It's challenging enough to create some 30-plus miniature sets in which to photograph sock monkeys and their doings: Celebrating Oktoberfest, planting gardens, dining out (Why sock monkeys? Just wait: That answer comes soon enough). But if the project involves constructing the dioramas from predominantly found materials, well, good luck.
"My daughter and I went to the flea market one day and we came up with the game of looking at the world through sock monkey eyes," recounts photographer Michael Traister. "And we're still doing it."
Traister, who recently worked as a photographer for Gov. Mike Easley's campaign, has actually been snapping pictures of sock monkeys (yes, those lovable stuffed toys fashioned from brown-and-white-flecked footwear) for the better part of a decade. So when fate introduced him to Letitia Walker and Whitney Shroyer, a couple who'd amassed a couple of hundred monkeys, creating a book together seemed like the natural next step. And that's the short version of how Sock Monkey Dreams: Daily Life at the Red Heel Monkey Shelter (Penguin, 2006) came to be.
The plot thickens
"Before we go any further, I think we should get one thing straight," Benny Hathaway, the simian narrator of Dreams announces early in the book. "The way monkeys at the Red Heel Monkey Shelter look at life is not necessarily the way all sock monkeys look at the world around them. I'm not writing a treatise about monkeykind."
It is, however, a book with surprisingly wide appeal. At first glance, the bright, full-page photos shout "kid's book," but there's a hefty history of sock monkey evolution, an anthropological study of various monkey traits, and then the stories themselves, which are a far cry from the stuff of nursery rhymes (not there's anything untoward -- just erudite).
"Letitia and I had been collecting for about 10 years," Shroyer recalls. "When we'd get one, we'd give it a name and a personality [so] we had the literary construct developing for [years]."
In fact, Shroyer and Walker had planned to create a sock monkey calendar, collaborating with Traister to create 12 sets. While the sets -- a diner, a classroom, a hospital -- came together, Shroyer and Walker were penning tales about the monkeys, adding text to the calendar's pages as various monkey characters revealed their stories.
After learning the costs associated with producing a calendar, they decided to shelve the idea in favor of a book.
"Whitney and I realized we'd already started doing a book, so we pitched it to Lark [Press] and Algonquin [Press] and they both loved it," Walker explains.
As work on the book progressed, Traister traded his commute from Raleigh for permanent Asheville digs and -- buoyed by positive responses from Lark and Algonquin -- the trio began pitching its idea to larger publishers.
"Several places were interested, but they wanted to change it into something different," Shroyer notes. Finally, Penguin made an offer that allowed the artists creative control.
"Then we had to finish it in six months," Walker laughs.
Even now, on the eve of the book's release, the three artists are still collecting pieces for new sets, arranging new photos, and crafting new sock monkey adventures for Benny Hathaway's blog at www.sockmonkeydreams.com.
Sure, one person's weird obsession is another person's work of art. The same could be said of The Simpsons and Hello Kitty, both of which are now marketing empires. The point is, fanaticism requires commitment.
"You just have to not understand the concept of free time," Shroyer deadpans. "Sitting around is really not an option."
So, on top of day jobs and other obligations, Walker, Shroyer and Traister poured every spare minute into crafting the dioramas needed to finish the book.
"Not only did we make props," the photographer points out, "we found a lot of it. Being on Lexington Avenue and Chicken Alley, there's always something."
Flip though Dreams and bits of Asheville can be found among the pages. There's a talk-show scene with the Asheville skyline visible through the window. The image of the Red Heel Monkey Shelter where the book's characters live is actually a local bed and breakfast. The coffee from the diner scene came from Izzy's Coffee Den, the two antique store shots were staged at Eldorado Mid Century Modern & Salvage and there's a miniature train from Biltmore Depot Restaurant.
"We moved here from Missouri," Walker confides. "I think if we'd stayed there, we would've had a [sock monkey] collection. I don't think we would've gotten to this point if we hadn't moved to a town that is so supportive of creativity."
But that still doesn't explain why. Why would three seemingly reasonable adults turn their lives over to the creation of a complete sock monkey world?
"It's kind of another reality, with people trying to make sense of the world," Traister acknowledges.
"That's why we did it," Walker adds. "It's kind of a comment on American society, with these sock monkeys which are quintessential American [toys]."
"It's all kind of representing politics and pop culture," the photographer points out.
"The characters in the book all have one-track minds," Shroyer joins in. "In my opinion, that a very human thing. They're all narcissistic."
Something for the fans
Happily, the narcissists of Dreams have plenty of company.
"I would say there are thousands of fans," Walker offers. "In the last few years, we've been seeing sock monkeys in movies ... A few years ago, Rockford, Ill. [home of the Nelson Knitting Co. which first distributed the pattern for the red-heel sock monkey], started having a Sock Monkey Madness festival. And [recently] a dress was created for the Minnesota State Fair that was sock monkey in orientation."
She adds to the list the growing crafter and DIY movements, and recent sock monkey-themed cakes on the Food Network.