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It is Mardi Gras today: tonight the season of carnival excess and frivolity comes to a crashing end at midnight as Lent begins. Well…actually I am from Appalachia, a land of hypocritical puritans and runaway indentured Protestants and I don’t really remember any of this Carnival business from when I was growing up…but I do know about it…from Venetian art! That is why today we are traveling back to the decadent Venice of the 18th century–hundreds of years after Venice’s reign as the dominant military and cultural power of the Mediterranean was over—but in an era when the City of Masks was still the preferred playground for cosmopolitan European aristocrats. Venetian art of the great era was ruled by titans like Titian, Tintoretto, and Veronese…but even centuries later during the 1700s it could still produce masters like Canaletto (who painted those vast watery Grand Canal pictures which you undoubtedly know) and my personal favorite 18th century painter, Pietro Longhi.

Longhi paints in the literary/social critique style of Hogarth, but, unlike Hogarth. his pictures are rarely straightforward morality tales. Usually his small intimate canvases superficially present people dancing, drinking coffee, playing cards, or meeting friends in a sitting room. Closer examination discloses all manner of duplicity hidden in these small scenes which turn out to be filled with mountebanks, debauchees, flimflam men, cardsharps, pickpockets, gigolos, and procuresses (and other categories of extinct grifters that modern critics can’t even understand).

Masked Party in a Courtyard (Pietro Longhi, 1755) oil on canvas

For example, in this small painting (now in the Saint Louis Museum of Art) two different groups of revelers take refreshments in a small courtyard during the carnival season. A conventional description of the painting would probably be something like ” a debutante and her chaperone enjoy hot chocolate from an important admirer while their friends chat in the background.” But what is actually going on here? Who are all of these enigmatic revelers wearing hall-masks and veils? What is actually in that beverage which the porcelain faced beauty is carefully holding but not drinking? What is the wire implement held by the figure in the upper right or the ancient sumptuous platform which intrudes a single voluptuary angle into the painting? Why is the figure looming above the young woman so menacing? At the composition’s dead center is a glowing pink flower, visible beneath the young lady’s veil just above her heart. What’s up with that?

I can’t definitively answer any of these questions! However my proposed explanation of this painting would be as follows:

A wealthy but older nobleman presses his amorous suit on a teenage beauty by offering her a cup of chocolate (an expensive new world luxury reputed to be an aphrodisiac). The nobleman’s manservant pushes the spoon at her like a contract as the debutante’s chaperone (or Madame?) enjoys her own chocolate while carefully eying her headstrong young charge (who wears the corsage of her actual love interest between her breasts). In the background another couple arrange an assignation while at back a roue shows off some sort of cheating implement to a masked & veiled person who is mostly hidden behind a column. Roman columns and a piece of an ancient marble (a font? a catafalque? a sarcophagus?) remind us of greater eras in the past, and the inexorable death of empires.

Is this interpretation right? Who can say. The pictorial puzzle has no clear answer that I am aware of, but the puzzle of it invites us to turn it over and over in our heads. Probably the Longhi expert at the Saint Louis Museum would say “oh that wire device is actually a clotheshanger and the model’s white slipper and gown indicate that she is figure beyond reproach.” Yet once we start asking questions, the painting feels anything but innocent, even if we can never know the specifics. The sense of exciting secrets just beyond our apprehension is Longhi’s greatest gift. It has endowed this perfectly chaste picture of a girl drinking cocoa with all sorts of shadowy insinuations. Longhi’s brush did not just tickle a subdued (yet strangely sensual) palette of pinks, browns, and grays, it also tickles our imagination…and that turns out to be naughtier than any actual Carnival naughtiness.

Palace Progress (Wayne Ferrebee, 2021) Watercolor & ink on paper

Here is a watercolor picture from my the little moleskine sketchbook which I carry around. A pompous, three-legged grandee makes his serene progress through a palace landscape. Around him are fawning moth courtiers and little fairies (as well as a horrified little flatfish who has somehow wound up in the garden’s reflecting pool). Although it is good to poke fun at the airs of aristocrats, my favorite part of the picture are the fluffy pink flying fox in the center and the ancient monotreme. Watercolor is not my finest medium, but maybe if I keep trying to capture fantastical foibles with the set I carry in my bag, I will keep improving…

Outside Knoxville, (Wayne Ferrebee, 2020) Ink and watercolor

Now that the holidays have passed, it has occurred to me that I should post some of the India ink and watercolor illustrations which I have been making lately for fun (or, more accurately, because my subconscious torments me unless I draw them). The first (above) is a little illustration which I made as a gift for my erstwhile roommate, Jennifer. Sadly, Jennifer gave up on the germinal chaos of Brooklyn and fled away forever to live in the bosky dells of Knoxville (or whatever it is they have down there). But she used the epistolary arts to request a drawing of a magical elf desporting among many varieties of fungi just outside of her new home city.

