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Still life with monkeys

Sock Monkey Dreams is a sweet romp through pop culture

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Residents of the Red Heel Monkey Shelter - PHOTO BY MICHAEL TRAISTER

What makes a story interesting? Is it character, plot, setting? Or is it the creation of a world unique to that story, ruled by its own internal logic and full of its own possibilities?

I tend to think it's the latter. Perhaps that's why Sock Monkey Dreams won me over.

The world created by authors Whitney Shroyer and Letitia Walker and photographer Michael Traister is an elaborate society of Sockosimians who dwell at the Red Heel Monkey Shelter, and a visit to that world is a romp through pop culture. The book includes a taxonomy of sock monkeys and their relatives, narrative chapters attributed to various characters and color photographs of richly detailed dioramas designed by Walker and Traister. There's a circus, a Tonight Show-type talk show set, a "cool girls" slumber party, a snake-handling revival tent ("Praise the Great Grandma!") and a spa (with needle, thread and lint-shaver), to name a few. The sock monkey porn mag is called Pantyhose.

For those who don't know, sock monkeys are distinctly homemade dolls (not "dolls" exactly--more like mom might call "lovies") made almost invariably of a specific brand of sock, the red heels of which inspire the broad mouth. Though imitations have been mass produced in recent years, the real thing is by definition handmade.

In the introduction, Folio, one of the Red Heel elders, explains the sock monkey's purpose in "the great thread of being": "We are creatures of comfort. It is our responsibility to relieve human children from anxiety and dismay and to provide companionship in their idle and not-so-idle hours. But unlike Beanie Babies or Tickle Me Elmos, we do not exist within market forces. We are, each of us, unique creatures, made by hand and gifted to children who may or may not want us but who sometimes come to feel that we are a necessary part of their lives. Often, the devotion bestowed on us surpasses that shown to comfort creatures of a more commercial origin. Perhaps children realize that we are individuals just like they are."

The book's creators, who live in Asheville, are in Carrboro this weekend for a book signing and event at Wootini, the positively unique art gallery/shop that carries lots of odd toys you won't find at Target.

Traister, who was a staff photograher at the Independent in the late 1990s, recently spoke by phone about the project.

INDEPENDENT WEEKLY: How did you become obsessed with sock monkeys?

MICHAEL TRAISTER: I don't know if I'm obsessed. It started out with a show at Lump Gallery called Red Lips/Red Ass, in 1997. There were maybe eight or 10 of us in a group show--Michael Pilmer, Dale Flattum, Michele Smith, the Lump crew. At the time I was working with M.J. Sharpe at the Independent. I also did a lot of band stuff, working for Yep Roc and Mammoth.

I think there are a lot of similarities between photographing people and sock monkeys. They have really strong personalities. All the monkeys we have are found--we don't make them. So they're real folk art in that they take on the personality of the person who makes them--some are weaker, some stronger, some mean, some nice.

How old are they?

A couple of them are probably 40 or 50 years old. There were these periods when people made a lot of sock monkeys. There was a big boom in the '50s, the early craft movement, and then in the late '60s early '70s. Now the kind of Riot Grrl, Gen-X, hard-core craft groups out there are making them. Fox River Mills bought the rights to the Red Heel Sock, and they're still available. The editor of our book founded a sock monkey circle in Soho.

Did she start that group before or after she started working on your book?

After. We turned her on to it.

How did you get hooked up with your co-authors?

Letitia [Walker] is in the Rebelles, a burlesque troupe in Asheville, and Whitney [Shroyer] is a writer for the Rebelles. I met them when I was photographing the group. I had photographed a lot of dolls and kitschy stuff before. They probably had 175 at that point. They've been collecting for about 10 years.

Originally, the idea was to do a calendar, and they had 12 shots in mind already. But as we were shooting, we realized we should just go ahead and do a book. A calendar is only around for a year, and you've got all the distribution issues. We originally talked to Lark Books in Asheville, but they're more craft oriented. Then we found an agent. It took about a year to sell it. We got lots of nice responses sending it out; publishers would say, 'It's not the kind of book we're looking for, but we love it.' Eventually Penguin picked it up. We've been working on it for about 2 1/2 years.

Well, it's a lot more elaborate than a calendar. There's a lot of text in the book. It creates this whole world with lots of character development and backstory.

That's only the surface. You talk about me being obsessed. Whitney and Letitia are a little more obsessed in that they have 200 sock monkeys.

How many do you have?

About 20.

How did you come up with the designs for the dioramas?

We would sit down and brainstorm, have a weekly dinner and drinks, and just come up with ideas. A lot of times, they would evolve as we shot them. I also spent a lot of time hunting for props. The best place for prop hunting is the State Fairgrounds in Raleigh. My daughter calls it 'putting your sock monkey eyes on'--you look for everything in scale. You find stuff that in turn inspires new settings, takes things in different directions and changes the storyline somewhat. There are a lot of Rolling Stones references, too--we listened to a lot of Rolling Stones while we were working.

Bolan James Junior at his favorite pastime, in a page from Sock Monkey Dreams - PHOTO BY MICHAEL TRAISTER

Are any of the settings local?

A couple of the shots are in Raleigh. The bowling shot is at Western Lanes on Hillsborough Street. The church shot [of a sock monkey wedding] is Pullen Baptist Church. And the Socktoberfest, part of that scene was shot in Alamance County.

You shot that at a real bowling alley? The sock monkeys aren't people-sized, so how does the scale work?

Photo trickery. I would photograph the bowling alley, and then I would print all the walls up to the monkey's scale, 30 in. by 40 in., and put it on foam board. Some sets are dropped in and fake, and some are real, and you can't really tell. I tried to keep some mystery in it for photographers.

So, like the craft movement in general, sock monkeys have fans among the hip, young, DIY crowd and middle-aged folks who remember them from their childhoods.

It really does cover a wide range. There's been an annual sock monkey convention for two years now in Rockford, Ill., where the Nelson Knitting Company is--that's the company that invented the Red Heel sock. It's pretty crazy. The first year there were roughly a thousand people, and this year there were roughly 1,500 in this tiny town, very Midwestern. You have everyone there from Hooters girls to baseball dads to punk rock kids and little old ladies. Everybody loves a sock monkey. The next convention will be in March.

What's happening at your event at Wootini this weekend?

It's mainly a signing. We've got some merchandise--we're selling prints and trading cards and buttons, merch that's separate from the book. We'll be answering questions. We'll tell all our secrets. We'll have some monkeys with us, too, the stars of the book, so people can see them, touch them.

They can touch your monkeys?

Yeah--with clean hands.

Michael Traister, Letitia Walker and Whitney Shroyer will be at Wootini for a book reading on Saturday, Sept. 30 from noon to 6 p.m. Wootini is located inside the Carr Mill Mall at 200 N. Greensboro St. in Carrboro. For more information, call 933-6061. For more about Sock Monkey Dreams, visit www.sockmonkeydreams.com.

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