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Nonnegarten (Wayne Ferrebee, 2022), ink on paper

Ever since the beginning of the pandemic, I have been working on drawing with ink using a steel nib. Of all the drawing media I have used, pen and ink provides the most expressive and beautiful lines–provided you can avoid blotting, smearing, or spilling the ink. Alas, it is exceedingly easy to destroy your drawings (and your wardrobe) through the least mishap with the INDELIBLE ink. In the spirit of the masters of medieval illumination (who also utilized pen and ink), I have been drawing a series of strange floral monastic people–well, perhaps it is a bit unclear if they are people or paphiopedilums. In the picture above, a loving deity of growth irrigates the sentient crops as a kindly sister looks on. Beneath the grass, a caecilian hunts for destructive grubs among the roots and mycelia. Speaking of mycelia, kindly note the little gnome collecting mushrooms. In the heavens, a pelican flies by with a fish struggling in its beak while a bat-winged putto plays religious music on a lyre. The odd-man out in the composition is the friendly ring-tailed lemur who seems perplexed by this harmonious tableau (surely this can’t be Madagascar), but takes in in stride with sanguine primate good cheer.

The Sisters’ Day Out (Wayne Ferrebee, 2021), ink on paper

This second drawing is more complicated and harder to parse out. A little chapter of nuns have left their onion-domed convent to luxuriate in the heavenly effulgence. I feel like that aerobic-looking fairy may well be a lay-sister. Unfortunately, their repose is disturbed by a big, stiff, skinny mummy which is just lyin’ around on the lawn. Who on earth left it there and why? Also, why does the mummy have a mummified flatfish? The day is additionally marred by the presence two faceless apparitions to the extreme right. Drifting through the air everywhere are little zygote-spores of some sort (or are they little seeds of the flower people). It is good to see that life finds a way, even if the sisters are putatively uninterested in reproduction. Also there is an ermine (the very symbol of purity and moderation in Christian art) who is looking quite closely at a banana split.

I am pleased at the way that using black ink and white ink gives these peculiar allegories a feeling of dimensional form. Speaking of which, drawing with sumi ink this way also gives a literal 3 dimensional aspect to the work (albeit a slight one). If you run your fingers over these drawings, all of the lines are palpable and i had to photograph them multiple times because of little shadows and strange reflections cast by the raised ink.

A page from “Winter Landscapes and Flowers” (album ca. 1770, Qian Weicheng) ink on silk

Here is a lovely little winter landscape from Qing Dynasty master landscape painter Qian Weicheng (錢維城). Qian was a proponent of the orthodox painting style, and, indeed, we can see that his simple, elegant calligraphic lines emulate the techniques of the Song and Ming artists who preceded him. Although he was perhaps not a master of bravura ink-wash realism to the unearthly degree of Fan Kuan or Guo Xi, Qian brings his own 18th century virtues to the art, and there is a delightful & unaffected simplicity to his work which captures the austere beauty of winter’s bare rocks, leafless trees, and frozen mud. In this little painting, flocks of geese glide through the overcast sky above a branching river which is swollen with melt water. The simplicity of the countryside must have been a dramatic contrast with the opulent splendor of court life in 1774 when this image was dated and inscribed. Of course Qian himself died in 1772, so the inscription and the date were added posthumously by Qian’s greatest fan, the Qianlong Emperor himself!

Qian Weicheng painted over 275 paintings during his time at court and he rose up through the imperial bureaucratic ranks to the exalted position of second-in-command of the Imperial Board of Works. Perhaps you are wondering how it is that Qian came to the capital from his native Jiansu to begin with. Any discussion of dynastic China includes mention of the famous, formidable imperial civil service exams, the great standardized test which was at the center of imperial China’s administrative system. In 1745, Qian came in first place on the exam, an academic feat which brought him to imperial attention and guaranteed his success as a mandarin and as a painter. This path to artistic greatness (acing a standardized test about Confucian principles!) brings up a variety of questions about meritocracy, politics, and aesthetics which we are still wrestling with!