Here is the picture I drew. I have envisioned the magical elf in the style of the Nats, the joyous syncretic deities of Burmese Buddhism. Various seeds, spores, and small creatures lurk beneath the mushrooms, wood ears, and coral fungus. In the background, modern Knoxville spreads through the wooded hills watched by a vulture, an ermine, and a whitetail deer (as a mysterious being of pure creativity fruits into fungoid darkness). Above it all looms the mighty “Sun Sphere”, a dazzling feat of 80 architecture which is uh, eighty meters tall.

As a historical aside, I encountered that very tower myself, in 1982, when my mother, grandmother, great grandmother, my sister, and I traveled to Knoxville to attend the World’s Fair for which it was built. Although I was only eight, I was struck by how crummy and chaotic the World’s Fair was and how the Sun Sphere looked like off-brand deodorant rather than a mighty futuristic skyscraper. For her birthday, my little sister (who was five or six) had asked for a fine suitcase so she could be a world traveler. My parents (or grandparents?) bought her a beautiful new fuchsia case of finest sampsonite, which was the nicest piece of luggage among our entourage. Alas, a would-be larcenist broke into our hotel room and rifled through the nicest suitcase (which was all full of crayons, dolls, and little girl’s clothing). The fair was too crowded to see anything, although, come to think of it, I am not sure there were any actual attractions other than an endless field of bumpkins and insurance-salesman-looking characters. Then a bird pooped on my grandmother’s head. Good times in Knoxville!

A Dab for Breakfast (Wayne Ferrebee, 2021) Ink and Watercolor

Here is a similar drawing which I made in my little sketch book. I guess this picture portrays…breakfast? Since I am not a morning person, I refuse to acknowledge the International Morning Person (IMP) propaganda that breakfast is the most important meal of the day. This tableau helps to deconstruct that tenacious myth. In the foreground a pelican enjoys a live flounder and some froot loops–even though this is properly a cereal for toucans! A sentient pineapple throws up his arms in consternation at the proceedings as a masked ghost (or possibly some very very runny scrambled eggs) shrugs indifferently. On the picture’s left side, a featureless pink humanoid…or maybe an embryonic ghost…or a representation of how the artist/author feels in the morning is likewise overwhelmed by breakfast. The entity drinks copious amounts of coffee, possibly going so far as to pour the stimulant directly into the grotesque organ-like aperture in its center. No wonder the little guy is so anxious! Frankly, only the ravenous pelican seems happy to be there.

Even if flatfish are not the sole protagonists of these small drawings, they are still there, lurking beneath (or becoming part of the food chain). Perhaps it is worth taking a moment to again advertise the all-knowing digital flounder which my friends and I built to delight and perplex you (or maybe as a disguised lure to beguile you into my digital realm). Let me know what you think and we will keep on floundering through this winter!

As longtime reader know well, Ferrebeekeeper has always been impressed by the great, beautiful, sacrificial bird of the Americas–the turkey! Although these days, the United States seems to lead the world in turkey fixation (we have an entire month dedicated to the creature), turkeys were actually domesticated 2000 years ago in in central Mesoamerica.

Are there some contemporary Central American art objects that depict the noble bird in all of its majesty, pathos, and silliness (preferably with lots of eye-popping colors)? I am so glad you asked! The southern Mexican state of Oaxaca is renowned for its brilliantly colored hand-carved animals made of wood (among many other extraordinary creative traditions). Among the glowing menagerie, turkeys have a special place.

Here are some pictures of lovely Oaxaca turkeys shamelessly lifted from various places around the web. I hope they will lift your spirits and start to get you in the mood for the great feast. I also hope they will remind you of the long heritage of turkey cultivation and worship in western hemisphere. Enjoy the gorgeous carvings and I will start to think up an appropriate turkey theme long post for this long year.

