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Brooklyn Brill and the Roller Dance Party of ’21 (Wayne Ferrebee, 2021) ink and watercolor on paper

Sooner or later, the end of quarantine lockdown is coming and it will be such a joyous shindig! Here is a little watercolor painting from my moleskine sketchbook which begins to conceptualize the freedom and the fun of the summer of ’21…and yet even in my imagination the roller-skating goddess is wearing a mask! I wonder how long it will be before we ever see a public gathering without some weird respiratory accessories (assuming such a thing ever happens again). Anyway, the image shows the Coney Island Boardwalk at night. In addition to the magical rollerskating disco woman–who needs no explanation–there are two novelty rubber chickens and some sentient dancing fruit (probably left over from the ’80s). An accordion player plies his craft as a shy young hotdog takes a first few tentative dance steps. While the rollercoaster runs in the background, a crab in the foreground seemingly wonders if a cigarette will give him cancer.

In the upper left of the image is a rather strange steel structure which Brooklyn residents will immediately recognize as the “Parachute Jump”. This was some sort of horrifying human sacrifice-themed amusement park novelty of the early twentieth century and its steel skeleton still lingers at the edge of the continent to remind us of delights now gone forever. Preposterously a spoonbill is flying towards the erstwhile ride. Everyone knows that is not a native bird!

Flounder with Kitchen Scissors [Wayne Ferrebee, 2021] Ink and watercolor on paper

It is Vincent Van Gogh’s birthday today (he was born on March 30, 1853). To mark the occasion, it occurred to me that I have an appropriate humorous cartoon in the small moleskine sketchbook which I carry around everywhere.

Van Gogh is pictured in the upper left corner wearing his trademark green coat and ear bandage. Presumably he is exhorting the artists of today to work hard at their precious craft. At the center of the composition is a flounder, a ridiculous-looking fish which everyone agrees is ideal for the table. Probably that is why a hand is reaching down from the heavens with scissors to prepare the silly fish as a delicious banquet. Speaking of hands, a white marble statuary hand is pushing up through the floor of the cinereous wasteland where this tableau takes place. Sadly the hand seems to be a bit broken. A crown-of-thorns starfish restlessly roves the dust and stumps.

I wanted to practice lettering with my steel nib, however I did not want to actually write anything, so I just jotted down some nonsense words in moon language. Sorry for the gibberish! But who cares about language anyway? Some people have suggested that artists are wholly unreliable when it comes to writing about their own work, and you should concentrate on the images themselves.

In years past, Ferrebeekeeper has celebrated Saint Patrick’s Day with a series of short essays about Irish folklore. We started with leprechauns and worked our way through the doom of Oisin (who could have had eternal youth and endless love), the Sluagh (evil spirits who ride the clouds), the Leannán Sídhe, the Fear Gorta, and the great Gaelic flounder (which is not even a thing, but which should be). You should read that story about Oisin–it’s really plaintive!

Anyway, this year we are going to take a break from the disquieting beauty of Irish folklore to showcase a category of obscene Medieval sculpture, the “Sheela na gig”, a sort of stylized stone hag who is portrayed holding open her legs and her cavernous womanhood (a word which I am primly using as a euphemism for “vagina”). These grotesque female figures appear throughout Northwest Europe, but are most prevalent in Ireland. Nobody knows who carved them or why. Their name doesn’t even have a coherent meaning in Gaelic. Yet they are clearly connected to fertility and to the great mother goddess of the Earth. As you can imagine, they are the focus of furious speculation by religious and cultural mavens of all sorts. However no definitive answer about the nature of the figures has ever been found…nor is such an answer ever likely to be forthcoming.

Sheela na gigs were mostly carved between the 9th and 12th centuries (AD) and seem to be affiliated with churches, portals, and Romanesque structures. Although they are located throughout central and western Europe, the greatest number of Sheela na gig figurines are located across Ireland (101 locations) and Britain (45 locations). To the prudish Victorian mind they were regarded as symbols for warding off devils (which would be affrighted by such naked womanhood?), however more modern interpretations empower the sculptures with feminist trappings of matriarchy, self-awareness, sexual strength, and shame-free corporeality. Perhaps the stuffy Victorian misogynists were the devils who needed to be scared off! Other scholars think of the Sheela na gig figurines in the vein of the pig with the bagpipes or the “Cista Mystica“–which is to say a once widespread figure which had a well-understood meaning which has become lost in the mists of long centuries (it is easy to imagine future generations looking at Hawaiian punch man, Bazooka Joe, or the Starbucks logo with similar bafflement).