There is one last daunting task for this miserable year. For Ferrebeekeeper’s annual 2021 obituaries, I promised to write an obituary for my grandfather, Robert Clarence Pierson Jr., who died on October 23rd, 2021…and the task has proved to be entirely daunting! When I was a child, Grandpa was my hero, since his far-flung James-Bond-style life seemed to so thoroughly epic and exotic–and characteristic of the triumphs and excesses of the 20th century. But now, in the squalor and waste of 2021, it seems equally impossible to write about him…for some of the same reasons. It is like writing about the career of some ancient Roman tribune or Chinese sage who accidentally crashed through into this debased era of social media and Kardassians and national disintegration…

Robert Clarence Pierson Jr. was born in 1924, at Blue Knob, a hamlet (if even that) in Clay County West Virginia. He was extremely premature, and his surprise arrival so discomfited all parties that the house ended up burning down! Great Grandma Virgie put the tiny baby in a drawer and he was almost stepped on by an anxious horse!

Thereafter Grandpa attended the one room school at Blue Knob and then the High School at Clay where he graduated as valedictorian in 1941. Since he grew up adjacent to West Virginia’s hunting, mining, drilling, and lumbering trades (with their sundry dangerous tools) his childhood adventures had an exciting frontier quality to them. Frankly, they sounded like a Fleischer cartoon (wherein a rocket powered sledge, cask of black powder, or steamer trunk filled with horseshoes is always on hand at exactly the right moment). Perhaps some of this was also thanks to Great Grandpa Clarence’s indulgence (Great Grandpa ran the local lumber mill and was becoming adept at the Democratic party politics) and also to Great Grandma, who was always willing to drop everything and bake a chocolate pie for him.

Grandpa attended West Virginia University until the war called to him. He began his army career as a paratrooper but, thanks to his foreign language and memorization skills, he quickly moved to the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the precursor to the Central Intelligence Agency. In the European theater of World War II, Grandpa served in the peninsular campaign in Italy. Because of his facility with languages, communications, and codework, Grandpa flew behind enemy lines and he was in Rome when Rome was liberated by the allies (I asked him about the granular details of this operation and he said his outfit painted their airplane to look like a German airplane and then just landed at the airport…and all of the relevant Italians winked at them and looked the other way). After liberating Rome, Grandpa headed into the Balkans to help the Serbs with their anti-German activities. Then, once victory was achieved in Europe, he switched theaters and went to Burma, where he was impressed by the um, fervor of the Kachin resistance fighters.

After World War II, Grandpa married his university sweetheart, Constance Faye Wellen (better known as Grandma Connie). The OSS was disbanded a month after the war was over, but Grandpa took up a foreign career with its successor agency. He also brushed up on language and social sciences at the University of Chicago and Stanford, before heading abroad again. Language was grandpa’s greatest gift, and, as far as I could tell, he knew English, Latin, French, Javanese, Dutch, Vietnamese, Arabic, and maybe a bit of German.

The way the Cold War ended seems inevitable to us now, however in the 40s, 50s, and 60s, this was anything but true, and those decades were characterized by worldwide proxy conflicts between the United States and the Soviet Union which took place everywhere but burned brightest in portions of the world recovering from 19th and early 20th century European colonization.

Thus, while everyone else came back from the war to bobbysoxers, beach boys, and suburban ranches, Grandpa was first in India, and then in Egypt, Somalia (which he doubted could ever be welded together effectively), and Kenya. He was in the Belgian Congo during the independence crisis when it violently transformed into Zaire. Grandpa was a master of the cocktail niceties of the 60s and he told me that he would mix drinks for Patrice Lumumba and Lumumba’s cronies. In his cups, Lumumba would enthuse about glorious plans of pan-African unity and talk about how the movement would kill all Europeans, “but not you, Bob, since you make the drinks!” Grandpa would laugh, but, in reality, his closest Congolese friends were among the Baluba (a rival Congolese ethnicity which Lumumba had antagonized with violent crackdowns and pogroms). Later when the Congo blew apart in full-blown crisis, my grandmother, mother, and uncle all fled as refugees, but Grandpa stayed in the nation to ensure that it did not become a client state of the Soviet Union no matter what the cost.

From the Congo, Grandpa moved on to Indonesia which was also vacillating between the great cold war powers. One of my favorite stories involves how the United States built an elaborate new Washington embassy for the Indonesians which was filled with listening devices. As the only team man who could speak Javan fluently, Grandpa got to translate, but all they learned was Sukarno’s enthusiasm for the distaff charms of American actresses…particularly how much the Indonesian strongman wanted to sleep with Zsa Zsa Gabor. Sigh…

Grandpa left the foreign service for a time to work on local projects back in West Virginia, but he returned to the field to work in Vietnam during the sixties and seventies. Some of my favorite tales from Grandpa involve his stories of drinking out of great earthenware vessels with bronze straws and plotting with Hmong warlords (he was enormously impressed by the Hmong, and the North Vietnamese, but had some reservations about the South Vietnamese leadership)Although he tried as hard as he could to solve everyone’s problems in Vietnam I believe his proudest contribution was as a gardener. He said that in Saigon he was astonished by the markets filled with fruits and vegetables which he didn’t recognize, but that there were also things which were missing, so he took the State Department’s credit card and ordered a giant box of seeds. Thereafter he was always peddling squashes, pumpkins, gourds, maize, melons, and suchlike North American seeds to add to Vietnamese agriculture (and indeed they are now part of the culture and cuisine).