It really is impossible to tell what direction a soul will take in this world of crossroads and unexpected pathways. Back in 2018, Ferrebeekeeper featured a short flippant essay about Gritty, the hirsute maniacal entity who (which?) is the mascot for the Philadelphia Flyers, a gang of icebound stick fighters. How were any of us to know what Gritty would become?

I have very mixed memories concerning my time in the Philadelphia suburbs (my family lived there from when I was 13 to 15). Moving from a very rural part of America to a toffee-nosed suburb during the 1980s felt like being trapped in a John Hughes movie. Perhaps I have always subconsciously held the awkwardness of that time against Philadelphia and the bedraggled ball of psych(opathic)adelic fur which they have chosen as their mascot. But it turns out I was wrong about Gritty…

Back in 2018, when I wrote my essay, Gritty was the object of much good-natured derision and mockery. It can be hard to write comic pieces, but Gritty’s deranged countenance & straggly fluorescent orange fur (and his weird backstory) seemed sure to get a cheap laugh. Frankly I assumed the mascot would quickly be retired. But Gritty was not who I thought and he (it?) has made good!

First of all Gritty quickly beat all the charges against him (In January he was accused of punching a little boy at a photo shoot, however the authorities were unimpressed by the accusations and Gritty walked away scot-free). Then Gritty became a beloved figure representing the casual insouciance and low grade threat of violence which pervade Philadelphia. Finally he became ubiquitous as a left-wing political symbol and a dull-fledged symbol of what Philadelphia really is.

When soon-to-be ex President Trump disrespected Philadelphia by making them the subject of the only honest declaration he has been known to utter (“Bad things happen in Philadelphia”), Gritty leapt into action. Countless Philadelphia themed memes depicted the strange orange miscreant taking revenge or bringing down the president. Then the memes became true when Philadelphia’s slowly tallied mail-in votes put Joe Biden over the top in the national electoral college tally.

Now Gritty has risen high in the world of mascots. Papers around the world are analyzing him with perplexed respect. The French daily newspaper Le Monde even proclaimed him to be “la coqueluche du mouvement antifasciste” the face of the antifascist movement! Apparently Gritty now represents the world’s disgust with the malevolent demagogues who have been proliferating around the globe!

This will be a hard act to follow. Hopefully citizens will soon regain their political sense and vote out the treacherous far right-wing legislators who have enabled Trump and suchlike despicable demogogues to flourish. However until then we will need Gritty. Go forward in glory, Gritty, you are now America’s foremost crazy-haired orange nightmare!

For our special annual Halloween theme, Ferrebeekeeper usually features a subject which is scary or disquieting. However, since this year has featured an unprecedented amount of scary and disquieting content on its own, we are instead featuring a heartwarming subject which many people tragically misidentify as scary. I am talking about bats, one of my very favorite mammalian orders (and that is really saying something, considering that mammals are a class which includes all-time great orders like Proboscidea and Cetacea).

In subsequent posts we will talk about what bats are (they are near relatives of primates but their close taxonomical relationship to humans is obscured by their alien appearance and by the fact that cladists keep changing their understanding of the precise way we share ancestors). We will also talk about why people are scared of bats and about why bats are wonderful and useful. Additionally, due to this year’s tragic events we will highlight how bats need to be be treated with respect and carefully safeguarded (unless you would like a future with even MORE coronaviruses).

For right now though, let’s start out with a gallery of bat mascots (batscots?). Unfortunately, the fact that bats are a taboo animal to Christians means that, in the west, Batman and Bacardi are practically the only entities that chose the bat as a logo (well, them and the Louisville Bats, a minor league baseball team with a penchant for wordplay).

Buddy the Bat!

However there are a whole flock of lesser known (or completely unknown) bat mascots just waiting in the wings 9as it were). Check them out below

Good heavens! now that I look at all the wings and cartoon fangs, I wonder if I should have written about chiropteran biology before venturing out into popular culture. But whatever. There are some pretty endearing bats in all of that (particularly considering our culture’s unhappy relationship with bats as symbols). We will take the bat mascot as a starting point and explore the wonderful world of these amazing and precious animals in subsequent posts. Even if we can’t flit around the neighborhood we will make this a good Halloween… and hopefully we can save some bats too.

