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My art theme this year has been flatfish, and I have made quite a lot of them. I think the results are very strong, but the slightly ludicrous subject leaves me at a disadvantage when I am trying to explain my work via the unforgiving medium of tweet or elevator pitch. Nothing vexes a group of high-fashion socialites quite like blurting out “I mostly paint elaborate symbolic flatfish!” The most obvious quick explanation is to make a joke about how I have been floundering (which is certainly true in many ways), however there is a lot more to this favorite subject than that.
The Pleuronectiformes (flatfish) are indeed flat–like paintings and drawings–which makes them an ideal medium for compositions. They are a favorite prey for humankind–which perfectly suits my theme of hooks, lures, traps, and beguilements (which seem to be taking over ever more in human society as we proliferate and jockey for resources). Flatfish also provides an immediate environmental theme–for they are quickly being fished into extinction (like almost all of the ray-finned fishes). Yet flatfish are no innocents. Like many large fish, these animals are all highly sophisticated predators. In order to succeed they make use of their own subterfuges. Flatfish blend in. They can literally change colors like chameleons. I sort of think of them as the middle class of the biome, squeezed between the little shrimpkins, copepods, and minnows they gobble up and the rapacious pelicans, dolphins, humans and suchlike superpredators who in turn hunt them with beaked hooks, sonar, and cruel nets.
Above all, flatfish are asymmetric–which means I can draw both of their expressive eyes without being forced to contemplate a lot of elaborate piscine bending. Their asymmetry also makes them stand out among all of the vertebrates. The universe has twisted them at adolescence–but it has given them an indefinable topological advantage as well. Also look at their little irregular paisley eyes.
Of course Meg Miller thinks I have gone crazy, and perhaps she is right. But after a while staring in the windows, “outsider artist” is the only card left to play. You never know, I could still leap out of the substrate and start gobbling shrimp any day now. Kindly check out my flatfish on Instagram and write me about your thoughts on the subject. Flounders are sad, but they are comical too (which is unusual in visual art) so everyone has an opinion. Please let me know how these flatfish make you feel!
Cockerel Cycle and French Cruller (Wayne Ferrebee, 2014, oil on panel)
It’s National Doughnut Day! To celebrate, here are two paintings from my Microcosmic Doughnut Series. Topologists and astrophysicists posit that our universe has a toroid shape—so I have combined my disparate background in history, toymaking, natural history, and Flemish-style painting to craft doughnut-shaped microcosms. Within these intricate cosmological confections, people and animals from throughout time converge in a never-ending circle—in the manner of the water cycle, the Krebs diagram, or an ouroboros. Thus the individual elements in these paintings not only have metaphorical significance, they are also part of a dynamic larger picture. Each landscape of dynamically intertwined symbols represents the cycles within individual life, history, or biology. Each little doughnut painting is its own self-contained world; yet, taken in aggregate, the individual stories of predators and prey, metabolism, historicism, world trade, or biorhythms of organisms signify even larger cycles of creation and destruction not readily discernible from the fixed perspective of an individual life. For example, the one above is about a classical French bon-vivant…or maybe it is about frogs or about cocks or chicken eggs. There is also a fertility aspect to it (not to mention a French cruller in the middle).
Furnace Doughnut (Wayne Ferrebee, 2015, oil on panel)
This second painting is less easily explained. A variety of brightly colored synthetic organisms fly up out of a baker’s furnace. Above the mysterious swarm, a humanoid figure in an asbestos suit and a blue-hot dragon spray fire on a salamander which basks in the radiant pure energy. Blue-black gothic stoves dance around beneath the centerpiece of the composition: a glowing lava doughnut congealing out of the primal kitchen…or is it just a delicious glazed doughnut with chocolate icing and an orange squiggle? The whole scene makes me hungry for cheap baked pastries…and for raw creation. Now I’m off to paint some more. Let me know what you think (and enjoy Doughnut Day with your loved ones).
The Blossom Monster Sculpture (last year, after I had just made it)
Last year, for a cherry blossom viewing party, I laboriously built a human sized blossom monster out of papier-mâché. But what does one do with a blossom monster when the party is over and the blossoms have fallen? I really meant to throw him away. Yet, somehow, whenever I went to discard him, something else always came up. He was lurking in a different part of the garden..or it was not garbage day. There was always and excuse to save the fluorescent monster, no matter how threadbare he got.
But winter was not kind to him: he had sunk to the ground and his legs were coming off. One of his glitter lantern eyes was gone. It really was time for him to go (plus I made a new group of blossom monsters to celebrate this year’s cherry blossoms). So I had to toss the poor art creature (a fate which will seem instantly familiar to arts professionals).
However, once I threw him in the garbage he gained his creative fulfillment. Indeed the pathos of the discarded monster was quite moving. His last act was his finest and now I will forever think of him like the maimed protagonist of a Caravaggio religious painting, with divine light shining on his fallen countenance.
