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Meeting Melody – the artistic wizard of Windstone

I misjudged Melody Peña, the modest artist and sculptor who is the creative heart of Windstone Editions.

I assumed that anyone who sculpts fantasy figurines would somehow view the real world through that fanciful gauze. Just as some members of the Society of Creative Anachronism bend their lives around the Medieval persona they portray at festivals and on weekends, I assumed that Melody would appreciate a bit of fantasy in my reports from the company’s new home in Corvallis, Oregon.

In my first draft for the Windstone blog, I took on the persona of an ancient traveler, a wandering scribe, who stumbles onto a land populated by fantastical creatures.

I wrote:

I have been taken captive by dragons in an emerald green valley in the Great Northwest. The conjurer of these beasts, Melody Peña, assures me that all her creatures are “domesticated” and will do no harm – and indeed, they do look well fed and properly tended. Nevertheless, the dragons, griffins and gargoyles in this sleepy little shire somehow hold me transfixed.

Perhaps I am not “captive” so much as “captivated” by Windstone’s mythological menagerie. They come in many exquisite forms with intricate detail and beautiful hues. Beside the dragons and griffins, there are unicorns, winged horses, flying cats, frog wizards and wolves in council. There is a llama hatching from an egg. There is an odd little creature called a “poad” that resembles nothing so much as a guinea pig wearing a parrot mask.

In that first draft, I played out the Wandering Scrivener theme to the end. Then I turned it in to John and Melody for their opinion. Melody considered my carefully crafted words then gave her critique in four simple words, “That’s not really me.”

The real Melody
To understand who Melody Peña really is, I had only to look around the upstairs office where she works. In a terrarium near her drafting table is a bearded dragon – not a fantasy dragon with a beard, but a living lizard called the “Bearded Dragon” (Pogona vitticeps). (Melody calls him Porkchop, but said that isn’t really his real name, which she can’t recall.) In a second cage is a red and orange corn snake named Rudy, which was adopted from a former employee who couldn’t keep it. Down on the production floor in a 6-by-6-ft. cage, an iguana named Guana perches on a high shelf, “sunning” itself over a heat lamp.

On shelves in her studio, Melody collects not only the mythical figurines she has created, but also the natural curiosities she has picked up over the years. A high shelf holds skulls of real animals – a donkey, a llama, a dog among them. When carving fantasy creatures, Peña refers to the natural examples, paying attention to the underlying anatomy, just as Michelangelo did.

Unreal naturalist
Far from the world of fantasy, Melody Peña works in the tradition of the naturalist illustrator. She is to the creatures of the fantasy realm what Charles Darwin was to the strange creatures of the Galapagos, or what John J. Audubon was to the birds of North America.

What makes Melody’s figurines distinctive – and popular among collectors – is their lifelike appearance. She has taken the seemingly opposite concepts of fantasy and realism and combined them to render fantasy creatures with natural realism – but always with her own twist. (For example, one slender dragon is based on a ferret. The mammalian traits give the reptilian creature a kind of cuddly warmth.)

The results of more than 30 years of artistry is a mythological bestiary that contains dragons of many shapes, colors, ages, sexes and sizes. But you will never see a fire-breathing dragon in Windstone’s catalog.

Animals don’t breathe fire. That would be unnatural.

Pendragon
Corvallis, Oregon
USA

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Meeting the mechanical wizard of Windstone

Having arrived at the blue metal building that is Windstone’s new home in the Northwest, I opened the door and stepped into a small foyer with a service window into the office. Windstone brochures were perched in a stand on the window counter. On the floor below the shelf an amazingly lifelike lizard sat sculpted on a rock, as if taking in the sun. The details were perfectly rendered, right down to the scales, but I overlooked the neatly folded wings that marked this lizard as one of the “garden dragons” in Windstone’s catalog.

Inside the office, a woman who laughed as much as she talked paused from filling orders to show me down the hallway to John Alberti’s office. (I would later learn that the laughing woman was John’s sister, Suzie, who had worked for her brother for years.)

