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Nonnegarten (Wayne Ferrebee, 2022), ink on paper

Ever since the beginning of the pandemic, I have been working on drawing with ink using a steel nib. Of all the drawing media I have used, pen and ink provides the most expressive and beautiful lines–provided you can avoid blotting, smearing, or spilling the ink. Alas, it is exceedingly easy to destroy your drawings (and your wardrobe) through the least mishap with the INDELIBLE ink. In the spirit of the masters of medieval illumination (who also utilized pen and ink), I have been drawing a series of strange floral monastic people–well, perhaps it is a bit unclear if they are people or paphiopedilums. In the picture above, a loving deity of growth irrigates the sentient crops as a kindly sister looks on. Beneath the grass, a caecilian hunts for destructive grubs among the roots and mycelia. Speaking of mycelia, kindly note the little gnome collecting mushrooms. In the heavens, a pelican flies by with a fish struggling in its beak while a bat-winged putto plays religious music on a lyre. The odd-man out in the composition is the friendly ring-tailed lemur who seems perplexed by this harmonious tableau (surely this can’t be Madagascar), but takes in in stride with sanguine primate good cheer.

The Sisters’ Day Out (Wayne Ferrebee, 2021), ink on paper

This second drawing is more complicated and harder to parse out. A little chapter of nuns have left their onion-domed convent to luxuriate in the heavenly effulgence. I feel like that aerobic-looking fairy may well be a lay-sister. Unfortunately, their repose is disturbed by a big, stiff, skinny mummy which is just lyin’ around on the lawn. Who on earth left it there and why? Also, why does the mummy have a mummified flatfish? The day is additionally marred by the presence two faceless apparitions to the extreme right. Drifting through the air everywhere are little zygote-spores of some sort (or are they little seeds of the flower people). It is good to see that life finds a way, even if the sisters are putatively uninterested in reproduction. Also there is an ermine (the very symbol of purity and moderation in Christian art) who is looking quite closely at a banana split.

I am pleased at the way that using black ink and white ink gives these peculiar allegories a feeling of dimensional form. Speaking of which, drawing with sumi ink this way also gives a literal 3 dimensional aspect to the work (albeit a slight one). If you run your fingers over these drawings, all of the lines are palpable and i had to photograph them multiple times because of little shadows and strange reflections cast by the raised ink.

A page from “Winter Landscapes and Flowers” (album ca. 1770, Qian Weicheng) ink on silk

Here is a lovely little winter landscape from Qing Dynasty master landscape painter Qian Weicheng (錢維城). Qian was a proponent of the orthodox painting style, and, indeed, we can see that his simple, elegant calligraphic lines emulate the techniques of the Song and Ming artists who preceded him. Although he was perhaps not a master of bravura ink-wash realism to the unearthly degree of Fan Kuan or Guo Xi, Qian brings his own 18th century virtues to the art, and there is a delightful & unaffected simplicity to his work which captures the austere beauty of winter’s bare rocks, leafless trees, and frozen mud. In this little painting, flocks of geese glide through the overcast sky above a branching river which is swollen with melt water. The simplicity of the countryside must have been a dramatic contrast with the opulent splendor of court life in 1774 when this image was dated and inscribed. Of course Qian himself died in 1772, so the inscription and the date were added posthumously by Qian’s greatest fan, the Qianlong Emperor himself!

Qian Weicheng painted over 275 paintings during his time at court and he rose up through the imperial bureaucratic ranks to the exalted position of second-in-command of the Imperial Board of Works. Perhaps you are wondering how it is that Qian came to the capital from his native Jiansu to begin with. Any discussion of dynastic China includes mention of the famous, formidable imperial civil service exams, the great standardized test which was at the center of imperial China’s administrative system. In 1745, Qian came in first place on the exam, an academic feat which brought him to imperial attention and guaranteed his success as a mandarin and as a painter. This path to artistic greatness (acing a standardized test about Confucian principles!) brings up a variety of questions about meritocracy, politics, and aesthetics which we are still wrestling with!

Happy Epiphany! This holiday, also known variously as “Three Kings Day”, “Little Christmas”, and “Theophany,” celebrates the revelation of Christ to the gentiles. In ancient Christian tradition, Christmas has 12 days, starting upon December 25th when Mithras–I mean Jesus!–was born and ending when the wise men arrive to present their gifts and acknowledge Christ as king of Earth. Observed on January 6th, it also brings an end to the joyous Christmas season (which reminds me, I need to take down my tree this weekend…sigh). If you live your life in accordance with liturgical colors (which I find hard to imagine you doing unless you are the pope), January 6th marks the return to ordinary green.

