Saturday, June 22, 2019

New exhibit! Zymoglyphic Art of the Modern Age

Art in the Zymoglyphic region was originally a way to connect with an unseen world, as can be seen in the artifacts of the Rust Age.  In more secular times, art, in the form of dioramas and assemblages, celebrated the wonders of the world, particularly the natural world.  Then, with the pervasive influence of Modernism, art became more formalized and self-referential, art as Art.  Various schools and philosophies blossomed and withered.  This exhibit presents a survey in miniature of the more influential ones.

The museum's collection of miniature modern art was originally displayed in a series of shoebox galleries.  These galleries were superseded in 2013 by a shiny new structure in the San Mateo location. This year, a repurposable industrial space (an old wooden box) was made available for use by the gallery and the new exhibit was born in the current Portland location.

The new exhibit is accompanied by a trifold exhibit catalog which describes the various schools of art.  Much of that information is available here  One pioneering group, for example, was called "Natural Modernism".  They would gather beach rocks that resembled modernist sculpture, giving rise to the term TTLLA, or "things that look like art."

Shoebox gallery, exterior view
Shoebox gallery, inside view
Natural modernism

Friday, January 25, 2019

The Positively Unknown

New book announcement! "The Positively Unknown: A Kid's Guide to the Zymoglyphic Museum" is now available.  Pick up a copy while you are visiting the museum!   Suitable for kids of all ages, and inner children as well.

The author, Alex, provides us with her personal takes on the exhibits, interesting background information on  specimens, and interactive puzzles for the reader.  You can also use it as a coloring book!

You can view the book in its entirety here.  The author will be available for a book signing at the museum Sunday, January 27th, from 11 AM to noon.

There is always a question as to whether the museum itself is "kid-friendly." From the FAQ:

Q: Is the museum kid-friendly?
The museum is ideal for someone such as a junior nerd with a burgeoning collection of rocks and skulls, looking for creative inspiration. It is not, however, a children's museum with pushbuttons or even a good place to while away some time with the kids. Exhibits are fragile and should not be touched, so small children would need watching. Ultimately we rely on parental/guardian judgment.

Thursday, January 03, 2019

In Defense of Alchemy

This oil painting by Portland narrative artist Jen Brown is part of a political allegory series. I served as the model, but the painting is not intended as a portrait of me. It certainly is not intended to portray alchemy in a positive light. In fact, the allegory relies on the assumption that alchemy represents not just unscientific error, but outright fraud. This is a stark example of how an artist's intent can be different from what a viewer gets out of a work of art. I think it is a good portrait and I like being portrayed as an alchemist. I especially like the way the painting itself has an appropriately old-master Renaissance feel with the rich textures, glassware reflections, and esoteric gestures. There is even a subtle nod to modernity - there is a magic 8 ball next to the skull. I've cropped the picture of the painting to remove the political content.

Alchemy was a highly valued occupation during the Age of Wonder, as can be seen in the collage series "Views of the Zymoglyphic Region." Many of the collages in that series were inspired by, and include, engravings from old alchemy texts. Alchemical imagery is a rich source of the enigmatic and obscure. Two excellent compendia for these images are "The Golden Game: Alchemical Engravings of the Seventeenth Century" by Stanislas Klossowski de Rola and "Alchemy and Mysticism" by Alexander Roob.

Alchemy is appealing to me as a non-literal science, the physical science counterpart to the chimerae and mermaids of cryptozoology. Its flames and tubes and glassware, solvents and reagents, evoke a nostalgia for childhood chemistry sets and a naive feeling for the possibility of great discoveries to be had in test tubes, up to and including the creation of life itself from the formless ooze of the materia prima.

In Goethe's "Faust", a Renaissance alchemist conjures up a devil and together they revisit classical mythology, creating a homunculus along the way - a sassy little human spirit that flies around in a bottle. At nearly the same time (1830s), Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus" gives us the prototype of the Modern Age equivalent of an alchemist: the mad scientist. It turns out that, in the Modern Age, it may actually be possible to create living things from basic inert molecules, an energy source, and no magical or demonic assistance. However, this long-term, incremental work is carried out by large groups of highly specialized scientists, not by inspired individuals.

If the Age of Wonder was an era of discovery and a celebration of the physical world, the Modern Age may be seen as an opportunity for individual discoveries to be made in unconscious and creative realms. Carl Jung's book "Psychology and Alchemy" argues that alchemy is really a symbolic system that describes the transmutation not of physical substances but of the process of individuation. The book goes into great detail about the archetypal significance of each aspect of alchemy.

