From the Vault: The Strange Creatures of George Kelly, Part I

October 27, 2021 Exhibits Department

Greetings, my fellow goblins and ghouls! Come along and allow me to show you more treasures From the Vault. With a stroke of luck, we who spend our days in the collections and archives of Denver Botanic Gardens have uncovered the strange creatures of George Kelly! As we were cataloguing the art and documents stored in the belly of this museum, we stumbled upon a most mysterious and macabre group of photographs!

Have you ever played the what-animal-do-you-see-in-the-clouds game? And have you watched movies or cartoons where the trees come alive? If you take delight in such pursuits, then keep following me down into the vault. 

George Kelly, the man who brought to life the fantastic creatures you are about to behold, hiked Mount Goliath every weekend in 1951, the very same year he helped found Denver Botanic Gardens. There, George saw in the gnarled roots of bristlecone pine the shapes of mugwumps, ghosts and even headless horsemen!

Decades later, in 1982, George published a selection of these photographs in his book, “The Things I Prize: Fun, Fantasy, and Filosophy.” In the chapter Petrified in Pitch, he explains the origins of these strange creatures. According to the lore of George Kelly, Noah’s Ark may not have landed at Mount Ararat, but perhaps on Mount Goliath, Colorado!

According to the biblical tale of Noah, his giant boat had all sorts of animals on board. What George saw (and chose to share with us) was the remnants of those animals that, after disembarking, ate too much of the foxtail pine (which is high in pitch, ergo George’s “Petrified in Pitch” title) on the mountain, fell asleep and froze during that cold and fateful night. The smarter, more energetic animals did not lounge around on Mount Goliath, but instead made it to the bottom. Because of this, their species, “such as the familiar horse, cow, sheep and dog,” have survived to this day.

Oh, my fellow goblins and ghouls, if only we could have motivated the mugwumps and dragons and other creatures to keep moving down the mountain, just imagine how much more festive Halloween would be! Yet, alas, it is satisfying to see that there once was an era where the fantastic was alive, enjoying sunny mountains, and eating trees.

I wonder, however—did George find all that could be found on Mount Goliath that year? Or could you, my dear reader, venture onto that and other high trails and discover the remnants of more strange creatures? What fantastical shapes might you see from behind the camera lens that others may have missed, whether it be in the weather-worn pines or in the clouds above?

We who spend our days in the vault are delighted to show you four of George Kelly’s discoveries in this ‘Part I’ blog post, a mugwump, a dragon’s head, a headless Ichabod, and a ghost. But please stay tuned, for later in the week we shall share four more in ‘Part II,’ to include George’s flesh-eating brontosaurus! But as excited as we are about his findings, we are equally curious as to what strange creatures with strange names you, my fellow goblins and ghouls, might see in these images!

This article was contributed by James Grau, an intern with the Exhibitions, Art & Learning Engagement Department. He is currently pursuing an MA in art history & museum studies at the University of Denver.

Please note Mount Goliath is closed for the season. This, however, gives you plenty of time to plan your expedition for when it reopens!


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