Meeting the wizard
John broke away from peering intently at a computer screen and greeted me warmly. He was a slight man in a flannel shirt and khaki work pants greeted me warmly, picking up where our phone conversation left off. John’s eyes were dark and inquisitive, intense despite the spectacles on his nose. He wore his grey hair long, pulled back into a short ponytail, and his wispy, white goatee extended well below his chin.

His office was piled high with papers and boxes. Though he was still unpacking from the move from California to Oregon, I suspect his office will always be a jumble of in-the-works projects.

The tour
“Come on back and let me show you what we’re up to,” John said, leading me down the hallway, through a door and out into the jumble of Windstone’s manufacturing floor. Two months after the move north, it was more warehouse and less factory, with crates stacked two and three high.

Despite efforts to inventory every crate, many important and useful items – like finished figurines ready to sell – had been misplaced. (Spanish-speaking packers often didn’t know what to call the mythical creatures and exotic machinery they were packing, so every week brought a new discovery.)

“This will be our machine shop over here,” John says, pointing along the east wall. “You don’t happen to know of a good machinist, do you?” I gave him the name of the shop manager at the Hewlett-Packard site, which was closing down its machining center.

John opened a tall metal cabinet and pulled out a mold for a dragon to show me how his wife’s original sculpture is turned into a mold. Circling a triple-decker wall of crates, John pointed to the ceiling.

“We are still putting in the electrical and ventilation for the casting stations, which will go here.” He pointed to the floor along the west wall.

We stopped by the paint booths – already set up and working – where the plain plaster casts are given coats of luminous paint, some of which costs $250 a gallon. I was taken aback by the price of the paint.

“Oh yes,” John affirmed, “this is museum quality stuff.”

Over the course of the 1-hour walkthrough, it became clear that John Alberti is a bona fide wizard – a mechanical wizard – a man whose knowledge of machines, machine tools, electricity and applied physics allows him to create almost anything required to support the production side of his wife’s artistry.

While Melody carries the artistic vision of Windstone, John is the mechanical wizard who turns her artistry into high-quality collectibles ready to sell. On the side John designs and manufactures tools for making violins.

As we walked amid wooden crates, stacked two and three high, it was clear that the wizard of Windstone is facing one of his greatest challenges – bringing Windstone back to life in the Northwest.

I asked if there was a phoenix – the mythical bird that rises magically from the askes – in the Windstone catalog. There was not. Instead, Windstone itself is the phoenix. John, the mechanical wizard, is employing all of his magic to resurrect Windstone in the northwest.

Pendragon
Corvallis, Oregon
USA

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Close encounter of the Windstone kind – coincidence or omen?

On my first tour of Windstone Edition’s new Northwest production facility, John Alberti (the mechanical wizard behind Melody Pena’s superb figurines) led me up a flight of carpeted stairs, where a stack of Harry Potter books had come to rest permanently on the third step, to the large room that serves as the design studio for Melody Peña.

Melody was in a side office, sketching a design for the envelope that would announce to dealers across the country that Windstone had relocated to the Northwest. She interrupted her sketching to show me her sculptures, which line two tall bookshelves on either side of the room.

As she showed me her mythical menagerie, I realized that I had seen her work before. It was a full decade before, and yet I remembered it clearly. Windstone creations make that kind of impression.

First contact
My first exposure to Windstone figurines was the result of a neighborly dispute between Corvallis’ oldest ballet studio and the city’s premier New Age gift shop. The Regional School of Ballet and The Northern Star are neighbors on Third Street, separated only by a wall.

When ballet was being taught, there was no issue between the studio on one side and the bead shop on the other. However, when my wife, Kelly, a former professional dancer, fired up a jazz dance class, a seismic issue arose.

You see, jazz dance is done to rock and roll music. The harder the beat, the better. When Kelly stepped in front of the mirrors, the Regional School of Ballet rocked like it had never rocked before. And so did the walls.

The dancers loved it, but on the south side of the wall, they weren’t so pleased. The hammering base beat was rattling the crystals on the shelves. The bead shop asked the studio to turn it down. Being a good neighbor, Kelly complied, and I was dispatched to visit the Northern Star to make sure that all was quiet on the southern front.