Speaking of culture, one of Grandpa’s early mentors, Arturo, was an intelligence officer in Southeast Asia who lived a flamboyant expat lifestyle and suggested to Grandpa that shrewd intelligence personnel in the foreign service should collect art. Not only did this pursuit require one to learn the culture, language, and perspective of new nations, but it also provided an automatic reason for being overseas, and a pretext for traveling to all sorts of strange locations to meet peculiar characters. Plus, as a sort of bonus, one would wind up with a collection of beautiful and interesting artworks. Grandpa collected Congolese and Indonesian oil paintings and, particularly, Chinese porcelain (so, if you have ever wandered why I am always trying to understand the glorious arts of China in this blog, I guess it is a cultural legacy from Arturo, some 1950s spy whom I never met).

I wanted to properly write about Grandpa’s foreign service career which was extensive and illustrious, but all of this makes him sound like some dark puppetmaster (his Indonesian sobriquet was “Wayang” since he had the same handsome sharp features as the Indonesian version of the hero Arjuna). However Grandpa retired from statecraft and the affairs of nations in 1974, the same year I was born.

He and grandma lived in suburban Maryland by the Chesapeake Bay and their cat Pharaoh (AKA Faro), a magnificent predator of the Chesapeake Bay swamp (who was, hilariously as white as an arctic fox). Grandpa was always trying to feed or heal various strays and mongrels and plant his own paradisiacal garden to rival the beauties of South East Asia (although hurricanes of ever growing frequency would always blow down his beautiful trees). Some of my happiest memories of childhood involve exploring the Bay with Grandpa in his rowboat and catching blue crabs, or having plum battles with the tiny Italian prune plums from his little orchard.

It was fun to look at his art collection (and his collection of exotic weaponry from Africa and Asia) but it was even more fun to spend summer vacation puttering around the Chesapeake or driving around Washington and Baltimore in his preposterous vehicle, an enormous Chevrolet Impala station wagon of the late seventies which was about 45 feet long and which looked like a hearse the color of a raincloud. Sadly, in that era, GM lavished minimal attention on frivolous details like engines, and so his new car’s motor exploded not long after purchase. Undeterred, Grandpa took the hulk over to a chopshop in Glen Burnie and told them to put “something powerful” in it, which is how he had a powder blue bulldozer in the unlikely form of a station wagon.

Grandpa loved religion and was drawn to it, and when I was growing up, he would beguile me by telling me the stories of what was happening in the paintings on his wall–epic tales from the Mahabharata or from ancient China. Yet it was clear he could see through the dogmatic aspects of faith and was most attracted to spirituality as a furtherance of human concerns through sophisticated allegorical confabulation. To be more plain, I think he was astonished that while nation-states were always desperately struggling to coerce people to do things, holy men could come along with a beautiful story which would cause people to eagerly participate in ridiculous ventures which ran contrary to their own self-interest. I would like to write about how he understood animals and people and was always surprising the Amish by speaking to them in their own tongue (it is basically a weird German, he confided), or befriending salty myna birds or rescuing addled baby animals or what-have-you, but I will instead end with his bees. Although he liked honey, it was obvious that he kept bees because they combined all of his true interests–communication, nation-building, animals, farming, warfare, family, and making things. All of this came in a little white box which he said was like having your own miniature city-state of 50,000 flying Spartans in yellow and black striped tunics. Of course sometimes West Virginia bears would come out of the forest and eat your civilization, or varroa mites would cause everyone to sicken and die, or the young queen would murder the old one (or vice versa) but it was all part of an even larger picture and just meant you had to rebuild better.

Now that Grandpa is dead, the world which he and his contemporaries made is swiftly coming apart. Beekeeping, arm-twisting, and politics have never much interested me, but if we want any honey (or simply not to be a sad addled province in Putin’s new Russia or a client state to Xi’s imperial China), perhaps we need to think about some of the lessons of his life of service to the Republic.

