• Published 13th Dec 2017
  • 775 Views, 159 Comments

Mister Cook Goes to Canterlot - Dave Bryant

Cookie Pusher travels through the portal to visit Canterlot during Hearth’s-Warming for a little cultural exchange. Where will he go? What will he do? Ideas and suggestions from the readers guide his foot—er, hoofsteps on this holiday junket.

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I studied the slim saddle-stitched souvenir guidebook floating in my pale-gray levitation aura. “HEARTH AND HOME: A Modern Celebration of Hearth’s-Warming,” the cover proclaimed proudly with large wood-block type cut in a clean, streamlined style that, I suspected, was the latest fashion in Equestrian type design. For that matter, the pamphlet’s wire stitching, a recent innovation in Equestria, added its own modish, state-of-the-art flair. A small, quirky smile of ambivalence crossed my face.

Determined as I was to experience Canterlot as its inhabitants did, there was of course no way I could escape at least a few stereotypical tourist destinations. Civic pride inspired some such recommendations, including the Canterlot city choir. Behind others, I was sure, lurked a desire to convey a sense not only of the city’s values, but those of the country and the society of which it was a part; the military cemetery filled that role admirably. And, of course, there existed those landmarks like Restaurant Row—where I planned to find dinner—as popular with the locals as with visitors.

An art gallery looms large in all three categories, which likely was why every single pony who’d ventured suggestions included it, but I felt much the same apprehension a small child does when faced with a plateful of vegetables. I never have been much of an art aficionado, though I did struggle through a couple of art appreciation and art history courses at university; for obvious reasons, any diplomat worth his salt must be able to converse knowledgeably on the arts—among many other subjects.

The guidebook lowered and my head rose for a glance around the high, echoing vestibule. The building itself was as worthy of study as the artworks displayed within it. Like any other ancient city in either world, much of Canterlot’s identity lay in its distinctive architecture and materials, especially among the oldest or most monumental edifices. The high ceilings, pillared walls, polished-stone floors, and tall came-glass windows around me distilled that identity into a singular consciously realized showpiece. I could see hints of the royal palace, the orphanage I’d visited in the morning, and a host of other local buildings I’d glimpsed or entered, all reflected in this much more recent construction.

It was easy to imagine heated debates arising during the project’s early stages, among architects and the public alike, over whether those details constituted handsome, stately homages or hideous, unseemly caricatures. Well, however those arguments turned out, the place got built, and likely nopony even thought about it any more; if they did, they probably regarded it much the same way they did the rest of the urban landscape that clung to the sheer mountain slopes. Truth to tell, I had a soft spot for the solemn dignity it affected, but then I’d developed a sneaking fondness for the fairy-tale charms of Canterlot—and Ponyville—in general, so I probably wasn’t the most objective observer.

Ruminating on those charms, however, wasn’t why I was here. I took a deep breath and ambled into the labyrinth of exhibition halls, preparing to browse through the works on display . . . as well as eavesdrop shamelessly on other patrons nearby.

“No, dear, that’s not a sculpture. It’s a radiator.”

Hall 1. The First Hearth’s-Warming
Even after so many celebrations of the holiday, ponies continue to explore its roots, re-examining the source of the traditions and sentiments to which we have become accustomed. What are they? From whence did they spring? What makes them so important and so cherished?

“This pony’s work is always best when she’s off her tonic.”

The collage sprawled across the substrate, its daringly shapeless edges a surprising breath of abstract modernity. Fragments of text and engravings—clipped from old books, newspapers, magazines, circulars advertising seasonal sales—all brought to my mind an explosion of holiday joy captured and enclosed by mat, glazing, and frame for posterity.

“Yes, I know it’s a painting—but it’s not a good painting.”

To my mind, Hearth’s-Warming hard candies held together with white glue was the most appropriate possible medium for a bust of Puddinghead—and certainly was an ingenious inspiration for a primary-schooler. Alas, a trail of ants already was making its way from the baseboard moulding to the pedestal on which the sugary sculpture sat. I sidled away to drop a tactful word in a nearby guard’s ear, then departed hastily as a quiet commotion erupted.