Treasures and tchotchkes
The Northern Star is a treasure trove of eccentric and eclectic gifts. It has the best assortment of beads in town – drawer after drawer. Stained glass panels hang in the window. A curvaceous mannequin models an alluring, blue, belly dancing outfit. There are black light posters and counter-culture bumper stickers. There are off beat birthday cards and Native American dream catchers. And there is rack after rack of fanciful figurines — fairies, elves, angels, mermaids and the like. To me they were just tchotchkes, undifferentiated dust catchers, so much clutter in search of a shelf.

Then I came to the locked glass case where the Windstones were displayed. I remember the moment clearly. In a store full of figurines, the Windstones were distinctive. Perhaps it was the lustrous paint that made the Black Dragon appear luminous. Perhaps it was the realism – the naturalness – of their detailing. Or maybe it was just that these pieces were larger and more substantial than their faerie kin. They looked like they would be heavy.

I did not ask to have the case unlocked to verify my impression. I was not there to buy. I was on reconnaissance. I gave the Windstones a long last look and returned to the studio, mission accomplished.

Deep memory
Now, 10 years later, I was once again admiring Windstones. This time they were not behind glass. I was picking them up, feeling their weight, and the artist who conjured them from her imagination was standing beside me, explaining the challenges of each piece. (“You have no idea how hard it is to paint a black dragon.”)

What does it mean when something that leaves such an impression comes again into your life? Is it just a coincidence? Or is it an omen?

Pendragon
Corvallis, Oregon
USA

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Is it live, or is it Melodys?

I have described Melody Peña, the artistic creator of all things Windstone, as a naturalist to the imaginary world. But she does amazingly well in the real world too. Proof of this came to me in the rotund form of a guinea pig.

I took my 11-year-old daughter, Tam, on a cross-town pilgrimage to Windstone to introduce her to John Alberti and Melody and to show her their wonderful creations. Melody, a gracious hostess, offered my daughter her choice of any of the fanciful creatures that line the shelves in her upstairs studio. I was surprised and a bit concerned by the offer. What if Tam should choose a $300 emperor dragon? Or a limited edition Pegasus? I hoped she would be attracted to something more modest and affordable, like a mama dragon incubating an egg or a cuddly, cute flap cat.

She considered the shelf before us. I had no idea what she would choose.

“Can I have the guinea pig?” she asked, pointing across the room to a low shelf where a portly guinea pig sat.

I was surprised by her selection, but shouldn’t have been. She has a pair of guinea pigs and attends the monthly 4-H Club for “cavies” – the official name for guinea pigs. So home we went with a pudgy plaster “pigger” tucked in a padded bag swinging gently under the handlebars of our bicycle for two.

I was as eager as my daughter to show off her new Windstone mascot, so we took it to the next 4-H gathering. And there, side-by-side and nose-to-nose with the real thing, I saw just how realistic – how lifelike – Melody’s works of art are.

Live or Memorex?
Back in the days before iPods and digital music, the Memorex company touted the quality of its audio tape with the challenge, “Is it live? Or is it Memorex?” Now, to tout the realism of Windstone’s creations, I issue you the same challenge. Take a look at this photo and tell me which is live, and which is Melody’s. (Despite their amazing similarity, the live guinea pig was not the model for the Windstone. The convergent colors are a creative coincidence — yet another of Melody’s marvels.)

Pendragon
Corvallis, Oregon
USA

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Windstone is…

Pendragon writes…

Blogging about fantasy figurines is an unusual business. I suppose that shouldn’t come as a surprise. In journalism school, they didn’t offer tips for covering the dragon-griffin-gargoyle beat.

The biggest surprise about this fantasy endeavor is how un-fanciful Melody Peña and John Alberti are. Melody is as much a naturalist as she is an artist. She remains very much a serious student of nature, science and anatomy while drawing and sculpting from fantasy and mythology. John is more of a mechanical genius than a business manager. Perhaps that is just as well. Given the complexity of resurrecting Windstone in the Northwest, any business timeline he might put down to guide Windstone’s return to profitablity would be regarded as fantasy. This is a complex operation in the best of times. The current economic meltdown is only making it harder.