Hmmm…

Some scholars have theorized a connection with Normans–and hence with Vikings–but I see little of Freya in the images (which seem more connected to prehistoric “Venus” statues).

It is probably ill-advised to opine about such a controversial figure, but if I were forced to guess, I would suspect that the Sheela na gig is a symbol of the generative power of Mother Nature (or the godess Gaia) which is so overt as to barely be a symbol. All humans were born through bloody expulsion. We do not come into the world through a magic emerald cabbage or a portal of light. Whatever else the Sheela na gig betokens, it is a reminder of this shared heritage (which you would think would be impossible to forget…until you talk to some of the people out there).

I guess we have been in society-wide quarantine lockdown for an entire year (at least here in New York City). The grim anniversary at least provides the opportunity to show you the artwork which I made during the spring of 2020 as nature burst into glorious life while humankind cowered at home in the shadow of the crowned plague.

I like to draw in little 3.5 inch by 5.5 inch moleskine sketchbooks (which i fill up pretty regularly). Last spring, due to an ordering error, I purchased a Japanese album (which folds out into one long accordion strip of paper) instead of my usual folio book. Since the pandemic left me stuck in my little Brooklyn garden, I began drawing a Coronavirus journey along a continuous garden path running from my backyard, through the stricken city, to the cemetery and then out to the sea. As spring turned into summer I rode my bike over to Greenwood to work on it. Usually works of this sort are destroyed by giant ink blots, spills, or catastrophic drawing failures (since I drew this freehand with a Hiro Leonardt 41 steel nib), and although there are lots of flaws (sigh), none of them destroyed the drawing outright.

Pandemic Album (Wayne Ferrebee, 2020) pen and ink on paper

as you can see, the one factor which made the isolation and anxiety of the coronavirus pandemic bearable to me was the one thing which makes existence bearable–the unlimited power of imagination to go anywhere and make anything happen! Thus we see a Byzantine/Gothic Brooklyn as suited to the plague of Justinian as to Covid 19.

I effectively finished the drawing in June, but I kept frittering at the edges. Plus there was an empty space in the path beneath the fountain (just before the musical garden filled with lyrebirds, siamangs, singing sphinxes, and aulos players). That space stayed blank until November, when I realized that the blank spot in the middle was where the vaccine belonged (you can see it there now just below the fountain).

Unfortunately, I am a better draftsman than a photographer, and it is hard to make out the small details of the little garden plants and bugs which were my original inspiration. Anyway, hopefully you can click on the panels and look at the musicians (C-minor), the plague doctor, the manticore, and the covid party filled with Bushwick Bohemians and sinners! If not, let me know and we will see if I can repost the drawing somehow. Maybe I will post some of the details later on anyway, since the virus pathway is filled with serpents, bats, dark gods, pigeons, bees, trees, and flounder (and other ferrebeekeeper subjects which are always close to my heart).

Speaking of things close to my heart, thanks again for reading this and for being here with me (at least in my writings and thoughts if not in the real world). Dear Reader, you are the absolute best. If the Fates are willing, we are nearing the end of this horrid covid chapter (just as the dark path from the drawing ultimately runs out into the great ocean and vanishes in the waves). I am sorry it took so long to post this little book, but it seems appropriate somehow. As always, let me know what you think, and for my part I will think about what delights to put in the spring album for 2021!

Health and peace to you and your loved ones! We are nearly through this!

Lately I have been thinking a lot about the Byzantine Empire and the long webs of connections which the Eastern Empire cast across western culture. We will talk more about this later, but, for now, let’s check out a world famous Byzantine treasure! This is the porphyry head of a Byzantine Emperor (tentatively, yet inconclusively identified as Justinian). In Venice, where the stone head has been located since the very beginning of the 13th century (as far as anyone can tell) it is known as “Carmagnola” (more about that below). Sadly, most Byzantine art objects were scattered to the four winds (or destroyed outright) when the Turks seized the city in AD 1453, however Constantinople, city of impregnable walls, had also fallen once before in AD 1203 as a part of the misbegotten Fourth Crusade (a tragicomic series of blunders and Venetian manipulation which we also need to write about). This porphyry head escaped the latter sack because it was carried off during the former!