“Oh no! I disagree with your conclusions about this piece. It’s obvious the artist’s attempting to rebel against the stifling pressures that attempt to force artists into pre-conceived models and styles. Here we see a lone iconoclast rallying against the armies of conformity!”

I squinted at the drum-shaped object and, after a moment’s thought, determined it must be an empty fruitcake tin, its entire circumference encrusted with découpage. Holiday scenes deftly cut from wrapping papers told a charming little tale of the first holiday, complete with word bubbles written on bits of cartridge paper.

“I don’t care what the artist says the painting is about. I know what they really meant to say!”

The mosaic filled one’s field of vision even halfway across the sizable room, all the better to immerse the onlooker in its depiction of lean, menacing windigoes half-hidden amongst windblown rags of cloud and flurries of snow. I shivered despite the still, mild indoor air. Balancing style against representation couldn’t have been easy, but the artist—clearly an experienced professional—had exploited that tension to heighten both an impression of cutting, freezing wind and a frantic sense of desperation.

Few lingered to study the piece, given its disturbing intensity, but something about the lack of uniformity in the shapes and sizes of the tiles drew me closer to peer at them. A slight liberty had been taken with the blossom-shapes, faceting what normally would be smooth organic curves, but the lozenges and five-pointed stars tesselated with them were perfect. My eyebrows rose. Half obscured by the design’s overt harshness, the three traditional tribal symbols mingled freely, a sign of hope even in adversity. I wondered how many passersby had missed this subtext entirely.

“I am not drunk enough to look at this stuff.”

Hall 2. Hearth’s-Warming in the Snow
The Windigo Winter may have been a time of privation, but today ponies can celebrate without fear what makes the season unique and different from the rest of the year. The outdoors give us snowball fights, snowponies, snow and ice sculptures, ice skating, and a host of other activities—and once those are done, the indoors chase away the cold with warm fireplaces, hot drinks and snacks, and loved ones close by.

“I hear other ponies complain about the artist’s unorthodox technique and how it’s had a detrimental effect on his creative psyche—but all foals eat paste at some point.”

The thick, heavy disk sat on a short, broad pillar, surrounded by a couple of dozen excited foals, their slightly harried parents in tow. The round surface, as wide as a good-size stallion was long, was thoroughly and lovingly landscaped in miniature. Tiny buildings and even tinier ponies made up a picturesque little town of clapboard and shake, all muffled in white flocking and surrounded by a custom-built model railroad. I blinked and checked the nearby placard more closely; indeed, the sponsors—and builders—claimed to be the first club of its type in the country, pioneering steam-powered scale models of a quality and fidelity worlds beyond the simple and wildly inaccurate toys that heretofore had dominated the market. A proud, almost smug, mare in an engineer’s outfit stood by to tend the engine that puffed around the circular track, as well as guard the diorama from inquisitive pokes and prods. I couldn’t be sure, but based on the state of technology I suspected this club was a generation or more ahead of the equivalent era when similar organizations arose in my own world.

“I like this. I think this artist has potential.”

The distemper painting on paper was wrinkled and rough, its subjects discernable only after some examination as foals building snowponies and throwing snowballs. The preschoolers behind it displayed no knowledge of artistic theory, but more than made up for that debatable lack with a great deal of exuberance.

“It’s a pony . . . or a dog . . . or a shaggy bush.”

It was all I could do not to laugh out loud. The snowball fight was monumental yet filled with whimsy. Pegasus ponies hovered or hid or swooped, their cloud a magnificent fort; the unicorns and earth ponies below craned their necks or sat or even sprawled. Tiny tongues stuck out on several of all tribes as their owners concentrated or simply blew raspberries. A ramshackle little cobbled-up siege engine crewed by a trio of earth ponies was all set to hurl a whole bucketload of BB-sized white spheres upward.