Family effort
In many respects, the story of this unique company is so ordinary as to be universal. It is the story of a family business trying to build a livelihood based on one member’s remarkable talents. Almost a dozen employees work at Windstone, but the operation is very much a family enterprise. Melody Peña’s sculpture is supported by John Alberti’s mechanical genius. John and Melody’s 18-year-old daughter, “Chessie” (short for Chesapeake) and son, Griffin, a sophomore at Corvallis High school, clock in after school. Chessie’s boyfriend, Adam, worked at Windstone for a time.

John’s sister, Suzie, has been working for her brother for more than 20 years. In August, she left her house and husband behind and came north to make sure order forms were mailed out and incoming orders were filled. She is the master of the inventory. Suzie’s son, John, came north with her to support Windstone’s northwest revival.

E-commerce impact
Windstone’s story is also a technology story – a case study in how Internet shopping and the price of real estate are rapidly extinguishing the small specialty shops that have displayed Windstone Edition pieces for decades. Online shoppers cannot see or feel the differences between Asian knockoffs and the real McCoy.

Credit crunch
Windstone’s is a banking story – one of the countless examples of how the nation’s credit crunch and the banking collapse is crushing distinctive businesses. It has always been difficult for artists and makers of collectibles to convince bankers that there is a solid market for their work. The value of art will always be intangible, and the fervor of collectors will always be mystifying to the uninitiated.

Unreal estate
John and Melody’s move to Corvallis is a real estate story – the collapse of the real estate market in Southern California has left them with a house in Shadow Hills that they cannot sell. Until the house sells, they – like thousands of Americans – are financially frozen in their transition.

Phoenix rising
Windstone’s story is a transformation story. John and Melody are working to harness the Internet and the myriad innovations that are lumped together under the banner of “Web 2.0.” They are working with website designer, Gregg Goldstone at Nexco in Southern California, to create a website that captures the attention of Internet search engines. If they can get Windstone to the top of the search page, then convert those searchers into buyers, they might supplement the cash flow from brick-and-mortar shops with enough online sales to stay in business.

Can the dragon makers harness the Google dragon and ride it to financial success? That is the story I will be following most closely here at Windstone in the Northwest.

Pendragon
Corvallis, Oregon
USA

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Mythology biology – or how to build an imaginary bestiary

Pendragon writes…

Mix up a few facts, and you end up with a fantasy. Mix up a few animal parts – as Melody frequently does – and you end up with fantasy figurines. Of course, Melody is not the first to mix and match heads and wings and beaks and claws. The practice is ancient yet still commonplace today.

As an amateur naturalist with a Life Sciences degree, I fancy myself quite knowledgeable about all the real creatures of the world. As a boy, I ran around the plains of Montana, scaring up prairie fowl that I identified with my well-worn Golden Book Field Guide. When Princeton University Press released the Mammals of North America in 2002, I turned every page carefully to ensure that I knew all creatures great and small.

But when I walked into Meloday Pena’s studio, I felt like I needed a crash course: Mythology Biology 101. On the shelves in front of me were mammals with bird parts, reptiles with mammal shapes, a lama hatching from an egg and combinations that would have sent Carlos Linnaeus back to the classification drawing board. Unfortunately, there is no field guide for this mythological bestiary.

Basic beasties
Now I am not a complete bonehead. I know that a unicorn is a horse with a single horn, and Pegasus is a horse with wings. (As the son of a navigator, I can pick out the Great Square of Pegasus in the summer night sky.) I have read enough literature to know that a satyr had the head and torso of a man on the hindquarters of a goat. Centaurs – half horse, half man – made some nice cameo appearances in The Chronicles of Narnia. (I always thought I’d rather be a centaur than a satyr and get to keep all four legs.)

I knew the Minotaur was a bull’s head on a man’s body – a pairing that always seemed top-heavy to me. (I’ll bet that I could out-maneuver a Minotaur in a labyrinth.) But there are some fantasy creations that I couldn’t describle, like the Chimera. The Greek writer Homer first described this creature as “lion-fronted and snake behind, a goat in the middle….” In some depictions, the tail ends with the head of a snake.