Did you ever have (or encounter) a Stretch Armstrong Doll when you were young? First manufactured in 1976 by Kenner (the toy company best known for Star Wars action figures), Stretch Armstrong was this beefy jock guy who looked like he had been discovered in a YMCA lost & found. If you pulled on his rubber arms and legs they would just keep extending and extending to an obscene and improbable degree. The toy was made of latex with some otherworldly nightmare jalop inside (the internet tells me it was super refined corn syrup: apparently the toy inventor just went to A&P and bought a bunch of karo and cooked it down).

Anyway Stretch was an awesome toy. I knew this kid who had one and he had this game where he would grab the arms and you would grab the legs and then both children would pull as hard as possible…

then he would let go and Stretch Armstrong would fly into your face like a huge grubby rubber band on steroids causing you (or at least me) to fall over. It was like being molested by a C list wrestler!

I haven’t seen a Stretch in forty years, but for some reason I have been thinking about him (perhaps because he seemed like a lovable character but was secretly a dueling device). I feel like toys are really important to childhood development, but my reminiscences about Stretch Armstrong also make me wonder why this is so. Maybe he taught that we must be flexible to achieve our goals but we must also always remember that we live in an adversarial society (or maybe the lesson is really about the fundamental importance of corn syrup). Are there any toys that pop back into your head after decades?

Yuan Jie (ca. 720 AD to 772 AD) was a poet, scholar, and politician of the Tang Dynasty. His intellectual and literary gifts allowed him to score high marks on the imperial exam which, in turn, allowed him to rise to high office. He helped finally suppress the An Lushan Rebellion (a dark era of insurrection and strife which left society in tatters). Although he rose to the rank of governor, Yuan Jie disliked his office and felt uneasy with his rank (and with the shallow fragile nature of society). As soon as his mother died, he resigned his rank. According to the sinologist Arthur Waley (who translated the following poem by Yuan Jie) the Chinese scholarly opinion of Yuan Jie at the end of the Ching dynasty was that “His subjects were always original, but his poems are seldom worth quoting.” Here is one of his poems (as translated to English by Waley) so that you may judge for yourself:

Stone Fish Lake

I loved you dearly, Stone Fish Lake,

With your rock-island shaped like a swimming fish!

On the fish’s back is the Wine-cup Hollow

And round the fish,—the flowing waters of the Lake.

The boys on the shore sent little wooden ships,

Each made to carry a single cup of wine.

The island-drinkers emptied the liquor-boats

And set their sails and sent them back for more.

On the shores of the Lake were jutting slabs of rock

And under the rocks there flowed an icy stream.

Heated with wine, to rinse our mouths and hands

In those cold waters was a joy beyond compare!


Of gold and jewels I have not any need;

For Caps and Coaches I do not care at all.

But I wish I could sit on the rocky banks of the Lake

For ever and ever staring at the Stone Fish.

Even back in the world that used to be, we all knew that 2020 would be a bitter pill to swallow because of the horrible election (not that elections are usually horrible–this one is unusual because of the super polarized citizenry and because one of the participants is such a shameful cheater). At least we had the Summer Olympics to look forward to though! Alas, the year has swept away the great international contest of sport, and we will have to wait until 2021 to learn if we will have any Olympics at all this cycle.

This leaves sports-crazed Americans with football, a proxy war game which allows us to illustrate our fierce devotion to Mars, God of War, by means of low-grade human sacrifices. I only started watching football late in life (as a way to bond with a sports-crazy business partner) and, having no team affiliation, I jokingly swore to root for the team with a flower for an emblem. It actually turned out that there was and is such a team–the New Orleans Saints, and, for a variety of improbable reasons I root for them.

This year though, an even more fascinatingly improbable team brand has emerged. After long decades of willfully ignoring the issue, the Washington Redskins finally gave up on their shamefully racist name. The “Redskins” are now no more (which is good…even typing that name out makes me imagine a tribal elder stoically shedding a single tear at the callous brutality of franchise nomenclature). Instead of immediately rebranding, the football team which represents the nation’s capital has embraced emptiness and they are now called “The Washington Football Team”.

I for one salute the monastic new direction the team is going in. It is dangerous for sports franchises to trifle too much with their brand (since it might be revealed that teams are just big collections of burly mercenaries supported by various lawyers and agents), yet the Washington Football Team has come by its generic new name through a comprehensible set of circumstances. I feel like they should travel further towards ego-death by giving the players long hard-to-read numbers, choosing a less flashy team color like gray, beige or umber, and, best of all, choosing an appropriate mascot like a blob of tofu, a block of bleachers, or a concrete block.

