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So it is the end of another year, and it is time to write the post which I always put off again and again…right up until the last day of the year–which is to say I still need to write the year-end obituaries. Ferrebeekeeper readers will recall that the obituaries here are obituaries for those departed who meant a lot to me–so if you want to know about queens, popes, soccer guys, rappers, or whatever, you will probably have to look elsewhere. For example, last year, I only wrote about my grandfather, an international master operative who battled against Soviet and Chinese dirty tricks in Africa and Southeast Asia throughout the middle of the 20th century. These days, everyone rolls their eyes about the worldwide cloak-and-dagger proxy wars by means of which the Cold War was fought, but, please note that as soon as grandpa was dead (and his ilk out of power), Russia formed an alliance with China and attacked Europe, so I tend to think it all WAS pretty necessary, no matter what the anti-American apologists say.

Grandpa taught me how to take stock of the world and look at art (which he avidly collected), but for more specific lessons in world history and painting, I turned to a generation of teachers and masters who are now also passing away. And so it is with great sadness that I write about two of my illustrious teachers who died in 2022.

Walter Kaegi Abroad (a professor unafraid of travel)

Walter Emil Kaegi, (1937 – 2022) was one of my favorite history professors from college (along with the late, great Emmet Larkin). Kaegi was a professor of Byzantine history, a broad subject which he approached with polymath intensity from all sides. In some respects, Byzantine history is regarded as the story of one thousand years of precipitous and ineluctable decline. Kaegi, however, remembered that history does not seem inevitable to those leading it. His multi-faceted view of the Byzantines was indeed filled with trademark battles, religious controversies, and palace intrigue, but he also added the trade, farming, technology, music, poetry, and ecology missing from the work of great Byzantinists of yore. Kaegi was a scholar’s scholar who knew Latin, Greek, and Aramaic just as well as English, but also learned French, German, and Russian so he could read the works of other scholars. Speaking of Russian, the professor always wore a hilarious heavy Russian hat which we bare-headed undergrads laughed at in the bitter Chicago winters (which illustrates that comedy, like history affords multiple vantage points on what is actually the truth).

Although history scholars like to speak of him like he was Gibbon, Kaegi was definitely not Gibbon. He instead synthesized some insights into the long fall of the Roman Empire from new resources–particularly archaeological/geological ones. Whereas most historians fixate solely on the doings of emperors, courtiers, bishops, and generals, Kaegi came to the conclusion that a combination of climate change, agricultural collapse, and religious change was driving events to a heretofore unappreciated extent (an insight worth remembering when eyeing the events of the present).

Of course he didn’t paint a self portrait, so here is a photograph of Ron Sherr

My other teacher who passed away last year will probably not be remembered foremost as a teacher–since he was actually an artist first. Ronald Sherr (1952-2022) was a brilliant portrait-painter who studied with Daniel E. Greene, Harvey Dinnerstein, and Burton Silverman before going on to paint America’s leading politicians, soldiers, and business leaders (and win all sorts or awards and accolades chronicled elsewhere). Since he rubbed shoulders with the mighty (or at least painted those mighty shoulders) he is liable to be incorporated as part of this era’s political zeitgeist. Indeed, in the recent headlines about former house-speaker Boehner crying when Nancy Pelosi’s official portrait was unveiled, CNN and the NYTimes neglected to dwell on the fact that Ron had painted the official portrait of both speakers!

Portrait of General Colin Powell (Ronald Sherr, 2012) Oil on canvas

Yet world-renowned clients was not what made Ron important as an artist. Ron was an artistic anachronism of sorts–he painted beautiful realistic portraits which looked like they had some piece of the living subject inside of them. His real method for obtaining these incredible results was not some trick or secret tool, but constant practice and stringent self-criticism. Ron’s artistic hero was Jon Singer Sargent who combined the unparalleled draftmanship of the Old Masters with the realistic color and focus of the impressionists. Ron likewise used this combination and it is what he tried to teach his students. We all remember that during our first year painting he would mostly ask seemingly obvious questions like “Is the head you have painted bigger or smaller than the model’s actual head? Is the torso you have painted more yellow or less yellow than the model’s actual torso?”

