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Many years ago I defeated a cruel demon…or so I thought, but now that demon is back in my life wreaking havoc.

Oval Model Study (Wayne Ferrebee, 2003) oil on canvas

Long ago, when I first came to New York City (back in the nineties!), I did so for one overwhelming reason–to learn to paint realistically! Every day I would work as a stooge at a meaningless, ill-paid office job, then, at night, I would stand neck-to-neck in a crowd of aspiring artists desperately trying to capture the likeness of a real person. Every weeknight, for three-and-a-half hours, I would get more and more unhappy as my legs started to ache and my concentration started to waiver while, on the canvas, the lines of noses and eyes and mouths (mouths are so ridiculously hard to paint!) would begin to sag and drift and change color. Then I would clean my brushes of the poison cadmium and lead, lament my ruined clothes, and ride home on the subway. I would get home at about midnight, have dinner & unwind, and then be up at 7:30 AM to drag myself into the horrible, horrible office to do it all again.

I did this for a year or two before the master portraitist who taught the class even knew my name. Eventually, I could capture a basic likeness. Sometimes it even seemed like I had a hold of some burning creative ember fallen from heaven and the paintings would light up with secret divine fire, before again abruptly becoming muddy lumps smeared on geometric circles & rectangles of cloth.

Oval Model Study (Wayne Ferrebee, 2006) oil on canvas

Whenever a painting seemed to be good I would be so proud. I would take it home and put it up on the wall…and then the defects would start to appear to my eyes. Eventually I would have a bad day at work, or a relationship setback, or some other emotional low point which would pitilessly expose the stupid deficiencies of both my life and my artworks. Then I would grab the ill-made paintings off the wall and slash them apart in paroxysms of rage. Afterwards I would feel painful regrets, as I realized how hard I had worked on a painting which was basically ok except for a fuzzy elbow or maybe even for some defect I had only imagined. Also my friends looked at me aghast (finally realizing how emotionally challenging a life in the arts is) and I would feel ashamed for worrying them with my melodrama.

Eventually the constant exigencies of my ill-fated toy company pushed me out of the night class for good. I still had so many of these paintings that I had worked so hard on. Yet over the years they dwindled as I drank more and as the little toy empire also began to falter and come apart. My angry demon of self-reproach and self-hatred became more savage. My personal collection of student works dwindled down to eight (including only four that were sort of complete). But then I jettisoned that toy company, changed my life around, and embarked on a whole new phase of artistic labor. The last few paintings stayed up on the wall, unmolested. They watched as I trudged to new meaningless day jobs, and crafted doughnut after doughnut, and then flounder after flounder. They became constants in my life as I tried to make things work, until this week, when for various reason, I could no longer abide the sight of these strangers’ faces hanging in my bedroom mocking me for the aspirations I cherished when I was twenty five. The demon had returned.

Tondo Model Study (Wayne Ferrebee, 2004) oil on canvas

For a furious moment of incandescent scarlet rage, it felt wonderful to destroy these failed reminders of the years and years of desperate, fruitless struggle. Only now that they are gone do I realize what friends these faces had become. They were always there through good times and through hard times watching me trudge along America’s treadmill to nowhere. Likewise they watched at night when inspiration struck and I got back to work painting and drawing. From the wall they watched me turn middle aged and saw my youthful strength & illusions drain away. For good or for ill, there will be no more paintings like these. My artistic path has led me elsewhere and I am unlikely to have the luxury to ever return to this pure style

Now I wonder if maybe the three paintings were ok after all. Perhaps the fading cadmium and ochre did hold a luminous fragment of truth about who people really are in their secret minds and hearts. Maybe I actually succeeded in catching a little hint of Rembrandt’s genius or Raphael’s divine mastery. Whatever the case, they are gone now forever because of my temper tantrum. I am sitting around like a ghoul lamenting the absence which I orchestrated.

Art is a journey to the terrifying world of pure ideas and back. It is a dash to the mythical real of gods and monsters. Perhaps you can occasionally return with a glistening treasure of numinous worth. More likely your heart will be wounded and you will be locked in a dark mirror, or forced to put on a fool’s motley garb, or otherwise trapped in the underworld.

Yet I am not writing this painful essay solely about my own wrenching art career (indeed, to my eyes, this essay makes me look even more like a loser). Looking at the worldwide mess which constitutes the year of our lord two-thousand and twenty, it is obvious that I am not the only wounded soul snatching my best accomplishments from past eras off of the walls and slashing them up in fury. A few silly paintings are nothing compared to real faces of friends and family lost to this mismanaged pandemic. What does art matter when the world’s oldest democracy is ripped apart? Art reflects societies and our society is being torn to shreds as the far right becomes an evil, insane cult of personality and as the far left says that all of the nation’s oldest ideals are hopelessly tainted by dark sins of the nation’s youth.

I have always thought my self-destructiveness to be a shameful weakness unique to me and other unhappy people; yet now I see that it is an illness which is society-wide–a horrible danger inherent to trying to change and become better. There is no way for me to go back and piece these three destroyed canvases together. My oeuvre now exists without them. America will have to face some similar truths in an emotional audit. We will all have to work harder to save the good works, flawed as they are (no matter how frustrating we are with ourselves). We are also going to have to trudge back into the underworld…middle-aged, debt-burdened, and with deeper feelings of alarm and anxiety about who we really are.

On the other hand, I did accomplish what I came for. I learned to paint well. Now I just have to learn to live better (and maybe how to talk to gallery owners). If only I had some paintings to show them…

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