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Neapolitan Flounder

It is my birthday this week and, to celebrate, I wanted to share some special posts with you.  Unfortunately my schedule is not obliging to help me finish the larger philosophical piece I have been writing, so instead I am going to share a sculpture which I just finished (I was going to save it for later, but, sigh, life is short so let’s look at it now) .  This is “Neapolitan Flounder” a sculpture made of wood, bone, and plastic toys.  It is one of the extensive flatfish series of artworks which I have been working on, however, unlike the drawings which take a more expansive view of ecology and human history, “Neapolitan Flatfish” examines the prevailing ethos of the time which is to capture people’s money by providing them with exactly what they want (in this case the empty calories of airy frozen confections).  Of course these aren’t actually delicious soft serve ice cream cones, they are really plastic junk from the dollar store.  Yet given my unhappy history with making plastic toys, and given the ever growing burden of plastic detritus building up in the wild places of Planet Earth, perhaps the message becomes even more germane.  The flounder is a predator and a prey animal–the “middle class of the ocean” although serious overfishing is leading to a precipitous decline of populations around the world (which matters little to Treasury Secretary Wilbur Ross, who would not be unhappy if everything and everyone died five minutes after he concludes his own earthly existence as a master of crooked insider deals).  Ahem…anyway, sometimes it is a bit unclear who is fishing and who is being fished, but what could be more delightful than the unexpected charm of three different flavors (and different colors) which compliment each other perfectly being placed next to each other in one simple Rothko-like package?  Please ignore the bone hook and the glittering blue predatory eyes and get ready for some birthday fun here at Ferrebeekeeper.

Also, don’t forget to ask the Great Flounder some of your own questions.

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For many years I studied at the Art Students League of New York, a storied yet inexpensive atelier-style art school/collective which accounts about half to ¾ of all eminent American artists as members, pupils, or instructors at one point or another.  I would work all day as a stupid flunky at a bank and then go to the League and paint for three and a half hours every night.  At the Art Students League, one could find every sort of artist from around the world, from international art superstars to first time hobbyists. I mostly studied with the great portrait painter Ron Scherr who drew young luminaries of contemporary realism to him like a man casting loafs of bread in Union Square park draws pigeons.  There were many gifted Scherr students whose works and careers I need to highlight, but arguably the most gifted draftsperson was my friend Mark Kevin Gonzales, a chess player who grew up in Brooklyn (the rest of us just moved here to make it in the arts) and went to the famous Brooklyn Technical high School.

Since Mark is a native New Yorker, his artwork highlights life in the city, and these particular artworks highlight the animal life of the city, our famous rock pigeons (Columba livia) which throng the city’s parks and statues.  Indeed they are famous urbanites around the world.  The watercolor painting at the top highlights Mark’s mastery of  form shading and color.  The pigeon has been rendered in swift staccato strokes of watercolor (a famously unforgiving media) yet because of his masterful brushwork, the piece has an illusion of three dimensional form and conveys the impression of details which aren’t actually there.  A master’s secret is that if you can get the first few lines exactly right, you don’t have to agonize over a bunch of fussy little lines (but…oh let’s not talk about the years and years of practice necessary to get those big flat shapes to come out exactly right with the flick of a wrist).   The pigeons feathers seem to glisten with shimmering iridescence which is upon close inspection revealed to be a simple wash of viridian.  Its lively eye and cocked head makes the viewer think that the bird is observing the observer from beyond this little square of paper.  I suspect the bird really was observing Mark closely in whatever park he painted this (the poor pigeon probably though he was being sized up by a big weird cat as Mark crouched at his traveling easel).

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The second painting is even more of a quick sketch…but it is also more of a celebration (and a political piece).  This pigeon is strutting his stuff as joyous 4th of July fireworks go off in the background.  Notice how the pyrotechnics have colored the urban bird red white and blue.  Rock Pigeons are not originally from the new world (neither are Mark’s black and Philippine ancestors, come to think of it) but they have moved here to New York and lived here successfully for generations and they have a greater claim to being native New Yorkers than just about anybody.  It is good to see the patriotic national colors fitted out for an existence which is completely urbanized and it is so good to see some of Mark’s playful small works (he usually works in exquisitely rendered large format portrait painting).  You should check out his amazing work in Drawing Magazine or at his website, or just take a gander at his astonishingly lovely drawings and paintings on Instagram…Oh and tell him what a gifted artist he is: he certainly already knows, but it is always still good to hear.