Based on its style and construction, Carmagnola was originally manufactured by Byzantine sculptors at an unknown date sometime between the 4th and 6th centuries (AD). The diadem worn by the figure is indisputably the headdress of a late Roman Emperor who ruled a vast Mediterranean and Middle Eastern empire out of Constantinople (I guess we need to talk about the diadem of the basileus at some point too). Scholars have speculated that the original statue may have been located in the Philadelphion, a central square of old Constantinople. The figure’s nose was damaged at some point (perhaps during the iconoclasm movement or as a political statement) but has been successfully polished flat. Speaking of statue breakage, it is possible that the head goes with a large headless Byzantine trunk made of porphyry which is now located in Ravenna (although such a provenance would make it seem unlikely that the sculpture was originally located in the Philadelphion). Whatever the original location might have been, the statue was installed upon the facade of Saint Mark’s Basilica in Venice (the all-important main location of Venice) after it came to the City of Canals. The head is arguably the most important object among the strange collection of cultural objects which the Venetians arranged along the Saint Mark’s facade over the centuries like an Italian grandmother putting important knickknacks on a mantle. The head’s nickname Carmagnola originates from a Venetian incident and is not some ancient Byzantine allusion: a certain infamous condottiero, Francesco Bussone da Carmagnola was beheaded on 5 May 1432 on the Piazzetta in front of Saint Mark’s after the rascally mercenary tried to trifle with the Council of Ten (who had employed him to fight his former master Duke Visconti of Milan). The red imperial head perhaps resembled the severed head of the angry squash-nosed mercenary and locals began to jestingly call it by the same name. Isn’t history funny? Anyway, in case you were trying to find it on a picture of Saint Mark’s, I have marked its location on the picture below.

Today (March 3rd) is World Wildlife Day! Initially I was going to write about a charismatic mammalian species like the magnificent Siberian tiger or the mountain tapir, but then it occurred to me that I should write about a predator which is larger than the tiger and ranges farther than the tapir, yet which humankind regards with contempt (if we think about it at all). Behold the magnificent Atlantic halibut, the largest of the flatfish.

The Atlantic halibut (Hippoglossus hippoglossus) is a mighty predator of the North Atlantic. They range from Iceland and Greenland down to the Bay of Biscay and Virginia. These fish are capable of reaching a length of 2.5 m (8.2 ft) and can weigh more than 320 kg (710 lb). Like other flatfish, Atlantic halibut are lurking benthic predators which snap up unwary prey animal, however, unlike many of the other flounder species (which sometimes swim awkwardly due to asymmetric bodies), Atlantic halibut are strong swimmers capable of lengthy migrations and real speed. Just look at how different their tail is from other flatfish. Although they are not absolute apex predator of their habitat (which is also inhabited by orcas, sperm whales, and great white sharks), halibut prey on some pretty substantial animals such as cod, haddock, herring, pogge, lobsters, large crabs, and various cephalopods.

Atlantic halibut larva (greatly magnified)

Although it rarely happens today, in our world of rampant overfishing, Atlantic halibut can live to be more than half a century in age. When they spawn, the female fish lay up to 4 million eggs (!) which hatch after 16 days. The tiny larvae (above) are almost transparent and they spend about a year among the zooplankton, gorging on microscopic algae, eggs, and tiny invertebrates until they are large enough to undergo the strange metamorphose into adulthood. Once they attain sufficient age and size, one of their eyes migrates across their skull to the other side of their head (they are right-facing flounder, by the way) and the back/bottom side of the fish becomes white and pale. Young halibuts are pale gray and brown with little pebble-like spots, but as they age they turn into a uniform sable color (on the upward facing part of their body, I mean). They are among the largest teleosts–although sunfish can grow much larger.

As you can see, Atlantic halibut are impressive fish. Yet, when I was growing up they were mostly known as the source of discount fish sticks or as something to fry when the cod was all out. Because they are commercially valuable (and delicious), they have been overfished to such a degree that they were added to the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species in 1996. Commercial fishermen also used to catch these halibut with bottom trawls–an ecologically devastating method of fishing which ravages the bottom of the ocean and creates far more bycatch (“accidental bystander fish” which are thrown back into the ocean dead) than actual catch. Ecologists have compared bottom trawling to dyamiting a forest to hunt squirrels.