It’s a bit past the holidays, but I wanted to share the Christmas present I received. A plush catfish! Look at how endearing it is. There are too few catfish toys. This is a blue catfish (Ictalurus furcatus), the largest species of north American catfish, which reached sizes of up to 165 cm (65 in) can weigh more than 68 kg (150 lb). The blue catfish does not just make a captivating plush toy, its success in the competitive real world also illustrates why the siluriformes are such formidable lifeforms.
Although blue catfish can eat almost anything, they are highly competent and aggressive predators (look at its predatory lines). They are capable of living in fresh fast water or in torpid brackish water and they possess all the myriad astonishing senses of the catfish in order to master their river home. This is a problem in the real world. The fish was originally native to the Mississippi river and most of its tributaries, but, aided by the fell hand of man, the blue catfish was introduced into the rivers and estuaries of Virginia where it has swiftly displaced native life. Because of its ability to survive brackish water, the mighty catfish of the Mississippi has been taking over parts of the Chesapeake Bay. Hopefully it wasn’t a mistake to bring one into the house.
As in years past, here is a short list of diverse people who died in 2015. Their lives reveal how miscellaneous and diverse…how dark and amazing the human condition is.
King Abdullah (August, 1924 – January, 2015): arguably the world’s most powerful hereditary monarch: a troubling U.S. ally who utilized Islam to maintain near-absolute power over Saudi Arabia.
Carl Djerassi (October 29, 1923 – January, 2015): An Austrian-born Bulgarian-American bio chemist institutional in the development of the modern birth control pill (among other breakthroughs).
Leonard Nimoy (March, 1931 – February, 2015): an actor famous for presenting a compelling fantasy of alien intellect and spiritual excellence.
Terry Pratchett (April, 1948 – March, 2015): a fantasy author, humorist, and humanist.
Lee Kuan Yew (September 1923 – March, 2015): the architect of the meteoric rise of the city-state of Singapore.
Chinua Achebe (November, 1930 – March, 2013: a giant of contemporary African literature.
Helmut Schmidt (December, 1918 – November, 2015): the West German Chancellor who guided the nation through the 1970s (and the cold depths of the Cold War).
Gunter Grass (October 1927 – April, 2015): a great German prose stylist who looked deep into the darkness of life with his unflinching surreal literature of World War II Germany.
Dr. Frances Oldham Kelsey (July, 1914 – August, 2015): a heroic physician and bureaucrat who stood up to the pharmaceutical industry to prevent the thalidomide crisis from being far worse. She subsequently worked to craft and institute intelligent drug regulations.
Ellsworth Kelly (May, 1923 – December, 2015): a minimalist artist fascinated with color. His hard edged 3 dimensional paintings blurred the lines between painting, sculpture, and pure concept.
Today Australian scientists announced the discovery of a very interesting exoplanet—a so-called “super-earth” which orbits around the red dwarf star Wolf 1061. The rocky planet (Wolf1061c) is actually only one of three worlds so far found in the solar system of Wolf 1061, but it is of particular note because it lies in an orbit which allows for liquid water to exist upon its surface.
Wolf 1061 is tidally locked to its star, so one side always faces the red ball in the heavens. It has a mass about 4.3 times that of Earth—so the surface gravity is nearly twice that of Earth. Its “years” are 18 Earth days long.
Perhaps most excitingly Wolf 1061c is “only” 14 light years away (about 84,000,000,000,000 miles). It is a neighbor! Perhaps we can use our best telescopes to assay the atmosphere and find out if anything resembling Earth life is there.
This place really exists! Spend a moment imaging what it is like on the surface. In my fantasy, one side of the world is a vast red desert while the other is a desolation of black glaciers…yet in a twilight ring between the sides there are sludgy water oceans filled with big green and violet pillows of fabulous squashed shapes—the analogs of stromatolites. Bubbles of gas pour up from these oddly shaped blobs of bacteria-like cells. Somewhere among the billions of little multiplying alien organisms, a few peptides have changed and the cells begin to exchange genetic material with one another. They are beginning to reproduce sexually instead of merely dividing. Life in the ring oceans of 1061c takes a leap forward. It is all imagination…and yet it may be so. The universe is vast. I wish we could find out more about this entire earthlike planet that we only just found.
Fertile Patch (Wayne Ferrebee, 2015, colored pencil and ink)
Here are four more little drawings from the little sketchbook I carry around during the day. The first drawing (above) features some Mesopotamian warriors and creatures wandering through a brilliant green fertile world.
East River (Wayne Ferrebee, 2015, color pencil)
Next is a little drawing of the view across the East River from the spot where I eat lunch on nice days. New York has been ridiculously pretty for December. Sometimes it is pretty hard to leave the view of the sparkling river and the traffic flowing through Brooklyn Heights and go back to my beige cubicle.