So ultimately alchemy becomes a metaphor for the creative process. Ordinary matter, whether pigments, graphite, digital bits, or sticks, moss, effluvia, and detritus, is subjected to various processes, such as inspiration, fermentation, composition, decomposition, and integration, to create something that is more than the sum of its parts and links us to deeper realms. The link between alchemy and creativity is explored in Jeff Hoke's book "The Museum of Lost Wonder," where the book is the museum. Each exhibit hall of the museum corresponds to a particular various stages of the alchemical process mapped onto the creative process.

Sunday, December 02, 2018

Museum as Muse

The museum has welcomed a number of creative projects into its extended embrace, specifically those inspired by the exhibits and collections therein. This post is a brief survey of some recent projects (and one classic).


Back in March of this year, Owen Delaney, of Tampa, FL, flew out to Portland for the express purpose of filming a mini-documentary about the museum. Your curator bowed out of making a personal appearance, and the work, like the museum it documents, took a decidedly non-literal turn.  See the result here.



As the signs in the museum say, photography is encouraged.  It is always of interest to see what people can find in the hidden corners of the dioramas, and how they create compelling imagery out of it.  This policy has produced some spectacular results, a selection of which has been compiled here.

Spirits Under Glass

The Zymo127 project by artist-in-residence Judith Hoffman was completed back in 2013.  The project consisted of a custom-made pinhole camera, a set of dreamy photos set in the museum and inside the dioramas, and an artist's book to showcase them.  The book and camera are currently on display in the museum's library, and you can see the images here

Courtyard art

Photography at the museum does not require you to have an aesthetic eye; simply use this ready-made photo-op in the museum's forecourt.  See what you might have looked like in the Mud Age! Pairs of patrons without a third party to take their picture are encouraged to request this service from the curator.

This project made its debut in December of 2017.  It was made by the creative team of Camille Carpenter and Taylor Perris (shown here demonstrating its proper use). They are also responsible for museum entry sign, new as of this past month.

The museum's Web site has been updated and more details can be found here.

Saturday, November 17, 2018

Blog revival

Like some Cretaceous arthropod, the museum has been through a long larval stage, then a relatively brief contracted pupa stage (as related in the last-but-one post). It is now fully fledged, and, to mix metaphors, rooted and blossoming on the slope of Portland's favorite extinct volcano.  The new space is much grander than any previous one, with room for larger dioramas and more collections. Since its re-opening in December of 2016, the museum has welcomed over two thousand visitors!

The web site,, has been updated with the latest information. Consult the "About" page for an overview of the new location.  The media and the blogosphere have duly taken note of the new addition to the Portland cultural landscape, and the results can be seen on the "Views of the Museum" page.

A number of zymoglyphic projects are in the works and will be rolling out in the coming weeks and months, so stay tuned!

Photo of new mermaid diorama by Judith Hoffman

Saturday, April 16, 2016

The Residents and Me

The Residents oozed out of the Louisiana swamps in the 1960s and headed to San Francisco, lured by the delights of the counterculture blooming there at the time.  Due to a vehicular malfunction, they stopped just short of their goal and set up shop next to the railroad tracks in San Mateo, the same sleepy suburb that is your curator's home town and, much later, became the first home of the Zymoglyphic Museum.

In 1972, they relocated to 18 Sycamore St., a 5,000 square foot warehouse space in San Francisco's Mission District. There, they split into the Residents proper, four dapper but mysterious entities with eyeballs for heads, and the Cryptic Corporation, a collective of four suspiciously similar people.  Any allegations of personnel overlap between the two are to this day politely but firmly denied. 

The Cryptic folks took care of public-facing tasks, such as record production, design, and sales, financial management, and those various art infrastructure tasks that all artists must deal with in some way.  That left the Residents themselves free to create music and perform in privacy with no expectations or distractions.  

In 1976, they moved out of the warehouse and some friends of theirs from Louisiana moved in.  Soon after, the new occupants needed a roommate and I happened to need a room, so I moved in for a couple of years. The space was a big, airy, space with an industrial skylight upstairs, various rooms carved out with plywood, a big empty space downstairs painted black.  One room had nothing but a television and built-in cushions.  One roommate was a painter, another grew orchids and had a pet iguana, a third played piano in the projection room downstairs.  It was there that I first started thinking about making art. Years later, I would have dreams about the place - a house with undiscovered rooms containing unknown wonders.

The Residents went on create a vast discography and produce live spectacles which nearly bankrupted them in the 1980s.  I am sorry to say they had fallen off my radar during that time and I did not attend any of the live performances.