Norse mythology is not nearly as fanciful as Greek or Roman, but they did have the kraken – described as a giant sea monster with features of a crab (or octopus) and a whale. There is rampant speculation that Norse sailors were describing the giant squid.

Kirin
At Christmas, Melody sketched a beautiful image of three single-horned creatures with great flowing manes like a lion and scales like a fish.

“Wow!” I exclaimed. “That is beautiful…what are they?”

“Oh those? Those are kirin,” Melody replied. “It’s a Chinese Unicorn.” Then she held forth on all the many variations of kirin – including her own. I was amazed that there could be so much history to a creature that I had never even heard of. It made me feel that perhaps the dodo was not yet extinct.

Melody’s menagerie
As naturalist to the fantasy world, Melody knows all the traditional conventions for fantasy creatures, but feels unconstrained by them. When inspiration strikes, she will cobble together totally new variations. Winged wolves were a natural, though Melody doesn’t claim to have originated the idea. For some of her dragons, she borrows the shape and stance of a ferret. Tweaking the traditional gryphon, Melody put a dove’s wings on a cat but kept the kitty’s adorable face. Her trademarked “Flap Cats” are a big seller.

Melody rendered a very lifelike guinea pig – accurate down to its wide-eyed, worrisome expression. But then she thought it would look cuter with a parrot’s beak. Everyone loved the resulting critter and asked what the round-hipped hybrid was called.

“Poads,” she decided. “I’ll call them poads.” She trademarked that name too and set about designing poad decore. The face on a clock in her studio features a circle of poads in place of numbers. It serves as a reminder than any time is a good time to invent something totally new.

Any other surprises?
Now, dear Reader, you have an opportunity to facilitate my continuing education. Have I missed any mythological creatures? What else should I know? And can anyone provide a Field Guide to Dragons?

Pendragon
Corvallis, Oregon
USA

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Where's Windstone? Four turns from anywhere in the world.

Anxious to see what Windstone Editions was all about, I drove south of Corvallis a mile, then turned right at Murphy’s Tavern onto Wake Robin Ave., a long, straight, dead-end that I had never explored in my 15 years in Corvallis.

I passed humble houses and an apartment complex on the right, cows and a kiln-making shop on the left. I crossed a little-used railroad siding and passed a fenced warehouse where a Volvo older than my own was parked. Within sight of the road’s end, just beyond the barking dogs at the Corvallis Kennel and Cattery, I found Windstone Editions.

The blue metal building stands by itself, giving no hint of the unlikely enterprise being uncrated inside. Few residents even know it is exists, though it is familiar to United Parcel Service and FedEx drivers who have been making deliveries for years.

R-R-L-R
I was struck by an irony of Windstone’s new location. Though is it tucked away in a small city that few people have ever heard of, Windstone is just four turns from the Portland International Airport, and thus just four turns from the world. It’s a right, right, left, and right.

If Windstone someday holds a Grand Opening at its new northwest location, collectors will probably fly in from around the world to visit Melody Peña and John Alberti in their quaint, country environment. Once they land in Portland, their 85-mile drive south will be no more complicated than my drive across town.

Tucked at the end of a dead end in Corvallis, Windstone Editions is just four turns from the world.

Pendragon
Corvallis, Oregon
USA

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Choosing a nom de plume

An artist or writer should feel proud to sign their name to their work. Yet when I signed my name at the close of my first few Windstone postings, it seems somehow ill suited to the topic of dragons, unicorns and fanciful creatures.

For the first time in my life, I find myself wanting a pen name. Since my name is Warren and I am writing about dragons, I thought perhaps I would take the nom de plume of Dragon Penn Warren – a literary illusion to one of America’s greatest writers, Robert Penn Warren.

“Nobody will get it,” my wife informed me flatly.

“Really?” I doubted. “People won’t recognize my clever play on the the name of a Pulitzer-prize-winning author?”

She gave me an “oh puh-lease” look.

Back to the moniker drawing board.

Melody Peña at Windstone suggested, “How ‘bout ‘Pendragon?’”

I liked the sound of that, so I took it home and gave it the spouse test.

“That’s much better,” she enthused. “Everyone will get that.”

I was perplexed. “Why will nobody get Dragon Penn Warren, but everyone will get Pendragon?”