This one, I could see, was a popular hit, with a crowd at least a couple of ponies deep completely surrounding the display case. It was captivating, it had a lot of little features to discover in delight, and the technical achievement was impressive in its own right. Colored glass was blown, foamed, drawn into delicate shape in a single gigantic piece, the largest I’d seen. Even with the advantage of levitation it must have been a challenge to work all the myriad details quickly enough as the glass cooled, moving and rotating the whole mass in mid-air as needed until everything was finished. And, apparently, all of it was the work of a single unicorn artisan. I shook my head ruefully. I doubted I could achieve that degree of power and control even if I spent my whole life in Equestria.

“Either I’ve drunk too much already or I’m learning to like this drivel.”

The middle-schooler must live in Canterlot itself, I mused; both princesses were rendered with a meticulous care and accuracy that bespoke a fair amount of personal observation—though I couldn’t recall having seen those lovely expressions of carefree merriment on their actual faces. Bright paints, also painstakingly chosen to match the royal sisters’ hues and shades, covered the papier-mâché figures that, according to the placard, had been built up using strips, then covered and smoothed with pulp. The scene was genuinely beautiful and bespoke a surprisingly shrewd insight, for I doubted either Celestia or Luna spared much time for building snowponies, however much they might wish to.

“Why do artists feel so compelled to paint Hearth’s-Warming scenes as winter-time settings? Really, I just don’t see why!”

Hall 3. Hearth’s-Warming Today
Even after more than eleven centuries ponies still find fresh ways to express their affections for this holiday. As the world and our place in it change, customs and traditions change with them—or are preserved in the face of those changes, fetching reminders of days gone by.

“It’s nice, but I think the artist is still grappling with the concepts of perspective and lighting. That or they’re blind as a bat.”

The small, humble mosaic portrayed nothing more complicated than snow falling around Canterlot Palace, but there was a quiet dignity to its simplicity. The colored granules and pebbles that made up the image had come from the streams and falls that wound past and through the city, collected by the young artist during a school camping trip up higher in the mountains.

“Oh! That’s much better than I was expecting.”

I puzzled for a long moment over the framed photograph, an unexceptional landscape of some anonymous rural expanse viewed from a low hilltop, muffled under winter snows. A frozen river wound by at the hill’s base, a lone fisherpony sitting at a hole in the ice. The small town beyond rose in angular contrast to the hummocks and drifts, bits and swathes of red and blue and yellow showing against the white and the winter-pale sky. Good composition, nice juxtapositions of color and texture, but why—ah. Yes, of course.

Color photography was brand new. Indeed, I might be looking at one of the first ever taken in Equestria, which certainly would qualify it for a gallery exhibition. The colors looked odd not because they had drifted with age, but because ponies likely still were working out the subtractive color process. When I squinted at the matted and framed print, nose nearly pressed against the glazing, I could make out the cyan, red, and yellow layers, especially where movement between frames had occured. The four-color printing process, which in a digital world had become familiar even to owners of desktop printers, yet lay in the future here.

“Well, yes, it’s trash, but it’s artistic trash.”

What my own world regarded as a classic of children’s art were just getting started here—but already were something of a hit, to judge from the bright multi-hued scribble on foolscap of Canterlot in the snow. Either the young artist espoused a unique and intriguing approach to color theory, or lacked the necessary crayons to portray a snowy day.

“I have no idea what I am looking at.”

The small oak cabinet had seen better days, but it had undergone a skillful and practical conversion. Alone and forlorn, it seemed nothing more than a middling example of the woodworker’s art, but a crank ending in a ring for one’s pastern stuck out the side and an eyeshade jutted from the front near the top, both of them brightly polished brass. Curious, I stuck my face against the shade and my hoof through the ring and started cranking. Instantly an electric bulb flickered to life, illuminating a brightly painted pony that galloped in place against a snowy winter background. It was a zoetrope, powered entirely by muscle; a quick glance at the placard confirmed a simple brush motor lit the bulb.

“Why are all these paintings on square or rectangular canvases? That kind of mindless adherence to the status quo is strangling the life out of art these days!”

Hall 4. Snowfall Frost’s Hearth’s-Warming
This beloved tale has become a staple of the holiday in the generation since it was first published. It serves as a reminder of those things most important about Hearth’s-Warming and how they affect the individual—where the story of the holiday’s origin, in its grand sweep, speaks more to our tribes as a whole.