Many years later (2013 to be exact), Jason Roth came to visit the Zymoglyphic Museum during one of its annual open days.  Something about the eyes in the exhibits led him to aks if I had heard of a group called the Residents.  Of course! I used to live in their house!! He thought Homer Flynn, their spokesman at the time, would be interested in coming back to San Mateo to see the museum.  Homer did attend the open days in the following year. It is unclear whether he can be counted as a "celebrity" visitor, but he is certainly a very pleasant and thoughtful gentleman.

I finally went to see a live show last Tuesday, part of their extended 40th anniversary tour.  The eyeball costumes are long gone, the spectacle is pared down, and they are down to one original member, Randy Resident, backed by a guitarist and keyboard player, but still a great show.  I met up with longtime Residents fan Mad Martian.  He is the curator of the Residents-inspired Eyeball Museum in the Portland suburb of Tigard.

Accompanying the 40th anniversary tour is "Theory of Obscurity", a new documentary film about history of the group.  The title refers to the idea that creativity ferments best out of public view. Perhaps the Zymoglyphic Museum also benefited from its relative isolation during its first decade in San Mateo.  It also made the point that the Residents favor ideas over honing musical craft; true practitioners of the Zymoglyphic Way!

Thursday, November 05, 2015

Since that last "museum open" announcement over a year ago, the museum has emigrated from its original location in San Mateo and is relocating to Portland, Oregon.  It is currently squeezed into a 6'x13' space under the east ramp of Hawthorne Bridge over the Willamette River.

A new email list has been created, so if you want updates to appear in your emailbox, send a note to If you are Facebook-centric, head here and like it!

The museum participates in First Friday - Portland's Eastside Artwalk and welcomes visitors every first Friday of the month.  Each month has a theme and November's is "Collections." Museums have traditionally been founded on collections, and the Zymoglyphic Museum is no different.  The curator's childhood museum forms its historical core - rocks, shells, marine animals, stamps, and many others. Some of the current collections are direct descendants of those originals. 

See here for the full story on the collections and here for information about the events.

Sunday, May 04, 2014

Museum Open May 10-11

The Zymoglyphic Museum in San Mateo will be OPEN to visitors this coming weekend!

Saturday, May 10 - 11 AM to 5 PM
Sunday, May 11 - 12 noon to 4 PM

Our arachnid interns have been scurrying around, polishing the cobwebs to a nice dusty gleam in preparation for swinging open the rust-laden doors and letting in the bright spring sunshine!  The resident crustaceans are preening their exoskeletons for your viewing pleasure, the mermaids are gaily sprucing themselves up, and little eyeballs are popping up like mushrooms everywhere!

See directions here:

It is about a 15 minute walk from the Hillsdale Caltrain station, should you prefer to go that route.

Admission is free!

More info at

Monday, February 10, 2014

News and Notes: Personal Museums on the March!

Kaolithic exhibit, Bailey Museum

"Reliquary of St. Igge", Bowery Museum 

Miniature study with curiosity cabinet in peephole gallery
Marcus Kelli Collection

Our roving reporter presents breaking news on the museum-as-art-project front in the SF Bay Area...Clayton Bailey, whose Wonders of the World Museum had been in storage for nearly four decades, opened his own museum last summer, situated in the charming little town of Crockett...The museum contains a recreation of the old exhibits as well as a mad scientist lab, robots, ceramic gargoyles, and demonic pottery...This space recently visited the Bailey Museum and presented Clayton with some ZM lit...A museum twofer is to be had at the Alter Space gallery in San Francisco...The artist (and gallery co-owner) known as  Koak is building the Bowery Museum in the gallery space as a complement to her work-in-progress graphic novel...Currently showing in Alter Space's peephole gallery are dioramas and specimens from Danielle Schlunegger's Marcus Kelli Collection and Museum (on view until Feb. 22)...Both museums predicted by this space to have great futures...In the South Bay, Beverly Rayner brings her  Museum of Mesmerism & Psychic Art to the Triton Museum in Santa Clara later in February...

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Book Arts Jam 2013

The museum will once again be trundling down the Peninsula from San Mateo to Palo Alto, bringing its roadshow to the annual Book Arts Jam on October 19!

The Zymoglyphic Museum Press will have available the full range of its publications as well as a selection of prints from the series Views of the Zymoglyphic Region.

The Zymoglyphic Postal Service will be well represented by a selection of postcards, a sample of which may be seen here.

This event takes place at the Lucie Stern Community Center, 1305 Middlefield in Palo Alto, from 10 AM to 4  PM, and features a fine survey of local book and print artists.

Hope to see you there!