Our utter inability to answer these questions (at first) reveals part of why it is hard to teach painting. A great teacher must teach looking and comparing first….and then second and then last. Unless you can look at a subject with fresh eyes and regard your own efforts honestly, true realism will forever remain out of your reach.

Speaking of which I have not been painting realistically! Nor have I been applying the lessons of Byzantine history to the Byzantine circus factions of today. I worry that I have dishonored my amazing teachers by not making use of what they worked so hard to teach me. Now, thanks to time’s one way arrow and the nature of mortal existence, we no longer have the real masters. All that is left is the hazy memory of their teachings…although, come to think of it, here I am on a Saturday night (on New Year’s Eve no less) trying still to understand their teachings and make use of such learning to explain the world to others. Keep asking questions! Keep comparing. Keep striving for greater honesty. This is what I hear in my head as I set down the obituarist’s pen and reach again for the artist’s brush.

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Happy Winter Solstice! I am sorry about 2022. I meant to blog more, and answer everyone’s comments, and write a consolidated treatise defending liberalism against the neo-fascists who are everywhere, and post my new monastic orchid illuminations, etc., etc., etc. Alas, not everything got done the way I wanted and now it is the darkest night of the year (the real end of the year, in my book, although I guess there is a week or so of Saturnalia before 2023 truly gets here according to the calendar).

We will work on all of this next year (and much more besides) but before sending the year off, I wanted to share some pictures of my sacred tree of life (an annual tradition). Look! it has even more cephalopods, turkeys, waterfowl, and ancient mammals (plus all of the animals I could get my hands on from every other branch of the great zoological family tree too).

My flounder art (sigh) was about trying to reposition the natural world at the center of what humans find sacred: the religions of Abraham treat the natural world as contemptible–and we are all suffering because of it. Sadly, the fish gods I made did not grab people’s attentions despite their portentous deep-sea secrets. However a few holiday guests have stared at the holiday tree of life for a looooong time before brushing away some tears–so perhaps it actually does get the point across to some degree.

And of course, I saved the best thing for last! My late feline life companion, Sepia (wipes away a few tears of my own) did not enjoy the public eye and so I did not put her in my blog. My present housecat, Sumi Cat, feels much differently and likes to be the constant center of attention. Here are some pictures of her loving little face to help you stave off the primordial darkness (although, ironically, black cats are always hard to photograph and doubly so on the darkest night of the year). Sumi and I hope that you are safe and warm and happy this holiday season! May your dreams come true and may the great tree of life always bloom with fulsome new growth!

We will talk again before 2023, but for now, season’s greetings and good (longest) night!

There is colorful news from the world of fashion and lifestyle!

Every December, Ferrebeekeeper (and everyone else on the planet who writes about color) gets to comment on the Pantone “Color of the Year”, a well-publicized hue which is chosen by a group of fashion mavens and marketing experts to embody our cultural zeitgeist. The Color of the Year welds together the fashionable palette of the day with whatever events happen to be in the news. Thereafter companies, designers, and brands plan the colors for their clothes and goods based around this standard (which is how stores work together to craft lucrative aesthetic trends). You should click this link to see Ferrebeekeeper’s commentary on past colors of past years!

It is a powerful idea…however, this year’s color does not technically exist?

Well, cough…at least it doesn’t exist according to classic Newtonian physics… Longtime Ferrebeekeeper readers will already recognize that this weaselly sort of language applies to the beautiful rich pink color of magenta. And, indeed, the 2023 Color of the Year is “Viva Magenta” (see above). Magenta famously drove Sir Isaac Newton (further) into madness, since it was his favorite color but he could not find it within the prismatic spectrum of visible colors. Only when the great Sir Isaac set up multiple overlapping prismatic rainbows did he realize that magenta is an illusion our mind makes when it sees bright pink and blue at the same place and same time.

Beyond the pure realm of the electromagnetic spectrum, the color of the year embodies other confusing modalities. For example it has long been posited that there is a strong correlation between the economy and the color of the year. Self-important/self-deluded economists no doubt theorize that the former entirely influences the latter and never vice-versa: I am less sure. But even if bear years really do yield subdued colors, this would make “Viva Magenta” an outlier–since 2023 is projected to be a glum year of economic recession (in contrast with the beautiful, joyous, and bright magenta). Once again, the Pantone executives have carefully hedged their prognostications. If you proceed to Pantone’s site to take in this year’s entire palette, you will see that Viva Magenta is surrounded by a disheartening smear of lifeless beige and gray colors.