Merry Christmas! Hopefully you are enjoying the festive times with loved ones and favorite activities. As a quick celebration post, here is a photo of my Christmas tree of life (covered with creatures from throughout the history of life) and some festive sugar flounder cookies which I made. Also the James Webb space telescope has blasted off successfully from French Guiana and is on its way to Earth’s second Legrange point. We will talk more about the scope as it gets closer to its destination, but right now lets enjoy some eggnog and some winter naps with our beloved pets!

Happy Thanksgiving! Hopefully you are not tired of turkey yet (my mother said that the buff turkeys gathered under the bay window and gobbled evocatively while she and Dad had their holiday meal). Uhh…anyway, in this spirit, here is a little drawing to celebrate. As I mentioned, lately I have been working with black and white inks on autumn colored paper. This is a drawing from that series which explores the mysterious connections between various entities crossing paths in the forest at night. The main dramatic tension in the composition comes from the unknown relationship between the fashionable woman with long antennae and the blank-eyed peasant pursuing her with an adorable young larva in a wicker basket. Who knows what is up with people like that? In the foreground there are some frogs, flatfish, and spiders…and a being of some sort who has somehow gotten stuck inside a chianti bottle. Tsk tsk! An anthropomorphized cat troubadour is hopefully proffering his mandolin to the fashion-moth-woman, but, alas, she seems too distracted for night music. In the background fat white moths fly through the intertwined branches as a nightjar flies off and a great barred owl swoops in. Deep inside the forest a phantom desperately tries to share a frantic message from the world beyond.

Most importantly, there are some pretty turkeys in the middle of the square drawing. Honestly, you should probably just pay attention to them today. Oh, also, that tenacious critter pursuing the snake is a Sunda stink badger. This hardly seems like the tropical rainforest of Sunda, but, frankly, it is hard to pin down the location or the time of this enigmatic tableau with any true certainty.

I was recently back at the family farm (which is in the Ohio Valley). Since I almost never go there in late autumn it gave me a precious opportunity to see some of my favorite trees wearing their brilliant fall raiment. Unfortunately I am no photographer–and I never found the time to paint a watercolor painting of autumn’s beauty–however I wanted to share the two most magnificent trees.

Here is the bald cypress which we planted to emulate grandpa’s bald cypress in Weston (which was apparently chopped down the moment he left his house). This tree is a young bald cypress, and it would still be in middle school if it was a human (which fortunately it is not, since it would be a dull child standing beside a goose pond all day), however it is already beginning to develop the knobby swamp knees and flying buttresses characteristic of the great cathedral cypresses of the southern swamp. It is maybe 6 meters (20 feet tall) and it is growing fast. I wish I could have captured the beauty of its warm orange fronds, because in the setting sun they glowed like it was a little ember from the November sun. I wish I could explain to you how winsome the tree is. There is something about all of the Cupressaceae which makes one want to hug them like a robe wearing lunatic from Northern California.

The second tree was my parents’ first choice of trees to plant and it is beginning to reach stunning maturity. It is a pecan tree and it is starting to produce nuts. You can’t see how large it is, but it probably about 13 or 14 meters (45 plus feet) and it is also growing fast. Sadly I could not capture its size with pictures (I need a giraffe or a basketball player to go stand beside it), but when you are near it, you now get a feeling of awe–in addition to whatever appreciation you have for its graceful lines and lovely proportions. There are larger trees back in the forest, but they are forest oaks, walnuts, and hickory which grow tall and straight and do not spread like the glorious pecan. Pecan trees are capable of growing to 40 meters (130 feet) in height with a spread of 22 meters (75 feet) so we will keep hoping that none of the freakish storms which have been growing in number and strength bedevil either of these beloved trees before they reach that kind of height. I wish you could actually see these trees–they are so beautiful!

It is Thanksgiving week and Ferrebeekeeper has a couple of little appetizer articles planned to post here before the great feast, however, before we get to those, I would like to talk about something which I have only become truly thankful for of late in life. Devout readers know that I love colors and I sometimes rue America’s puritan distrust of brilliant scintillating colors (I was recently at an airport in Richmond and everyone there was wearing black, blue, white or oatmeal!). Wouldn’t life be better if it was like a tropical coral reef or a city in Tamil Nadu?