When I was growing up, I always liked the three wise men, who seemed like cosmopolitan outsiders in the somewhat insular & Jewish world of the synaptic gospels. Plus I always played Melchior in Christmas pageants (with exotic orientalist “robes” and an inlaid mother-of-pearl jewelry box from my mother’s vanity table!

The Adoration of the Kings (Jan Gossaert, ca. 1515), oil on oak panel

Anyway, to properly celebrate this holiday-which-ends-the-holidays, here is a favorite artistic interpretation of the momentous visit by Flemish genius, Jan Gossaert. The painting has a sort of “find-these 30 hidden objects” quality to it (which is something I love about Flemish art), so it is worth really looking at it for a while. You might want to head over to the National Gallery’s website where you can really blow up the image to see the incredible details in every inch of the masterwork.

The kings’ names (Balthasar, Caspar, Melchior) are not found in the Bible. In fact in the gospels they are not even kings but “wise men.” Apparently their name and rank came from 5th century AD Greek texts. Interestingly it was the venerable Bede (an 8th century Northumbrian monk) who first wrote of Balthasar being black! The kings’ diverse ethnicity later became their signature feature during the Renaissance (when Gossaert was painting) as the age of exploration brought newfound fascination with ethnology.

The Cauldron in the Columbarium (Wayne Ferrebee, December 21, 2021) Ink on French paper

Here is a somewhat dark drawing for the longest and darkest night of the year (here in the northern hemisphere, anyway–if you are in the southern hemisphere or the tropics, happy summer!). I am not sure what is going on here (as with much of my art, this tableau came to me in a perplexing nightmare), but the various mummies, revenants, and human remnants certainly don’t seem encouraging. Also, I don’t place much faith in that nun or the insectoid bishop at far right. Frankly, the figure with the mystery light seems pretty suspect as well. Unless you trust the larvae with the insect faces (and who really does?) the only source of hope here is the gleaming woman above the cauldron. Unfortunately we don’t have quite enough visual information to say with certainty what is going on with her. Is she an allegory of the sun, momentarily inconvenienced by the solstice, but always ready to shine forth? Is she an apparition summoned forth by necromancers or some kind of Yule sacrifice? Or is she a goddess, a hero, or a sorceress? It is all unclear, which makes me think she might have something to do with the mysterious year to come. It doesn’t look exactly propitious, but you never know–sometimes naked allegorical people who spring out of cauldrons in columbariums turn out to be the best people of all [citation needed]. Let me know what you think and happy winter solstice. Oh, also, you better get out your worry beads–the biggest (and most audacious) space launch of the past two decades is coming up on Christmas Eve, so we are going to need a Christmas miracle to make sure we get our all-seeing cosmic eye in place! We will be back on Christmas Eve to talk about it. In the meantime, happy Yule…and best wishes for a happy winter (giant human cockroaches notwithstanding)!

Under the Flounder Moon (Wayne Ferrebee, 2021) ink on paper

Here are two more works from the series of pen-and-ink drawings in black and white ink on colored French paper which i have been working on. I apologize that the sienna one (above) is arguably Halloween themed (although, come to think of it, it seems unfair that carved pumpkins are so profoundly seasonal). To me, the drawing also suits the time of winter darkness which we have entered. In terms of subject matter, the drawing portrays a puritan in a cemetery gasping at the appearance of a black rabbit. Various little elves fall prey to insects and spiders as a ghoul and a ghost look on. In the background a nightjar flies past; while the extreme foreground features some fallen store-bought candies. The entire scene takes place under a great glistening flounder moon which illuminates the Jacobean manor on the hill and casts a fishy light upon the entire troubling scene.

Inside the Idol’s Cave (Wayne Ferrebee, 2021) ink on paper

This second work shows what may or may not be an Easter scene featuring sacred eggs and yet another rabbit (is that guy really a rabbit?). The snapping turtle looks like it is about to snap up that little elf (which is maybe fair since another kobald is making off with her eggs). The entire scene takes place inside a cave where worshipers pray and present offerings to a Dagon-type idol. A bright flatfish shines an otherworldly light on the proceedings and put one in mind of the famous platonic allegory. Likewise the tapir (a famous dream-beast) indicates that this image has something to do with the vantage point from which one approaches reality. The nun (center) reminds us that faith will otherwise help smooth over any deficiencies in perception for those trapped in a cave.