Back in the nineties I worked in an office with a colleague who dated a Pantone insider from wayyyyy back in the ’80s (when Pantone produced its consumer product palette advice without all of the color-of-the-year hoopla). My colleague’s beau was doing quite well choosing colors…until he chose a brilliant hot pink cerise (do you remember the year when it was everywhere? 1986 maybe?). Unfortunately, the great masters of capitalism regarded that ’80s electric magenta as too bohemian/artistic (and as a possible cause of the 1987 crash). Thereafter Pantone started pushing drab conservative colors for a while (and they chose other people to choose the Pantone colors).

Abstract Painting in Magenta and Red (Frida Kaas) Digital

Will this year’s magenta similarly be the last drop of dramatic color before a new drab era? The cultural critics of the New York Times do not seem to care for “Viva Magenta” much (they seem like the sort of people who would prefer ecru or pearl gray…or just black). Personally, I rather like “Viva Magenta” (which looks like something a 19th century opera-enthusiast would wear). Additionally, I have high hopes that the economy will not sputter out and that society will finally embrace colors (other than monotones, red, blue, and brown). We will see during 2023. At the very least, Viva Magenta is dramatic…in that respect it certainly catches hold of what we already know about the year to come…

Doomscrolling (Wayne Ferrebee, 2022) Ink on paper

Happy Halloween! As a special inktober treat for the special day, here is another little allegorical ink drawing of our times featuring strange orchid bishops sheltering in their Romanesque monasteries. The churchmen (who do not seem especially holy or worthwhile) interact with their doomed milieu through their little handheld personal communication devices. Meanwhile the haunted world outside is subject to dragon attack, volcanic eruption, war, and doom.

As ever, the strip of nature in the foreground is the true key to the meaning of the composition.

Orchid Monastics in a Golden Orchid Rain (Wayne Ferrebee, 2022) ink on paper

Our Inktober special feature of Halloween-adjacent pen-and-ink drawings continues with this enigmatic golden orchid monastery piece which I drew with colored inks on yellow paper.

Lately I have been drawing a series of intricate altarpiece-style compositions after the style of Medieval illuminators (whose seminal contributions to art, culture, and media have been underappreciated because of the post-Vasari cult of celebrity). Hopefully writing about these illustrations in these posts will help contextualize the themes I am trying to highlight.  

Here is a little monastic microcosm of the world.  In one monastery, a white-haired abbot lords it over his little flower novices.  In a sister monastery, the mother superior and her votaries carefully send out an intimate message to the monks by means of technology. Sundry lizard people, extinct animals, and cloaked figures roam about in the space between the two houses as a rain of yellow orchid blossoms falls down from the heavens.

To my mind, the most important part of this composition is the tiny strip of nature in the foreground–a little ecosystem of weeds, wildflowers, seeds, nemotodes, myriapods, and maggots (who are furiously breaking down a mouse skull). The human world of sly courtships, status posturing, and religious grandstanding grows up out of this substrate and pretends to be superior to it (while actually being entirely dependent on the microscopic cycles of life).  All of the pompous & made-up things which humankind uses to dress up our savage primate drives do not change the fact that ecosystems are of paramount importance.

The religions of Abraham (among others) put animals and the natural world at the bottom of their moral hierarchy. I believe they are ultimately doomed because of this stupid outlook.  Whether they will take us all to a garbage-strewn grave with them remains an open question.  

Drawing of Desert Lizard (Wayne Ferrebee, 2022) ink on paper

This year’s Inktober-themed Halloween week continues with an orange-black-and-white lizard living in an arid scrubland filled with prickly plants and desert insects. I have been trying to make some drawings with a limited palette of inks and I had the idea for this drawing when looking at a bag of green, orange, and taupe rubber bands in the office supply closet. It is unclear if the bipedal green figure in the background is a nature spirit, a costumed desert inhabitant, or a figment of the imagination. The little adobe mission seems real enough, though. The best part of the drawing is probably the big grasshopper/locust in the corner, which makes me think I need to draw some more bugs!

