Philip, the Last Sweet Potato: A Non-Binary Quarantine Love Story from Beloved Children’s Book Author and Illustrator Sophie Blackall
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