The Knight and the Casuist (Wayne Ferrebee, 2015, color pencil and ink)
My favorite of this batch of doodles is this brave but dimn knight in the English countryside. Whatever quest he is on has taken him into conversation with this malicious bishop-ghoul. It looks like the dark apparition is getting the better of the hero in their discourse. I think there is a scene like this in “The Fairy Queen.” Have you read that? It is longer than the Bible but there are scenes of pellucid beauty and charm.
Pleasure Garden (Wayne Ferrebee, 2015, color pencil and ink)
Finally here is last fantasy scene set in some garden utopia. Otherworldly beasts stretch and preen on the glowing yards as Chistmassy trees stretch into the clear blue sky. I hope you enjoy these little drawings. I have to rememeber to put up some of my real art works here for the Holiday season!
As I promised, here are some sketches from my little book which I carry around with me and draw in. The first one, above, is another one of my enigmatic donuts. This one seems to exist in the gloomy darkness of evening. A fire burns on the horizon as a grub-man calls out to a woman with a scientific apparatus. The reindeer seems largely unconcerned, by these human doings. In the picture immediately below, an orchid-like flower blooms by some industrial docks. Inside the pedals it offers rows of cryptic symbols to the viewer.
Here is a quick sketch of Manhattan’s San Gennaro festival. I walked to the corner of the street to draw the lights, wile my roommate got her fortune read by a jocular and likable (yet ingeniously avaricious) fortune teller located in an alcove just to the right of the composition!
I sketched a cornucopia with some invertebrates while I was waiting in line at the post office (there was only one clerk who had to deal with a vast line of Wall Street characters sending elaborate registered packages around the world). It was not an ordeal for me–I had my sketch book, and was getting paid to wait in line! The guy beside me stopped playing with his infernal phone-thingy to watch me draw. Note the multiple mollusks which flourish in the painting. I think the ammonite has real personality
Last is a seasonal composition which I really like (maybe because I used my new brown pen, which thought I had lost). A lovable land whale cavorts among autumn plants as monstrous invaders monopolize a cemetery. For some unknowable reason there is also a bottle gourd. The ghosts and bats are part of the October theme. As ever I appreciate your comments! Also I still have have some sketches (and general observations) from my weekend trip to Kingston, New York.
China has a long (and continuing) history of exquisite art, but many aesthetes and Sinophiles feel that the apogee of Chinese craft came during the Song Dynasty (960 AD – 1279 AD). Now I am not sure I agree with the Song purists to that degree, but the work of that era is indeed particularly lovely. Additionally, Song creative forms became the standard templates followed and improved upon in seceding dynasties. Here is a beautiful Song dynasty ewer with a pale blue glaze which illustrates the winsome delicacy of form characteristic of the time. Note how elegantly the slender handle and spout curve into the flower petal body. A little carnivore sits on the stopper: a dog or wolf or cat? This pale blue green color is known as quingbai (“blue-white”). It is a pale translucent blue green over white and it is one of the characteristic trademarks of the era. It is a wonderful little vessel!
Yet another summer day has ineluctably slipped through my fingers. What with work, friends, art, and the great human endeavor there was no time to find out about crab-eating seals or exoplanets for today’s post. Fortunately I have my little book of fun sketches for such occasions (for those of you who just walked in, this is the small sketchbook I carry around and sketch in during downtime like the subway or lunch). Above is my favorite of the three selected sketches for today. I imagine it as being the dramatic climax of an unknown ballet where a tribe of sylphs confront the underworld demon-god and wage a tremendous dance battle with him on behalf of their upstanding moral principles (actually I think that might be an actual ballet). In the real world, the pink and blue and yellow all blend together more seamlessly, but I guess I am stuck with what my camera can manage under halogen light.
In the second picture a shipwreck at the bottom of the Indian Ocean is the scene for wayang theater, written edicts, and ghostly machinations. It seems like the picture might be about the Dutch East India Company or some other Indonesian colonial enterprise. At any rate, the great flesh colored sawfish who appeared from nowhere steals the scene from the human agencies (although the brain coral seems to also be in the know).
Finally I included a geometric doodle of a colorful cityscape. I sketched this on the train after a frustrating day of work. My colleague was out that day, so I spent the entire workday trying to answer two to six confusing phone calls every minute for hours on end. I was thoroughly frustrated with New York and cursing the entire beastly expensive overrated mess when I got on a train car which had a foul smelling beggar in it. Because of the smell, the train car was unusually empty at rush hour and I opted to remain on it so I could I could sit down and draw. I sketched away furiously as the car stopped underground and lingered forever in a tunnel beneath the East River. The beggar got off in Brooklyn Heights and I kept sketching, but I was still angry at everything. When I was almost home (which is near the end of the 2 line) the woman who had been silently riding next to me the whole time quietly said ‘you are a great artist” which really turned around the bad day. I am not sure the picture merits such a statement, but the comment made me feel great and stood as a powerful reminder of what a large effect small actions and statements can have. I hope that kindly stranger is reading my blog so I can thank her properly for her words. They meant a lot to me.