Sarah Fagan's January Blog Post: The Extra Sheep

January 28, 2016 by Jess

-written by Saran Fagan, the 2015-2016 Artist-in-Residence

A logic problem I first heard in grade school has jumped to the forefront of my mind upon changes and revelations in the decades since. Allow me to share the problem as I remember it:

"A farmer dies. He has left 17 sheep to be divided a certain way amongst his three sons. One half are to go to his eldest son, one third to his middle son, and one ninth to his youngest son. How are the sheep divided?"

The solution, short of cutting up sheep, involves the intervention of a wise man who arrives in town with one extra sheep. With 18 sheep, the ovine half, third, and ninth are easily calculable as 9, 6, and 2 animals.The head-scratching outcome, of course, is that this division leaves one extra sheep -- that the wise man takes back as he continues on his way.

Mathematical skepticism aside (nine is not really half of seventeen), I am willing to suspend my disbelief. The idea of "the extra sheep" is a metaphor I have come to find useful in my own life and art making process. 

For me, the problem affirms that nothing is truly extraneous: Everything serves a purpose, even if it doesn't stick around forever. It doesn't need to. The problem makes it easier to let things go, big things and small things alike. Failed attempts become movements that lead to something better. Brief acquaintances can plant within us new ideas. 

Through creativity beyond algebra, the wise man and his sheep made possible in practice a task that was impossible otherwise. He made the sons act, rather than sitting around, frozen by an impossible request -- which perhaps is the most important part.

Here's to a new year of moving forward. 


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