The drawings are meant as companion pieces and it is interesting to see how the same elements reoccur in differing forms. There are two elves (one about to be eaten) in each piece. There is a rabbit in each work. Both works focus on a central religious-type woman in plain garb, and both works are illuminated by fishlight and by the stars. More than that, they are compositionally similar, with a big white scary thing to the immediate right and a field of stone obstacles (gravestones and stalagmites). Yet at a bigger level they are opposite. One work is about reality within the unreal and the other is about the unreal within reality. One work is about life in death and the other is about death in life.

Perhaps I should make some summer and winter companion pieces to make a complete set (assuming that all of these drawings aren’t one weird set of some sort).

Every December, Pantone announces its “Color of the Year”. A secret cabal of Illuminati-style color influencers meet up and project aesthetic trends for the coming year. All sorts of fashion houses, paint companies, and consumer goods companies utilize Pantone’s announcements to select the color for their wares, so the choice does reflect in the look of the coming year. By the dark magic of emotional association (and the cunning and/or oracular magic of the color guild), the color of the year often does capture the zeitgeist with disturbing canniness. For example, 2021’s two colors, sunny yellow and depression gray, captured the year’s “best of times/worst of times” dualism wherein the the stock market reached all-time highs and the country was awash in cash and jobs yet huge segments of society felt like the economy was in the doldrums. Oh! Also, the 2021 construction-worker colors predicted the huge new infrastructure bill which is putting backhoes and concrete mixers to work across the continent to build back crumbling bridges and roads.

Here is a list of past colors/years if you want to see how the color augurs have done in other years (or at least read my humorous barbs about their choices (although, secretly, I think they do a pretty fine job of finding pretty colors and mixing things up).

2014 2015 2016 2017 2018 2019 2020 2021

But enough of about the past, let’s gaze into the future! The color of the year for 2022 will be “veri-peri” a mid-tone blue hue which is sliding towards violet. Pantone describes it as “a dynamic periwinkle-blue hue with a vivifying violet-red undertone.” An oil painter would probably say “French ultramarine and flake white with a dash of alizarin crimson and a bit of black”. The more I look at it, the less it seems blue and the more it seems purple. Perhaps it properly sits equidistant between the two. Pantone’s press release says ““Blending the faithfulness and constancy of blue with the energy and excitement of red, this happiest and warmest of all the blue hues introduces an empowering mix of newness.” Hmm, it sounds like they are once again trying to hew a middle passage between the red world of reactionary ethno-nationalism and the blue world of fundamental enlightenment values (both sides need consumer goods).

Pantone also claims this color reflects the growing interdependence between the internet and the dull world of, you know, actual reality. Maybe they are trying to expand their chromo-empire from waffle-makers and cocktail dresses into online games and media (this blog already loves you, Pantone!).

As for me, I like all purples–even this somewhat conservative and official-looking violet blue. One of my coworkers said that Veri-Peri looks like a passport from a country where you might not have all of your freedoms but they probably would not just grab you off the street and send you to a re-education camp (a color-description which reveals much about the growing political tensions in our world). I would describe it as the color of dusk in winter: not warm or comforting but beautiful and elegant nonetheless.

What does Veri-Peri predict for the economy and for society? It seems like a cautious color but one with some optimism as well. In our blue/red world Pantone really does favor purple–and other purple years (2014, 2018) haven’t been so bad (although there were some admitted setbacks). I say, if you want to go ahead and buy a bunch of purple turbans and purple flounder art, go ahead: the good times, such as they are, will keep on rolling. Yet, just as winter twilight indicates that you might need to get your act together and find shelter for the cold dark times, there is an anxious edge to veri-peri. Keep your wits about you and don’t be taken in by things you see on the internet: 2022 will present opportunities both for progress and for calamity…

Consulting the Oracle (John William Waterhouse, 1884) oil on canvas

It is the last month of a largely disappointing year. It is time to start looking forward in time and thinking about how we can maybe redeem next year from the failures and idiocies which have bedeviled this era. But it also the beginning of the holiday season, so as an early holiday treat, here is a very famous and beautiful painting from 1884 (it was very famous in 1884–perhaps less so now, but its troubling beauty endures). But why is this painting troubling? What is it even about?