 

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Today’s post takes a closer look at a troubling tale from Canada.  During the period between 2001 and 2008, as American investors were bilked out of money by Bernie Madoff, a similar Ponzi scheme was taking place in the north.  However, in the northern version, the McGuffin at the heart of the grift wasn’t finance/investing…it was pigeons.  The man behind the scam, the pigeon king himself, was Arlan Galbraith (his business was even named “Pigeon King International”).  In seven years he sold $42 million worth of pigeons and, when his empire collapsed, he was on the hook to buy $356 million worth of breeding pairs of pigeons.  Aside from Mike Tyson’s prize roller pigeons or suchlike fancy birds, pigeons are not really expensive creatures.  The mind shrinks back from imagining how many pigeons one could buy for $356 million dollars.

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The pigeon Ponzi scheme didn’t really make any sense as a business or as a scam. Galbraith sold breeding pigeons to small farmers with a promise to buy back the offspring.  He would then sell the resulting pigeons to other farmers with the same promise.  Since he paid for the fowl (and since farmers are competent at poultry husbandry), the pigeons produced by this scheme burgeoned in population.  Galbraith enticed investors with talk of breeding fancy pigeons to sell to foreign pigeon fanciers, poultry, magnates and Arab sheiks.  He also claimed his program was producing a new sort of meat bird to bring squab to the dinner table everywhere in lieu of chicken and turkey.  Yet the birds in the “program” were just normal garden-variety pigeons. It was a recipe for limitless growth to nowhere.  Hundreds and hundreds of farmers joined Pigeon King International as suppliers/marks.

Except, of course, there is no such thing as limitless growth.  As soon as Galbraith ran out of new investors, he could not pay for all of the pigeons being produced (it is a miracle he dealt with the logistics of this crazy idea for as long as he did).  The end was profoundly sad.  Small farmers across Canada were left with whole barns and aviaries filled with unsaleable mongrel pigeons.  There were no Arab sheiks.  There was no market for squab.   There was nothing but the pigeon king dashing around the country buying pigeons and immediately selling them to others.

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The authorities were left with a situation where broke farmers had hundreds of thousands of worthless pigeons eating them out of house and home.  Releasing the birds into the wild would have been cruel to the pigeons (and dangerous to public health) so the authorities visited the largest barns with carbon monoxide rigs to gas the pigeons. Smaller operations were left euthanizing their stock on their own. Galbraith was arrested and conducted his own defense (in a manner as earnest, incompetent, and peculiar as his business).  He is now in jail and, since he is not young, that is probably the last act of his tale. Innumerable farmers were ruined by this saga.  Hundreds of thousands of pigeons died.  The pigeon king is spending his dotage in prison, and for what?

I have been staring at this story in puzzled wonder trying to determine the lesson (as more than a general cautionary tale against pyramid schemes). Aside from pyramid schemes, there is no precise analogy for the pigeon king’s business plan which leaps to mind…save one. The pigeon scheme required infinite growth to work (and more and more energy to maintain) even though there was no final payoff plan or escape hatch. It reminds me a bit of, well, everything.

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Society requires everyone to buy plastic junk that nobody will want in a year.  The garment industry churns out shirts that disintegrate after we wear them a few times.  The internet mostly consists of website after website of the same listicles and idiotic celebrity folderol.  If we stopped making this stuff and did better things with our time, everyone would go broke and the world economy would break. There are worthwhile things going on and goods and services which people truly need (or really want badly enough to be worthwhile), but beneath it all there is the same impossible promise of endless growth.  If that growth sputters out in any big way, the great international machine which we are all part of breaks.  Even if (human) populations decline, the capitalist system enters a dark feedback loop of too few consumers which is hard to escape.

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Conmen call their targets “pigeons.”  The story has me concerned that we are all pigeons in both a figurative and a literal way.  We are all busy producing pigeons of one sort or another for the Galbraiths of the world and praying that we can keep juggling everything before the Earth’s climate breaks, or we run out of oil, or there are too many bankrupt people to keep the system afloat.  Last week I wrote a post excoriating economists for not understanding primate behavior.  In this post I am begging them to go back into the library and come up with a system that does not rely so utterly on impossible growth targets.  If you walk through my beloved home of New York and look at all the people strutting bipedally in their drab business casual garb I feel like you might be reminded of certain avian colonies.  Take a look at Japan’s demographics, or the projected population of the United States…or the world, then compare those graphs with what companies say they will sell.  Spare a moment of panicky prayer for all the pigeons…and for the pigeon king too.

