view her as a curious, but solid creature. He has also chosen, to place emphasis on the head and neck, to give us a sense of curiosity in this cow. And, to give viewers a sense of solidity he's made the hooves much larger than cows' hooves are. Because of those broad hooves, we don't think anyone will be tipping this cow soon.

And the photograph shows us a real cow, one of an old breed from England, called White Park. We see its distinctive horns, the black ears and nose--a real cow, not larger or smaller, not interpreted.

Each image of cow gives us slightly different information and a different impression of "cow-ness."

When we are writing our stories, whether fiction or non-fiction, we learn so much about our characters that we often want to share all that we know, the interesting little quirks of their lives, the side roads and byways that take them out of the main direction of our story.

In fact we can't, we shouldn't tell it all , we only need to select the details that give readers a clear sense of our characters and how they are moving through the story. We bootstrap ourselves along in story-making. As we know our plot, we learn which details of character we will want to include. As we figure out details of character we have more information and more plot choices.


  1. I think by trying to get the "ness" of something, be it a character or a story, we are going for the essence and we allow the reader to do much of the work, which engages them more deeply in the story. Yes, I know that it is a cow and now I will make it my cow.

  2. This post makes me miss our early morning walks with occasional visits to the U of M campus (and the bakery afterward). I am just back from two weeks in Vermont, where we watched a small herd of cows (a dozen) grazing in our mountain pasture. Each had its own personality within the herd, including the littlest calf, all curiosity and eagerness (until Mama warned him to stay away from pesky humans). Cowness indeed.

  3. Oh Jackie, like the books you write you help us to see the world. Comparing sculpture and writing is perfection. And to think or wonder how much more detail the artists put in at first and what they decided to take away. We, the creators, needs to know so much more than the viewer/reader. The tricky part is to know what the viewer/reader needs to know. And that always seems to be a matter of trust.

  4. These pictures are so visual! Seemingly small choices lead to big differences in points of emphasis--which reflect a core truth while not being exact truth.