Coati in the Central American Rainforest (Wayne Ferrebee, 2022) ink on paper

It is already the end of October…which means it is time for Ferrebeekeeper’s annual Halloween theme week! This year we are going to celebrate artistically…which is to say with a series of Inktober drawings. For those of you who somehow manage to spend your life away from the electric seduction of the internet, “Inktober” is an awkward portmanteau made by sewing “ink” and “October” together. The word and the concept were invented by draftspeople who wanted the world to take a longer look at the ink drawings which we ruined our clothes and furniture to produce for you.

This is a little drawing made with various indelible inks on terra-cotta colored Canson paper. In the image, a racoon-like coati scurries through the rainforests of Central America surrounded by various beetles, orchids, vines, slime molds, butterflies, and glass frogs. In the background a volcano spews out lava and broiling clouds of ash and gas. While in the foreground someone has thoughtfully cut open a delicious soursop fruit for us. Yum! (More about this delicious fruit in following posts).

The coati may not strike you as an ideally spooky Halloween animal (even with their bandit masks and cunning hands, I find them endearing and winsome). However Europeans of the 16th century were much more alarmed by the clever New World mammals, and coatis somehow became an emblem of witchcraft during that unhappy century of witch-hunts and religious pogroms. In order to evoke this feeling I have included a Pre-Columbian sculpture with a mysterious fungus (or miniature civilization?) spilling out of its dark belly. The tumbled-down ruins of some MesoAmerican step-temple likewise hint at the doom which humankind carries with us like a curse. Hopefully the coati and the rainforest denizens can escape the consequences of our folly…but probably not. Let me know what you think, and get ready for more Inktober artworks!

We knew that, if the Webb telescope could make it to the L2 Lagrange Point in one piece and deploy properly, this would be an exciting season for astronomers–but, even so, the parade of stunning new images from outer space are marvelous and demand comment. Today’s treasure is a picture of Planet Neptune and its moons as imaged by the near-infrared camera on Webb. The ice giant Neptune is made of strange cold things with a great pall of methane gas over them. Methane gas is very opaque to infrared light (which it absorbs) and so the planet looks like a frosty, haunted bowling ball with glass rings.

Ever since Pluto got demoted to “dwarf planet”, Neptune is the outermost world of our solar system. Yet the great gas giants…or even the trans-Neptunian objects like Eris and Haumea get all of the attention. No space craft has even visited Neptune since Voyage II rolled by in 1989 (the first and last time a probe entered the Neptune system).

Aside from the spectral rings, the image shows some bright sparks in a line along Neptune’s Tropic of Capricorn (which is not called that, but you get the idea). These bright spots are caused by high altitude methane clouds which are made of methane ice (which reflects infrared light better than methane gas does).

The full Webb photo has a striking focal point! Pulling back we see that Neptune’s largest and strangest moon Triton outshines the giant world it orbits. This is because Triton (which is named for the Greco-Roman deity Neptune’s merman super-son) is covered in a sheet of frozen nitrogen which reflects 70% of the sunlight which strikes it–so Triton glows like an aquamarine star in this photo. Ultimately Triton might well turn out to be be more interesting than Neptune: it is the only large moon in the solar system with a retrograde orbit (an orbit opposite of the planet’s rotation). Such an unusual orbit suggests that the moon was a little world captured by the ice giant long ago.

Triton is larger than Pluto and is one of five moons in the solar system known to be geologically active (the others being Io, Europa, Titan, and Enceladus). Voyager II spotted geysers of nitrogen gas venting from the moon. Clearly cryovolcanic activity is taking place below the strange patchwork of old ice (as explained in this confusing yet compelling map/diagram) and lakes of liquid water may exist below the moon’s crust.

I am going to keep staring at images of our strange far-off neighbor world, but I can’t wait to see what Webb photographs next!

My roommate Rennie is also a flower gardening enthusiast, but what he likes is morning glories. To make this work in Brooklyn, where space is limited, he gardens in the front yard (where there is lots of light and lots of things to climb on) and I plant my shade garden in the tree-filled back yard (admittedly, I plant a few morning glories to climb up onto the broken down structure behind the Haitian Church behind us).

