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Let the Walnut Win: May the 4th at the Bowers

Miniature Carved Face, 20th Century
Wax and walnut shell; 1 1/4 x 1 1/8 x 1/2 in.
Gift of Mrs. Katherine Hotchkiss

The Bowers Museum prides itself in many things. Fantastic collections from Oceania and China, world class exhibitions and a slice of Orange County all under one roof. Only rarely though does the Bowers bring contemporary American culture into the museum.This ought not affect the content of this post though, as it happened a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.

Reverse of 99.36.42.

May the 4th, a Star Wars holiday created as a play on the famous phrase, “may the force be with you,” is a day where Star Wars fans across the universe celebrate one of the largest cultural phenomena of the 20th and now the 21st Centuries. The focus of this blog however, is to bring to the light side cultural objects from our own museum’s collections. When first investigating the possibility of a Star Wars themed blog post, the idea that any item in our collection of objects dating back thousands of years would have been a part of the film series seemed as far-fetched as making the Kessel run in less than 12 parsecs. Despite all odds, from the over 100,000 objects in the collections of the Bowers Museum a search for Star Wars released exactly one result, our only hope.

Artist's rendering of what a body for
this shell may have looked like.

Upon finding the object in question there was a moment of disappointment, but certainly not the degree of betrayal Han Solo may have felt at being sold out by Lando Calrissian. What was recorded in a 1999 entry receipt as a “Star Wars alien” appears to bear no real resemblance any known alien of the Star Wars universe, expanded or otherwise. But it was a wise man once who once said, “your eyes can deceive you. Don’t trust them.”

Japanese Walnut Netsuke 
(approx. 17th century), 
RogerR00, CC BY-SA 3.0.

The object is a miniature toothed face on a half walnut shell. Two delicately carved holes are filled with wax to create eyes. Wax is also used in the divide between the walnut’s hemispheres to make fangs. The entire shell is covered in a coat of varnish to give it a sheen. To help reinforce the structure of the miniature figure the otherwise hollow reverse is filled with wax. Compared to other items donated in this miniature’s larger collection of shell and fruit pit miniatures what sets this object aside, and perhaps what sparked the confusion over it being a Star Wars character, is that the original texture of the outer shell is used for the final figure. In most similar examples of contemporary and historical carving of walnut shells, an example being walnut shell netsuke in Japan, the topmost layer of shell is always carved away to reveal the darker and smoother interior. All together the exact inspiration for our miniature shell is indeterminate.

Three miniatures from Ms. Doret's collection: 99.36.42, 99.36.69, and 99.36.73.

Rather than a being a poorly rendered version of a certain heavily-furred native of Kashyyyk, this toothy monster is most likely the result of a long tradition of creative crafts in the United States dating back hundreds of years. This particular shell along with the rest of its collection were likely made and acquired in Southern California, but all we know for certain is that it was collected prior to 1992. This means that purely from a chronological standpoint the first film of the saga, Star Wars: A New Hope (1977), could have motivated this walnut shell oddity. When it comes down to improbabilities such as this, never tell me the odds.

While this small face likely does not represent even one character from the Star Wars universe, it does perhaps capture some aspect of what makes Star Wars and in a grander sense, science fiction, great: a reflection of creativity within our own society. The entirety of this collection of shell and fruit pit miniatures has faces of all shapes and sizes together into one case, indicating that our world is just as beautiful and complex as that of Star Wars. They might not have been the miniatures we were looking for, but that doesn’t mean the force isn’t with them.Text and images may be under copyright. Please contact Collection Department for permission to use. Information subject to change upon further research.

Text and images may be under copyright. Please contact Collection Department for permission to use. Information subject to change upon further research.

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Wednesday, 21 February 2024

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