Perhaps the fate of the Washington Football Team will hinge on what happens to them during what is sure to be a strange (or possibly curtailed) season. Let us hope they either have a super boring season and remain the only team without a symbolic name, or they go on some incomprehensible vision quest and become something really weird and interesting (or would that offend native Americans…again)? In the mean time maybe you should propose some possible mascots below (in the spirit of Wenlock and Mandeville). I would propose “Washington Flounders” but we are trying to re-enthuse people about the government (come to think of it, our eagle might need a makeover after 2020 too). Let me know what you think in the comments below!

These are troubled times for the nation as we sort out what portions of archaic, outworn, or unethical philosophy have brought us to this ghastly low point.  Our national leaders have conducted some focus groups, examined some metrics, and taken a great deal of money from interested private parties.  This has allowed America’s leaders to comprehensively conclude that they are certainly in no way to blame for mass death, unemployment, and nationwide unrest.  We still need a scapegoat though, and one prominent group has been singled out for particular moral censure.  This time next year a great many of these familiar figures may be missing–gently lead out to pasture, forcibly retired, or worse.

I am speaking about mascots of course! Not only has Gritty been accused of punching children in the back (so far he has, surprisingly, been cleared of all charges) but Aunt Jemima, Uncle Ben, and, almost certainly, the Washington Redskins are on their way out too. Yet this is the great thing about mascots. They are designed to reflect our values by selling us corn syrup, wood pulp, and brain damage.  When it is obviously time for them to go we can just take them out and put them by the curb (unlike say Mitch McConnell, Devin Nunes, or Ted Cruz who have decided to take the country straight down into hell along with them).

big boy

Is this who we are…or who we were?

We all know about what happened to Aunt Jemima, but an equally famous frontman mascot is also being surreptitiously mothballed (although, looking at him, it seems quite possible that he will fight his way back from the basement). I am talking about “Big Boy” an iconic brand of the bygone automobile age.  Big Boy began in Glendale California in the 1930s and quickly became the name, logo, and emblem of a chain of diner-type restaurants across the country.  During the ’50s and ’60s when American life was conducted entirely from cars (as far as I can tell based on anecdotes) the oversized statues of the shiny anime-eyed be-pompadoured lad in checked suspenders were everywhere.  I have my own fond memories of hamburgers and sundaes with grandparents during the 1970s and 80s.  Indeed I even took the winsome Lorraine Hahn to a Big Boy in Falls Church when I was a junior in high school (an all-time apogee for the brand…and for my young dating life).

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However tastes change and Big Boy has really been losing steam in the last few decades.  Even though he isn’t exactly a problematic mascot as such, his cisgender (?) Warner Brother cartoon masculinity and his eagerness to serve don’t seem to quite fit our times.  Therefor, Big Boy is being given emeritus mascot status and the job of shilling new food offerings at Big Boy franchise locations will be handed over to…

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Dolly! Dolly has been an obscure supporting character from “Big Boy” comic books of the 1950s, but now 70 years later she is getting her chance to helm the franchise.  It has been a confusing year and Dolly looks comforting and nice, maybe she will breath some fresh vitality into a restaurant chain that I really do have a surprising number of fond memories about.  I hadn’t thought about Big Boy restaurants for years until writing this post, and then suddenly long vanished vacations and special meetings with family members have come flooding back and now I am blinking away tears thinking about how all of those fudge cake sundaes really meant that Grandma loved me.

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Anyway best wishes to Dolly.  She has some big shoes to fill (snicker) but I feel she is up to it.  Big Boy himself will still remain enshrined in the name. Additionally, I suspect that a number of franchise locations will look at the cost of tearing down a 14 foot concrete statue during a pandemic and discover new appreciation for old boys.  In the meantime I wish everyone in the restaurant and hospitality industry the very best. That is always such hard work…and frankly it seems impossible right now.  I promise I will come buy a hamburger from you all as soon as I can (you are invited too Lorraine, if you are somewhere out there).  This post was supposed to be funny and snarky, but it has made me reflect on the real sentimental power of silly shared kitsch.  I wonder if people 70 years from now will be misting up over memories of diner food with loved ones under the familiar shadow of Dolly…

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