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Let’s talk about the dodo (Raphus cucullatus) which is a sort of tragic mascot of the animals driven to extinction by humankind. Dodos lived on Mauritius, an Island in the Indian Ocean to the east of Madagascar.  The first written record of dodos comes from Dutch sailors in 1598 and the last sighting of a live dodo was in 1662 (or maybe in the 1680s).  They are regarded as victims of the age of colonial exploration: Mauritius was located on the trade route which lead from Europe, around Africa, to the silks and spices of the East.  The poor dodos were at a convenient island in the hungry middle stretch.

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The dodo has historically been regarded as clumsy, fat, and foolish—an animal which perhaps didn’t deserve to exist.  It now seems like this may be equivalent to what motorists say when they kill pedestrians and cyclists–which is to say an obviously self-serving calumny meant to disguise true culpability (although in fairness, colonial explorers weren’t particularly clear on whether other humans had any right to exist–to say nothing of flightless turkey-like birds which lived on an island stop over).  Ecologists and ornithologists now regard the dodo as admirably evolved to its island habitat. Standing 1 meter (3 ft) tall and (probably) weighing 10-17 kg (23–39 lb) the dodo lost the ability of flight, thanks to Mauritius’ lack of predators.  It had powerful legs which suggest it could run quite quickly, and it was not small (so perhaps the dodo took over the niche of some of those missing predators). The birds’ diet was predominantly fruit, whit it digested with the aid of large gizzard stones, although, if analogous creatures provide a clue, it probably also ate insects, small vertebrates and sundry bites of carrion, tender shoots, and eggs.  Speaking of eggs, it seems that the dodo, like many penguins, raised a single egg in a large nest.  They could live up to 20 years. Who really knows though? The people heading through Mauritius in the 17th century were not there to study birds.  It has been speculated that the dodo may have suffered from a lack of fear of humans (which is not unknown in certain modern birds found on remote Pacific islands).  The dodo was also reputedly quite disgusting (to humans) to eat. It seems like the real culprit behind the extinction of the dodo were deforestation (the birds lived in Mauritius’ forests which were quickly leveled) and other invasive species such as rats and pigs which came to the island via boat.

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During the 18th and 19th century, there was substantial controversy over what sort of bird a dodo actually is (was?).  Taxonomists, not unreasonably, suggested they were related to ostriches, rails, vultures, or albatrosses, however the real clue turned out to be in the Dodo’s leg bones which bore unmistakable similarities to those of pigeons.  Other details of facial anatomy and beak structure corroborated this: the dodo was a giant pigeon (although sadly no good DNA specimens now exist to find out further details or resurrect the extinct bird).  Though gone for more than 300 years the dodo clings to a strange ghost life as a symbol of a whimsical bygone era.  Lewis Carrol was apparently fond of them, and Alice in Wonderland greatly popularized the extinct fowl.  Additionally they are seen as a ominous warning for extinctions yet to come if humankind cannot cure its insatiable appetite or find a way to live in greater harmony with nature.  It is ironic that the great missing birds of yesteryear—the dodo and the passenger pigeon—are so closely related to the rock pigeon, the consummate omnipresent nuisance bird of human cities. Island species are often the first to go extinct: their specialized traits make them unable to compete with ruthless generalists.  Yet the dodo’s sadly comic appearance and the touching stories of its friendly openness to sailors do make it an ideal symbol of the danger faced by innumerable species in the Anthropocene.

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A really quick post today:  here are two interesting flags from Taiwan.  Above is the flag of the Taiwanese police and below is the flag of the Taiwanese Coast Guard.  Since these agencies are charges with keeping the peace, the emblem on their logos is a pigeon/dove.  Although the bird’s official police styling gives it an authoritative edge, I like the fact that it is still a dove.  In America, as you might imagine, the police have stars and eagles on their flags/logos/devices (although I guess there are suns and a dragon in the mix in these Taiwanese flags).  I wonder what the Taiwanese police badge looks like?