Anyway, last year, Rennie ran around collecting all of the seeds from the morning glories he raised in the front yard (Grandpa Ott, chocolate cocoa, & flying saucers) and the ones I raised in the back (crimson rambler, Carnevale di Venezia, and Harlequin). He planted them all in big plastic planters and throughout the long hot summer of drought he has lugged out bucket after bucket of dehumidifier water straight from the dank basement for the thirst tropical flowers.

Unfortunately these pictures do not do them justice–the pure glowing colors are almost psychedelic–but even through the lens of my cellphone the beauty is still evident. His morning glory garden is such a triumph and it has been giving me a few seconds of unbridled joy each morning as I run past trying to get to my morning subway (mornings are not my best time–but the flowers help a bit).

I even unexpectedly captured a special visitor. Perhaps you remember this post from the depths of 2020 about rescuing a little carpenter bee which keeled over from exertion. Well, I noticed that a carpenter bee was rooting around in one of the cocoa-colored trumpets and took a close-up picture before rushing off to work. The picture came out far better than I would have expected (who knew my cheap phone had such a good macro function?). Admittedly, I only captured the carpenter bee’s behind (beehind?) but the lens picked out all of the individual grains of pollen caught up on the bee’s fur. Additionally, you can see the glistening luster of the cells which make up the flower.

September may be the second best garden month in Brooklyn: I will see if I can get some more pictures from the back yard and from the front one, before the magic fades. In the mean time, I will just assume that this bee is a direct descendant of that earlier one, just like these vines are all children of last year’s flowers. Also, thanks Rennie!

A fortnight ago, Ferrebeekeeper put up a review of “Requiem for a Good Machine” a science-fiction novel by friend and collaborator, Daniel Claymore. The book describes a future police officer’s attempts to solve a chain of murders (and related crimes) in Mirabilis, an ideal city built by robots to serve as a habitat for the faltering biological humans of the post-singularity age.

As of today, Claymore’s work is now on sale and you can get an e-copy (or better yet, a real copy!) of his book by going to any purveyor of fine literature. Different parts of stories stick with different people, and ever since reading Claymore’s novel, I have been thinking about the gleaming city at the heart of his work. Paradoxically, thinking about this future city is causing us to go backwards in time for the subject of this post.

Back in 2015, I built/drew the Apollo and Marsyas miniature theater, a theater for 1:18 figures (mainly the Kenner Star Wars figures…but it turns out there are lots of other little actors at this scale jockeying for position on stage too). Anyway, the fun of that project was drawing some strange background scenes (like a medieval castle, a pleasure garden, Timbuktu, a spooky cemetery, Hell, etc.). One of the backdrops I drew was a glowing city of the future filled with robots, meta-humans, droids, and transgenic chimera animals. Here it is:

Future Megalopolis (Wayne Ferrebee, 2015) ink and colored pencil on paper

My recollection of this work is that I enjoyed drawing all of the future beings (look at that quantum computer clock guy (or thing?) at the left side beneath the pink organ wall…or the purple owl woman standing above the metal dog-robot at right!) but then I got lost coloring in the asphalt and threw the whole thing aside in disgust. Looking at it afresh, however, it is better than I remember. You are getting an impossible peek into the world of the far future thanks to the one power capable of opening such a window–the imagination!

Yet, although the imagination is capable of peering through deep time, it is also fallible (just look at all of that confusing, hard-to-color future asphalt!). I was hoping to portray a city made of cities–where super-arcologies stand next to each other, rank upon rank, stretching to the horizon. I wanted an effect which was akin to the troubling urban art of George Grosz–with all of the maddened machine-people and transgenic organisms spilling out of the architecture like confetti and tainted candy pouring out of a psychedelic piƱata.

The fun of painting like Grosz is creating a river of chaotic heterogeneous lunatics! But the peril of creating such an artwork is getting lost in a world of visual clutter (which is a less-flattering way of describing a river of chaotic heterogeneous lunatics). With this work I certainly experienced the fun…but I also fell prey to the peril. Even so, this glowing drawing captures some of the effect of looking into a bewilderingly complicated social ecosystem.

The dancing, crawling, and flying robots running from dome to dome in a world of strange machines may not be exactly what the future holds…but they inspire us to think about where we are going (and we need to think about that a lot harder). Maybe I need to get my fluorescent ink back out and paint some more fantastical cities glowing in the purple twilight of ages we will never get to see.

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