Except, for some reason this year the Thanksgiving color palette is calling to me with a greater allure than it has ever possessed. Among the holiday color palettes Thanksgiving is the odd one out. New Years is gold, silver, and jewel-tones. Valentine’s day is bright red and hot pink. Saint Patrick’s Day is Kelly green and gold. Easter is a rainbow of cheerful pastels. Summer colors are superhero colors of red, blue, white, yellow, and green. Halloween is orange, black, purple and green. Christmas is red, green, and gold. However, Thanksgiving is russet, burgundy, harvest gold, and drab. It’s like a sheet set from 1975! Except now I see that within that rainbow of brown is the stubble in the autumn fields, and the feathers of buff turkeys, and the g;owing leaves of the bald cypress before they fall away.

Throughout my life I have chafed at the earth toned hues of autumn, but suddenly they seem more beautiful than I can ever remember. It is like they are not trying to sell some god-forsaken novelty or social pretense but are are simply the colors of Mother Earth herself.

Anyway, I don’t have a bigger point–although my other posts this week are related to this and come to think of it, lately my artwork has changed to reflect the somber beauty of the autumn woodlands too. Maybe I am finally coming to except that I will never be a triggerfish or a macaw and must be content to be an olive flounder or a tawny owl…or maybe the next season will reveal a new set of colors which delight me and my tastes will keep changing like the seasons and the years.

Jupiter, the speaking oaks, a pigeon, and a mysterious goddess

As I read about the ancient world, one of the place names which keeps reappearing again and again is Dodona–the site of the oldest oracle in Greece. Ferrebeekeeper has already written about the myth of the foundation of Dodona (which reputedly became a place of prophecy when a black dove with the power of human speech landed there). During the Greco-Roman era, the shrine was sacred to Zeus/Jove himself. The priests and priestesses of Dodona would listen to the noises of a grove of sacred oak trees. Not only did the leaves of these trees rustle in the wind but their boughs were hung with resonant bronze vessels (which banged and clanged like wind chimes). Although Dodona was sacred to Zeus in the classical era, it seems like it dates back to at least Mycenaean times (the mysterious palace-building city states of Mycenaean Greece preceded the Greek age by many centuries, and although they apparently shared some cultural and linguistic similarities, the cultures were not the same). It has been argued that the Dodona of Mycenaean times was sacred to the great goddess Gaia. Whatever the ancient traditions of Dodona were, they came to an apocalyptic halt around 1200 BC when disaster and invaders put an end to the palace civilizations. Sacred worship and divination reemerged there later in the new conventions of Archaic Greek religious style (all of which contributed to the Zeus versus Gaia mythology which is such a pivotal conflict in ancient Greek mythology).

Roller Summer Sunset (Wayne Ferrebee, 2021) ink and watercolor on paper

Labor Day is over. Another summer is dying away. I wanted to celebrate the summer (it is my favorite season!) without giving into the elegiac feelings of fall, so I drew this sunset drawing of merriment in Central Park. As always my muse is the incomparable Lillian Newberg, doyenne of the resurrected New York roller disco scene (would that I could participate–but I can no more dance…or walk…or stand still…on roller skates than I can fly like Superman). Around her are strange & mysterious circus folk with hotdogs and ice cream, while a rather splendid toucan preens at the treeline. The sloth is not a roller skater either, but at least he can drag himself to the party on a skateboard. A langur turns the magical disco jack-in-the-box, while various angelic folk fly around the heavens as per their wont. The scene is delightful except for the tragic sentient lemon and the rubber chicken (which has been accidentally discharged from a novelty cannon). The snake represents moral choice whereas the flounder suggests that our appetites will always be lurking in the immediate foreground of anything we do. I don’t know what is up with that fancy garter belt. Somebody probably dropped it there by accident and it has nothing to do with the larger parable…

Flemish Flatfish (Wayne Ferrebee, 2016) ink and watercolor on paper

Happy Solstice! I wanted to finish off the ocean theme and celebrate the longest day of the year by coloring one of my large flounder drawings (which I originally designed to be in a huge strange flatfish coloring book). Unfortunately, coloring the image took sooo long that the longest day of the year is now over! (and I am still not happy with the coloring–which turns out to be just as hard as I recall from childhood)

Anyway, here is a sky flounder with a Dutch still life on his/her body swimming over the flat sea by the low countries. Little Flemish details dot the composition (like the clay pipe at the bottom, the bagpiper by the beach, and Audrey Hepburn in a 17th century dress) however the endearing minutiae can not forever distract the viewer from larger themes of sacrifice and the ineluctable passage of time (both of which are fine ideas to contemplate on this druidic holiday).

As always, we will return to these ideas, but for now, happy summer!

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