This is Consulting the Oracle, by the matchless John Williams Waterhouse, one of the greatest of English painters from England’s greatest era. Like Waterhouse’s foreboding and challenging work Psyche Entering Cupid’s Garden, this is a work that, at first glimpse, seems to be an overly realistic Victorian fantasy of decorative charm, exotic setting, sumptuous color, and feminine beauty without much larger import. As with the Psyche painting, this initial impression is quite far from the truth, but, to understand the painting one must research the subject.

According to Waterhouse (who must have been a very strange and learned man) “Consulting the Oracle” is about a group of young Jewish women consulting a teraph to learn the future. Teraphim appear in the Pentateuch–but the text makes their nature extremely problematic and mysterious, or, to say that a different way, teraphim are baffling forbidden items in the Bible. Hebrew scholars have lost the original meaning of the word and now just translate it as “disgraceful things.” Apparently they were household or ancestral deities, not unlike the Roman Penates. For example, In Genesis, when Jacob (the father of Israel) is finally escaping his conniving father-in-law, Laban, Jacob’s wife Rachel steals the family teraphim. Laban is suspicious about what she is sitting on (for she refuses to rise from her camel saddle), but she tells him she is menstruating and thus succeeds in making off with the items. Various disputed Talmudic sources (which I guess that Waterhouse was reading?) suggest that the teraphim were the ancestors, or to quote the Jewish Encyclopedia, that “Teraphim were made from the heads of slaughtered first-born male adult humans. The heads were shaved, salted, spiced, with a golden plate placed under the tongue, and magic words engraved upon the plate.” According to Kabbalistic tradition, such objects could foretell the future if hung upon the wall and properly invoked. Modern archaeology has discovered many ceremonially plastered and mounted skulls kept inside the house as sacred ancestral totems in the ancient early cities and settlements of Palestine and the Levant. Also the sacrifice of all first born male mammals is indeed an ancient Middle Eastern tradition.

So what Waterhouse has actually given us is a peak into a ritual which casts a great deal of doubt onto just what the Old Testament is really about (in fact if you look around the room, you might notice that the torah is there, peaking out of its cupboard beneath the blue bottle at far right). Also notice that in this composition, a seat has been prepared for you the viewer to take part in this dark ritual of prophecy. You get to hear what this sacrificed mummified human head has to say. In fact the head is there too, whispering to the quack priestess who commands the audience with her stagecraft–it is just so leathery, brown, and unexpected that you probably missed it. Jeepers Creepers!

So what is this painting about? To my mind it is a warning about the false promises of magic and divination (or “religion” as we call such things). These excited young women have fallen under the dark thrall of the teraph’s interpreter. She is using the “disgraceful thing” to work everyone up and gain a hold upon them. A cursory look at Waterhouse’s full oeuvre reveal him to be obsessed with exactly such stories of sacrifice, judgement, and faith gone horribly awry. Another interpretation is that it is a painting which takes a thread from the Bible, the teraphim, and pulls at it to see what unwinds, rather in the manner Kierkegaard did with “Fear and Trembling” (or Rembrandt did with Abraham and Isaac). But this is an evil version of Fear and Trembling, for it opens a curtain into a world where God’s chosen are, well, murderers and idolators, apparently. This, of course, lays open a possible interpretation that this is an anti-Semitic work, although I personally doubt this since because, like Waterhouse’s Arthurian and Roman women, these Jewish ladies really look like Victorian/Edwardian English ladies to me. Whatever Waterhouse is saying, he is probably saying it about all people for all time.

Another interpretation is that this really is a work about augury. The teraph’s words are terrible and forbidden, but who could resist hearing them? The audience’s body language of open mouthed astonishment, horror, or outright weeping suggest that the teraph might indeed have some bad things to say (maybe about the Great War and how Waterhouse would die just before it ended of a horrible, painful cancer). In a way, the painting reminds me most of the poem “Goblin Market” (another profound work of art by another Pre-Raphaelite) it approaches forbidden and the transgressive as a legitimate source of transcendent knowledge about ourselves. So sit down, right there, in the the seat Waterhouse has prepared for you and tell me what you hear.