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I’m really enjoying the Winter Olympics!  South Korea looks great and has clearly pulled out all of the stops hosting. I especially like the elegant “victory ceremony” women who guide the athletes in behavior and protocol at the Olympic medal platforms—these women are like an amazing cross between super models, Santa Claus, and Batman’s butler.  In addition to Olympic medals, they ply victors with abstruse puzzle sculptures and stuffed animals (and gentle stage directions).  The reason I am writing tonight though is to look back at the huge dove of peace which was formed by human performers bearing lights during the opening ceremony.  I am…skeptical of North Korea’s motivations in the troubled affairs of Korea.  I share American Defense Secretary Mattis’ concern that North Korea’s long game is to unify the peninsula under Kim rule by means of nuclear coercion.  Yet it was indeed touching to see the generosity and elan of the South Korean hosts sharing their moment in the international spotlight with their wayward sister nation, and the glowing dove made of humans was moving (and visually splendid).

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I’m going to go watch some more winter sports now (hooray Chloe Kim!) but this is going to be a great week, what with the Olympics, Mardi Gras, Valentine’s Day, and Chinese New Year.  Best wishes to all of the Olympic athletes, and best wishes to the nations of Earth who look splendid when they assemble in peace and celebration.

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OK everyone, I am very sorry that I have been missing so much lately. I was working on my show and I have been working on my next big project which involves animated drawings. I PROMISE I will get back to regularly scheduled blogging tomorrow (I have some angry things to say about fisheries and the derelict state of our nation in general right now), but for tonight, here is a teaser of my next big project. This is an animation of an oracular priestess turning into a dove and a ghost. The hard part was the Roman-style mosaic flounder in the background (which you hopefully noticed). With any luck wordpress will allow GIFS, but if not, I guess you can look at each broken tile in the flounder. As always let me know what you think and thanks for your patience and kind attention.

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Last week’s post concerning the ancient Greek oracle of Zeus at Dodona made me curious whether there are any black pigeons or doves (for, according to myth, the first oracle at Dodona was a black talking dove which flew from Thebes). This is a black Indian fantail pigeon, and while there are no indications that the bird can talk it is a gorgeous animal. Look at how selective breeding has given the domesticated fantail a beautiful peacock spread of black feathers and silky ornate foot feathers!

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Everyone knows about the Oracle at Delphi—one of the most important sacred places of the classical world. Delphi was sacred to Apollo and it is where (in mythology) he slew the ancient giant python which vexed he and Artemis and donned the mantle of god of prophecy. However there was a much older oracle sight in the classical world. According to Herodotus it dated back to the second millennium BCE and Aristotle regarded it as the birthplace of the Hellenes (which is to say the origin point of the Greeks). It was arguably the second most important place of prophecy in the ancient Greek world. This was the great oracle at Dodona in Epirus. Archaeologists indeed date cult activity at the site back to the Mycenaean age. I found pictures of the great theater at Dodona (above) which is certainly awe-inspiring, and of the council house, where affairs of state were adjudicated, however I could not find pictures of the oracle. Perhaps it was a victim of Christian zeal, or maybe it just doesn’t photograph so well after 4000 years.
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The prophetesses of Dodona were known as peleiades (“doves) and they were priestesses of Zeus. Herodotus relates the myth of how their cult originated in the ancient depths of time:
“…two black doves [came] flying from Thebes in Egypt, one to Libya and one to Dodona; the latter settled on an oak tree, and there uttered human speech, declaring that a place of divination from Zeus must be made there; the people of Dodona understood that the message was divine, and therefore established the oracular shrine. The dove which came to Libya told the Libyans (they say) to make an oracle of Ammon; this also is sacred to Zeus. Such was the story told by the Dodonaean priestesses, the eldest of whom was Promeneia and the next Timarete and the youngest Nicandra; and the rest of the servants of the temple at Dodona similarly held it true.”

Long-time readers know I am interested in dove iconography: it is one of the shared aspects of Hellenic pantheism and Judeo-Christian imagery (sharp-eyed readers will also note that a sacred oak appears into the story). I wish I could have found an ancient vase with the Dodona story on it–but maybe it just didn’t translate into pottery. At any rate we will keep featuring these prophetic stories–they are leading up to an exciting surprise at the end of summer!
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