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"Sacred Rain" by Theodore Morris
"Sacred Rain" ***
  The Calusa Indians were hunter-gatherers who lived well on the plentiful marine life, fruits and vegetation of southern Florida. They survived devastating storms and the daily challenges of life in the tropical Everglades – creating masterful works of woodcarving as they flourished to dominate the region.

Since then, disease and war have claimed the last of the Calusa. They are known to us only through scattered accounts of Spanish explorers and artifacts recovered during archeological excavations of the region.

Most of the information we have on the Calusa was written by Jesuit Missionaries. The remnants of the Calusa left for Cuba from the Keys with the Spanish and later from St. Augustine, in 1763, when the British took over Florida.

Artist Headline 1
Frank Hamilton Cushing led an archeological dig at the north end of Marco Island in 1895. Known as the Pepper-Hearst expedition, it resulted in the discovery of over 1,000 wooden artifacts: products of the Calusa Indian culture that existed between 2,000 and 500 years ago.

The Key Marco Cat – a half-human, half-panther figure thought to have religious significance – is the most famous of the Pepper-Hearst artifacts. Carved in native buttonwood using shark teeth and shell scrapers, the 6-inch figure is a pristine example of the fine Calusa artistry and workmanship. Cushing himself described it as a:

“...man-like being in the guise of a panther.  Although it is barely 6 inches in height, its dignity of pose may fairly be termed “heroic”, and its conventional lines are to the last degree masterly.  While the head and features – ears, eyes, nostrils and mouth – are most realistically treated, it is observable that not only the legs and feet, but also even the paws, which rest so stoutly upon the thighs or knees of the sitting or squatting figure, are cut off, unfinished; bereft, as it were, of their talons.  And this, I would note, is quite in accordance with the spirit of primitive sacerdotal art generally – in which it was ever sought to fashion the form of a God or Powerful Being in such wise that while its aspect or spirit might be startlingly shown forth, the powers associated with its living form might be so far curtailed, by the incompletion of some of its more harmful or destructive members, as to render its use for the ceremonial incarnation of the God at times, safe, no matter what his mood might chance, at such times, to be.” **

Scientists say that careful rubbing with animal fat left a patina that protected the figure after it was buried by a catastrophic hurricane in the 12th or 13th century.

Although more than 100 wooden ceremonial masks, statuettes, batons, and heads of animals such as a wolf, sea turtle, pelican, and alligator were found, the article that most fascinated Cushing was a wooden deer head. He wrote:

"This represents the finest and most perfectly preserved example of combined carving and painting that we found .... In form ... it portrayed with startling fidelity and delicacy, the head of a young deer or doe .... [The ears] were also relatively large ... fluted, and their tips were curved as in nature ... they were painted inside with a creamy pink-white pigment ... and the black hair tufts at the back were neatly represented by short black strokes of paint .... The muzzle, nostrils and especially the exquisitely modeled and painted lower jaw, were so delicately idealized that it was evident the primitive artist who fashioned this masterpiece loved, with both ardor and reverence, the animal he was portraying...."

History 3
In 2006, Naples resident Peter Sottong gained unprecedented access to unpublished photos* of the Key Marco Cat (now housed at the Smithsonian Institution National Museum of Natural History). Using those photos and archeological records, Peter carved an accurate replica of the cat from which to create a mold and castings, and developed a proprietary paint-stain combination that closely approximates the original patina.


*Photographs provided by Bill Perdichizzi, a director of the Marco Island Historical Society. Bill and his wife Betsy were granted special access to the Key Marco Cat by Smithsonian Institute archivists.

**Frank Hamilton Cushing, 1896.  Proc. Amer. Phil. Soc., Vol.XXXV, No. 153, Pepper-Hearst Expedition.  A Preliminary Report on the Exploration of Ancient Key-Dweller Remains on the Gulf Coast of Florida.

*** "Sacred Rain" image at top of page used with the permission of Florida artist Theodore Morris. See more of his work at floridalosttribes.com.

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Copyright 2015 Peter Sottong, All Rights Reserved • pete@keymarcocat.com

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