Happy Thanksgiving! Hopefully you are not tired of turkey yet (my mother said that the buff turkeys gathered under the bay window and gobbled evocatively while she and Dad had their holiday meal). Uhh…anyway, in this spirit, here is a little drawing to celebrate. As I mentioned, lately I have been working with black and white inks on autumn colored paper. This is a drawing from that series which explores the mysterious connections between various entities crossing paths in the forest at night. The main dramatic tension in the composition comes from the unknown relationship between the fashionable woman with long antennae and the blank-eyed peasant pursuing her with an adorable young larva in a wicker basket. Who knows what is up with people like that? In the foreground there are some frogs, flatfish, and spiders…and a being of some sort who has somehow gotten stuck inside a chianti bottle. Tsk tsk! An anthropomorphized cat troubadour is hopefully proffering his mandolin to the fashion-moth-woman, but, alas, she seems too distracted for night music. In the background fat white moths fly through the intertwined branches as a nightjar flies off and a great barred owl swoops in. Deep inside the forest a phantom desperately tries to share a frantic message from the world beyond.

Most importantly, there are some pretty turkeys in the middle of the square drawing. Honestly, you should probably just pay attention to them today. Oh, also, that tenacious critter pursuing the snake is a Sunda stink badger. This hardly seems like the tropical rainforest of Sunda, but, frankly, it is hard to pin down the location or the time of this enigmatic tableau with any true certainty.

The Rapacious Frog Among the Wee Folk (Wayne Ferrebee, 2021) ink on paper

Happy Halloween! I’m afraid that I didn’t write all of the posts I meant to write about graveyards, tombs, and memorial gardens. We will circle back to them later (if ever), but for the present moment–as the Halloween candles burn down low–there is, indeed, a final treat for you: these ink drawings I made for the season. I have been working on building more dimensional forms and more elaborate textures by using multiple tones of ink on colored paper. Here are two of the test images. The top image, which shows a giant hungry frog rampaging through a churchyard came out especially well. The poor little elves and goblins are trying to escape the rapacious amphibian, only to discover that not all carnivores are from the animal kingdom! (The woodcock flying by in the sky is indeed a nocturnal bird, but is otherwise uninvolved with the elf carnage). Presumably these elves, goblins, and fairies are members of the aos sí–the mythical mound folk who dwell in barrows and tombs in Irish folklore.

The second image, below, is in a similar vein, however the relentless frog has been replaced by a much friendlier-looking bear. This ursine goofball scarcely seems interested in eating anyone–even the strange elf pickled in a jar by his paw. The puritan and the mummy who are with the bear likewise seem fairly friendly (all things considered). Despite all of these friendly monsters and animals, this world is not without peril. Roving extraterrestrials (or somebody with a weird spaceship) are in the picture and they are up to their old tricks of making off with bystanders.

As always, the flounders represent the ambiguities of trying to live together in an ecosystem where everyone is hungrily jockeying for resources. There were supposed to be some more pictures (on purple, brown, and moss green papers) but I did not have time to finish them all. The real horror of the churchyard is that everyone there has so much time, whereas we poor folk who are still among the living never have enough to get anything done! Kindly let me know what you think of my pictures and enjoy the rest of your Halloween!

The Puritan Elf Explains Terrestrial Morality (Wayne Ferrebee, 2021) ink on paper

More-often-than-not, Ferrebeekeeper has featured crowns from long ago.  We try to feature crowns from antiquity or the Middle Ages (since that is where monarchs belong) but, because the development of the world is halting and uneven, we have seen quite a few crowns from the early modern era and the nineteenth century.  After saying all that, here is a contemporary crown from the quasi-present.  This is a crown made of emeralds and black gold (which is “oil” in my book, but apparently mean something else to jewelers) which was famously worn by Queen-Consort Rania of Jordan in 2003.  The piece was designed by Solange Azagury-Partridge for the French jeweler Boucheron (who, as far as I can tell) may still hold the piece.  The tiara is in the form of a twining circlet of ivy. Since Rania is both famous and infamous as a fashion icon, the modern elegance of the piece suits her quite well. I tend to prefer crowns to be medieval and symmetric with lots of cabochon gemstones and heavy YELLOW gold arches & crosses, however this piece has an elven charm about it which lifts it above the ugly abstract minimalism of most contemporary pieces.  In fact, projecting backwards, I think it is a shame that more historical crowns don’t feature leaves, animals, insects or suchlike naturalistic details and ornaments.  For example, one of the best crowns, the raven crown, has embroidered skulls and raven heads and looks as awesome as it sounds.  Maybe Queen Rania and Druk Gyalpo, the Dragon King of Bhutan, should hang out more for reasons of pure bling (although the Dragon King is a reformer, whereas the jury is still out on the Hashemite Dynasty).

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