Regular readers know that I religiously draw flatfish after flatfish (here, check out my Instagram profile and see for yourself). I get the feeling that it greatly perplexes most people (even though I have previously tried to explain) and, even now, I suspect that there are readers who wonder why I am featuring a “food fish” for World Wildlife Day rather than a tiger, falcon, or killer whale or something. For one thing, I think there are many things which are legitimately beautiful, special, and amazing about flounder. Their hunting, and camouflage abilities impress me as much as their non-bilateral symmetry (which is unique in the vertebrate world). The flounders are taxonomically much more diverse and widespread than say, primates. They are also a great symbol of the living oceans–a sort of avatar of the primordial depths which we never really know (no matter how many frogmen, minisubs, and trawlers we send down there). Of course they are also our victims–and we kill them literally by the boatload to make money and feed and amuse ourselves.

Flounder also have a tragicomic mien which I find deeply compelling: they are both the comedy and the tragedy mask at the same time. Their sad, hungry grimace and weirdly knowing google eyes perfectly encapsulate the ambiguities of being alive (there is a reason that use of the word “floundering” leaped off of the charts during our annus horribilis in 2020). But in the end, it strikes me that life itself is floundering as humans desperately use up more and more of the planet’s resources. As much as I would love to live in a giant money shower like Wylan or Ed Hardy, somehow killer whales and tigers do not scream “victim” the same way that flounders do…and it is impossible not to conclude that that is exactly what the natural world is screaming right now.

Apollo and the Flounder (Wayne Ferrebee, 2021) ink on paper

Bluebirds (Sialia) are a traditional symbol of happiness and optimism in American society. Ethnographers tell us that this association existed prior to European colonization: in Iroquois mythology, the call of the bluebird could ward off the cold, dark power of Sawiskera, the cruel deity of winter (we need to write more about that character some other winter day!). Members of the thrush family, bluebirds are insectivores which raise two broods of fledglings a year in nests which they build in small elevated cavities in trees or old fence posts (or, these days, in bluebird houses helpfully put up by enthusiasts). Bluebirds live on insects and small arthropods which they supplement with berries and they are preyed on by more or less everything (skunks, owls, kestrels, snakes, cats, cars, chipmunks, foxes, flying squirrels, black bears, fire ants, raccoons, etc…etc). There are three closely related species of bluebirds living in North America, although each of the pictures here shows the eastern bluebird (Sialia sialis) which I grew up with and which was a sort of totemic creature of the family farm where the handsome birds flourished.

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!

Every year, as a final post, Ferrebeekeeper publishes obituaries detailing the important losses of the year. But what do we do for this disastrous pandemic year when the world lost so many people from all walks of life (and when Americans nearly lost our democracy to a larcenous conman and his enablers)? How do we characterize the human cost of the plague, strife, ecological degradation, and economic mayhem of this past revolution around the sun?

I thought about including tables of numbers or little biographies, but I decided instead that the best answer is to put up this baroque pen and ink drawing which I made to represent the year and its struggles. You can see the battle for political power which has rocked the nation and the world mirrored in the left and right puppeteers, however, the dueling grandees are less important than the larger tableau of molecular and cellular changes which are affecting the whole ecosphere. I imagine the great skeletal reptile at the bottom as the fossil fuel industry (although it might be the underworld belching up the fires of hell). The cornucopia represents the dark fruits of our endeavors (which we do everything to obtain, yet which always seem to float tantalizingly out of reach). A lovely bat flits around the upper right corner to illustrate the sad vector through which the virus jumped to humankind…but also as a tribute to the dreadful time bats are having.

Studded throughout the image are virus caplets… and grave after grave after grave. It was a dark year and we will be thinking about what went wrong for a long time (provided, of course, that things don’t go more and more wrong in subsequent years, which would certainly recontextualize 2020 in the very worst way possible–as a good year!).

We are not out the woods yet, but the vaccine is on its way (my grandpa just got his first shot). We have to make it through this dark winter first though. Then, in the new year we can start to mourn the dead appropriately. We can best memorialize them by fixing some of the problems which brought us to this unhappy point in time. We can truly have a happy new year by starting to work on the even larger problems which we know to be immediately in the road ahead of us.

We will talk about it all more soon. In the mean time, accept my condolences for any losses or setbacks. Be safe and vigilant and have a Happy New 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!

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