She looked at me curiously. “Are you kidding? You do know who Pendragon was, don’t you?”

I searched the mental data base – no matches found. I stared back blankly.

“Pendragon…?” she repeated. “You don’t know about Pendragon?”

In a kind and gentle tone – like a classics professor lecturing on Mythology for Dummies – she explained that Pendragon was the family name of a certain well-known English king named Arthur… King Arthur.

“Oh…”

I decided she was right. Almost everyone in the fantasy dragon world would get that.

(If you are one of us few who somehow missed the whole Camelot, Mists of Avalon thingy, I recommend Wikipedia.)

Just sign me,
Pendragon

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Windstone – a rare find in the Northwest

I returned John Alberti’s call, and we had a marvelous, wide-ranging conversation. He explained that Windstone Editions is America’s premier makers of collectible “fantasy figurines” – dragons, griffins, unicorns, winged cats, flying horses and an entire menagerie of mythological creatures I had never heard of – like a kirin, an oriental unicorn.

“Collectors refer to our figurines simply as ‘Windstones,’” John explained, likening them to the fantastically expensive Spanish porcelines known as “Lladros. “We have collectors all around the world.” John launched into stories about devoted collectors making pilgrimages to the Windstone factory to meet his wife, Melody Peña, the family artist and creator of Windstone’s mythological bestiary.

So long Hollywood
For several decades Windstone pilgrims made their way to North Hollywood, Cal. But in August, John and Melody completed an arduous relocation to the Pacific Northwest. It took eight months and 20 trucks to carry the Windstone factory and all the family’s possessions north through the mountains to Corvallis, Oregon – my city – on the western edge of Oregon’s lush Willamette Valley.

Welcome to the Micrometro
Discovering Windstone in Corvallis is like finding a diamond among rhinestones, or a rare orchid blooming among dandelions. Windstone at first seemed incongruously out of place here, and yet it fits. Corvallis is as rare a city as Windstone is a business.

Corvallis is a Micrometro – a little city with a big city mindset. It is best known for Oregon State University and a waning Hewlett-Packard site, home of HP’s inkjet computing. Because Interstate 5 bypassed Corvallis in the early 1970s, the town has remained a compact, well-centered community – a rare place where a person could live their entire life within a 30 minute walk of downtown.

John and Melody had been spending part of their time in Corvallis for years, coming here first to visit friends, then vacationing here, buying property and finally uprooting their lives and business and transplanting them here.

So here was Windstone (a rare business) in Corvallis (a rare city) gearing up to produce the works of Melody Peña (a rare artist). Rarely does a writer find an opportunity like this. I had to know more.

Warren Volkmann, Writer
Corvallis, Oregon
USA

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Hello…Windstone calling

Windstone Editions entered my consciousness on the third Thursday of the month late in 2008. Just after 4 p.m., the house phone rang. Most business calls come in on the cell phone, so I let the call ring through to voice mail. When I picked up the message, I discovered I had missed a business call. The message was short, direct and polite.

“Hi…this is John Alberti at Windstone Editions, and I was referred to you for writing. Our number here is 541-XXX-XXXX, and we are usually here until 6 o’clock. Thank you.”

I was delighted. An unsolicited client! Another potential writing assignment to spice up the bland diet of a contract training developer.

I spend most of my year writing online training programs and job aids for MegaCorp, Inc. Corporate work pays well, but it is a mental straight jacket with its templates, formats, frameworks, style guides and translation rules.

As a former newspaper reporter, I much prefer to write profiles – insightful mini-biographies of interesting people. I have profiled new professors, successful entrepreneurs, MBA graduates, family businesses and high-tech start-ups. I relish the work. Profiles keep me in touch with my journalism roots, while training pays the bills.

Perhaps this new client – Windstone Editions – would be that rarest of rare beasts – a creative writing assignment that helps pays the bills. Little did I suspect that I was about to engage a real-life, family business drama with one of the most interesting couples I have ever met. In the world of business, Windstone Editions is, indeed, a rare beast. In fact, rare beasts is what they do.

Warren Volkmann, Writer
Corvallis, Oregon
USA