“If you can’t contribute something witty or enlightening to this conversation, then please be quiet.”

The final hall of the exhibition had been remodeled in its entirety, transformed into a make-believe parlor complete with a Hearth’s-Warming tree, garlanded and lit; I did not fail to note a period-costumed unicorn attendant positioned discreetly nearby, ready to deal with any emergencies resulting from the small live candles gracing the boughs. The fireplace had been set up like a stage prop, with enough of a glow to suggest a dying fire among embers.

According to the guidebook this miniature wonderland was among the few entries planned and executed specifically for the exhibition. While art in its own right, it also incorporated several works, many from schoolfoals, that worked best in such a context. At first glance I thought the place merely a generic synthesis of common urban elements, but a closer look made me chuckle. The story had become enough of a cultural icon for a consensus to emerge on what the place—and its inhabitant—looked like, doubtless fostered by illustrations accompanying the early printings.

“Oh, I am so sorry. I thought your hat was one of the pieces on display!”

The framed needlepoint was bright and cheery, a lyric sheet in fabric of a popular carol, recognizable despite the spelling errors and a certain lack of planning where to put all the lettering. Still, the foal who’d embroidered it clearly had put a tremendous amount of time, effort, and affection into the piece, and I couldn’t help but smile.

“It’s . . . too red.”

Most of the tree’s ornaments looked to be vintage examples of commercial products; I winced upon imagining the insurance policy required to put them on display, suspended on evergreen boughs in a public venue. Nestled among them, though, I found a number of unique individually crafted decorations, most in carved and painted wood: windigoes, the trio of holiday spirits from the same story that provided the setting as well as its main character, and a number of other real or fictitious individuals with or without connections to the holiday—almost all were ponies or other creatures, I noted with fascination, with few inanimate objects. How much of that was due to cultural convention and how much to jurying for the exhibition I had no idea.

“I expect big things from this artist.”

The quartet of small stuffed dolls sat proudly, heads raised as if singing a carol together. Thanks to careful choices of color and shaping of manes and tails, set off by meticulous stitching, they looked striking and distinctive despite their simple shapes. I was sure, should I meet them, I would recognize the family of the filly whose talented work graced the mantel.

“Can we go now?”

I ambled back into the foyer along with a steady stream of other slightly tired-looking ponies, adults and foals both. With a stolen glance down at the booklet I surveyed scribbled notes memorializing some of the more amusing snippets of conversation that had come to my ears. There was no way I’d be able to sort them, given how I’d penciled them anywhere I could find enough blank space, so they’d fall as randomly as those notes. Likewise, the number of individual works was considerably more than I could cram into any journal or diary; memory of the more notable pieces, marked with underscores, asterisks, or other distinguishing heiroglyphs, would have to serve as a sampler.

Once outside I blinked a couple of times under the late-afternoon sunlight slanting sharply across the streetscape. Sundown was not far off, and the dinner hour approached. Time to find another cab.

Author's Note:

The gallery showed up in “Sweet and Elite”, of course, though I’ve extrapolated from that brief appearance based on commonplace community behaviors, along with first-hand and second-hand experience with galleries and museums in both Europe and the United States. (I’ve visited quite a few over the course of my life.) As usual, a little historical research went into the chapter as well, such as pinning down just when metal-wire saddle-stitching made its appearance—the 1870s, for anyone who’s wondering. Before then, saddle-stitching really was done with needle (or sewing machine) and thread, which definitely wasn’t as well suited to the cheap mass production made possible by the then relatively new steam-powered high-speed printing presses.
   Most of the quotations are based closely on actual statements overheard by Baron Engel at various galleries and museums he’s visited or exhibited at over the years—and the rest could have been. He also dreamed up a bit more than half the exhibits themselves; I challenge the reader to figure out which he provided and which I created myself. (Answers posted in my journal.)

Thanks to Firemind, EchoWing, and Baron Engel for this chapter’s suggestions, direct or indirect.

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