Philip, the Last Sweet Potato: A Non-Binary Quarantine Love Story from Beloved Children’s Book Author and Illustrator Sophie Blackall
Odd and lovely consolation for despair and aloneness springing from that place of “defiance and melancholy and ecstasy.”
By Maria Popova
When the world came unworlded with a pandemic, beloved children’s book author and illustrator Sophie Blackall packed up her Brooklyn home, gathered her husband, her step-daughter, and her step-daughter’s girlfriend, and headed for Milkwood Farm — a centuries-old dairy farm she has been laboring to transform into a rural retreat for artists and writers. There, mastering the art of minimums amid still-rudimentary conditions, in between learning to build dry-stacked stone walls with her bare hands and rereading Moby-Dick, Sophie happened to buy the local store’s last sweet potato.
Being an artist and being in quarantine, she did what artists have always done — make wonder out of limitation, privation, and boredom; illuminate the universal through the tiny aperture of the deeply personal.
Sophie named the potato Philip, gave them a non-binary pronoun, sewed them a white silk scarf, and wrote them an improbable love story for the ages — in large part to hand-hold folks like her father through their struggle with “they/them. (Sophie’s own non-binary child, Olive, goes by “they.”)
The resulting short film, narrated with her largehearted erudition and Australian warmth, is part Orlando, part Monty Python, part something entirely its own — wondrously weird yet poetic, soulful, and tender, a sympathetic spell for our most elemental despairs and deepest longings cast through a root vegetable.
Complement with some surprising lessons in gender diversity and true love from the natural history of non-human species, then revisit the story of how the trailblazing 19th-century sculptor Harriet Hosmer paved the way for women in art and pioneered a new vocabulary of queer being in the era when Sophie’s dairy farm was built.
Published April 14, 2020