Beautiful Monsters Among Us
By Verna Gates | Photography courtesy of Mytho Menagerie
Alabama couple incorporates creatures, mythology, and nature into their innovative art pieces.
When the preserved body of a large fruit bat flaps into your line of vision, it is almost instinct to duck while entertaining images of the vampire bat of movies and myths. Hanging at eye level as you enter the home of Chloe York and Eric Quick, the somewhat scary mammal epitomizes the story of the couple and their art.
As two students at the Memphis College of Art, the now-married couple bonded over a love of monster movies. The pair prefers pre-computer-generated monsters and special effects that were hand-made, such as the alien in John Carpenter’s 1982 cult classic, “The Thing.” Another favorite is the work of Guillermo del Toro, the Oscar-winning creator of “Color of Water” and other visually-striking films.
Taking a leap from monster-admirer to monster-maker, Quick morphed into a special effects artist. One of his favorite projects was “Little Shop of Horrors,” where he built the puppets to simulate the alien plant that lands on Earth. In short order, his creatures developed a devoted following and he was shipping internationally. His work for a Theater Memphis production of “Into the Woods” garnered him an Ostrander Theater Award in 2016.
Some of the crafted monsters didn’t decorate theaters or movies, but were instead used to express the fears and anxieties of gravely ill children. In a project with Le Bonheur Children’s Hospital in Memphis, patients drew monsters that were put into 3-D by sculptors, including Quick. The exhibit included both the children’s drawings and the sculptures created from them.
The monsters inspired the couple’s Mytho Menagerie brand that blends magic along with the old folk tales and Greek mythology. Many of their creatures spring from stories of dragons, gorgons, and the kraken.
“There are different giant creatures throughout history,” York explains. “People were probably finding dinosaur bones and were trying to explain them. They used the myths to explain humanity and to connect us as humans.”
While York still enjoys the myths, some of the monsters have lessened in appeal. “Since I became a mom, I can’t watch scary movies anymore!” she says.
The painter of the artist pair, York prefers “happy colors” that brighten the mood. Her aquatic-inspired paintings spring from a childhood spent visiting grandparents in the Bahamas. She lived there with her family for a year, wandering the coastline, collecting shells. The vibrant colors of the cottages and aqua blues of the oceans imbedded deep within her spirit, she says. Bahamian folk artists such as Amos Ferguson influenced paintings such as her “Golden Demon Mask,” “Sea Harpy,” and her brightly colored insect studies.
York’s popular “Decorator” series covers silhouettes of figures with nature: shells, flowers, jellyfish, and other small creatures. She has shown her paintings in more than 100 group and solo exhibitions.
While she loves capturing nature on canvas, she also focuses on the real thing. Much of York’s art business revolves around specimen art.
“You can’t replicate nature with human hands,” she explains. “Even the best fake flowers look fake.”
York purchases animals and insects and transforms them into collectible art. She only orders from farms or makers so that she is assured they lived out their lifespans in a humane manner. Occasionally, she scours flea markets for historic taxidermy or other interesting pieces, and then frames these specimens in display boxes. For example, she may receive a box of loose or unmounted butterflies that have been preserved. She pins them into forms for drying, composes them, chooses a shadow box and background, and creates a unit that highlights the form and color or colors. Sometimes, she will paint a background to accentuate the creature. While butterflies dominate her art with their exquisite hues, other animals also fascinate her. In her home and retail front in Homewood, Ala., Ritual and Shelter, customers can find frogs, bats, lizards, and exotic insects. Some of the more fascinating specimens include the red Malaysian toe biter, large stink bug, and the rabbit head beetle.
While most of York’s shadow boxes contain preserved specimens, she also focuses on the bones — literally. Skulls of a great variety of size and shape dot spaces in her home and shop.
“Skulls are creepy,” she admits. “But they are also beautiful. They tell so much about the animal.”
The pair work in a large basement studio in their home near Birmingham. By day, Quick teaches art at Fultondale High School, where he keeps his hand in his theater origins with school plays. A mold-maker, he is expanding his sculpture art by casting multiples of favorite pieces. York works full time on the collectibles and her paintings in between taking care of their young daughter, Echo. Their Mytho Menagerie website keeps the pair busy with sales of their collectible specimens, their biggest seller. For inspiration, the family often visits the nearby Turkey Creek Nature Preserve, where the clear water supports a broad diversity of fish, most famously the rare vermillion darter. The tiny fish sports the happy aquatic colors so often depicted in York’s paintings.