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I have been getting ready for my solo flounder show in the Lower East Side on August 17th…another stepping stone on my life quest to become the world’s foremost flounderist. Because of this, I failed to write a blog entry today…but that’s ok, right? You must surely be sick of reading about current events. Here is a teaser flounder to get everyone excited.

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We’ll get back to our regularly scheduled mollusks, goths, and crowns on Friday (give or take).

Flounder Show

Hey everyone, my amazing new roommate works at an art gallery in the city’s hottest art district, the Lower East Side. The famous gallerist who runs the place has embarked on an artistic quest…to Tanzania, but she has generously allowed me to use the space for an evening. I hope you will accept my invitation (above) to a show of my flounder artworks which explore the big-fish-eats-little-fish dialectic of history against a backdrop of larger biological themes.

Because of time constraints, the opening IS the show–we are like a beautiful exotic mushroom which pops-up for a single glorious night–but during that one night there will be glowing multi-media delights to satisfy all aesthetic longings! Since you read this blog, I know you have the most refined and intelligent tastes: I hope you can join me then and there.

Flounder Rover

In my art career I have been on an enormous flatfish binge. People have asked me what on earth this means, but unfortunately, it is hard to write about one’s own art. Therefore I am “crowd sourcing” my artist’s statement to the smartest and most sympathetic crowd I can find. Please, please let me know how you think I could phrase this better (and enjoy the fish!).
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Asymmetry betokens a lack of equality or balance between the parts or aspects of a greater whole. Outwardly, the most asymmetric vertebrates are the flatfish, an order of carnivorous marine fish which are extensively fished for food and sport. In his art, Wayne Ferrebee adopts the flounder as a symbolic proxy to explore the growing asymmetry between the natural world and artifical manmade ecosystems. Simultaneously a lurking predator and a hapless victim of fishermen’s guile (and the shark’s ravenous gullet) the flounder is a tragicomic google-eyed mirror for humankind’s march towards ascendancy and disaster.

With a background in biology, history, toymaking and painting, Ferrebee utlilizes symbols and narratives to contextualize the role which organisms have in the context of larger life cycles. Thus a wheeled toy flatfish with a rotating musical painting becomes an oracular mirror for to seeing into the near future. A pleasure garden of glowing sphinxes, topiary, and musicians is revealed to be a disguised fish monster, waiting for the unwary aesthete. Beasts of the watery realm join with mythological beings from antiquity to show how our cherished aspirations contain poisonous hooks. Each of us thinks we are a heroic individual, yet we are also a tiny part of a billion-headed hydra. So too each artwork of dynamically intertwined symbols glows with hidden meaning. By represents the cycles within life, history, and paleontology, Ferrebee highlights patterns of creation and destruction not readily discernible from the perspective of a single lifetime.

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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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When it comes to mollusks, people talk a lot about the charismatic giant squids and giant clams (and for good reason!), yet, to my mind, these are not the strangest—or even the most elusive–giant mollusks. Scientists have long sought a very different creature—the giant shipworm (Kuphus polythalamia)—which they knew from its bizarre meter long tubal shell. Yet despite the fact that such shells were (relatively) plentiful—marine biologists never found a living specimen…until this spring, when internet clips revealed footage of people eating huge shipworms in the Philippines. Researchers were thus led to a remote lagoon in the archipelago where at last they discovered living giant shipworms flourishing in the foul muck. What they then discovered was the most shocking thing of all…
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But first let’s provide some context. Shipworms are bivalve mollusks (like clams, oysters, and mussels) which eat wood–a surprising amount of which finds its way into the oceans. Wood is extremely difficult to digest, since it contains lignins, cellulose, and such like tough organic polymers. Shipworms digest wood the same way beavers and elephants and termites do—with help from symbiotic bacteria. This made shipworms the bane of pre-industrial mariners (who counted on intact wooden hulls in order to remain alive).

But shipworms are small, and the giant shipworm is…giant. The fact that the giant shipworm is an insane 130 cm long cylindrical clam with a gun metal blue body and obscene flesh gills which lives in a huge calcium tusk the size (and shape) of a baseball bat is not at all the strangest aspect of the creature. What is most odd about this mollusk is how it eats: it doesn’t. The foul anaerobic slime at the bottom of that lagoon in the Philippines is rich in hydrogen sulfide from decaying organic matter.
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The giant shipworm doesn’t eat this decomposing matter (indeed, its mouth is all but vestigial). Instead it has bacteria in its gills which live upon hydrogen sulfide. The giant shipworm survives off of the byproducts of this bacterial respiration. It grows huge off of toxic gas. This strange metabolic cycle is of great interest to scientists for what it reveals bout symbiosis, adaptivity, and metabolism. Perhaps someday it will be useful as well. Maybe future generations of explorers will love giant shipworms for their ability to live on waste product gases just as much as vanished generations hated shipworms for eating ships.

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After yesterday’s soul-searching, let’s take a moment to rest and renew our spirits…with a beautiful bright orange-gold dove from Fiji. This is the orange fruit dove (Ptilinopus victor) also known as the flame dove—a lovely small short-tailed dove which lives in the paradisiacal rainforests of Fiji where it eats an omnivorous diet of fruit, larvae, insects, and small arthropods and mollusks. The male birds (pictured here) have bright orange body feathers and shiny olive green heads (AND blue green legs, skin. and beaks). The females are olive colored and don’t call so much attention to themselves.
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I wonder what it would be like if, through some bizarre fluke, rock pigeons (aka pigeons) only lived on a few small islands in Fiji and the orange fruit dove was found in cities everywhere. Would we be oohing and ahing at the rock pigeons subtle grays with iridescent sheen and dismissively wave off the flame pigeons gorgeous orange as vulgar?
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I love spring. Whoever designed the garden behind the Brooklyn townhouse I live in felt the same way. This unknown benefactor from the past planted three beautiful flowering trees which come into blossom at the same time (um, and a holly, but we’ll talk about that another time). The king of these trees (and maybe of all flowering trees is the Kwanzan flowering cherry (which I have celebrated in spring of years past, but there is also a dogwood and a purple crabapple.
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I have been trying to plant flowers which come into blossom at the same time as the trees so as to have a perfect week of flowers. The tulips which I have found that work best are Leen Van Der Mark and Don Quichotte. Miami Sunset also unexpectedly bloomed at the same time (as did some white jonquils, which I rescued from a neighbor’s garden when it was replaced with turf).
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This year the bleeding hearts (a perfect Brooklyn flower) also bloomed at the same time as the tree. There are also some primroses, hellebores, violas, and pansies in there too, but being a different scale, it is hard to see them. The April blossom garden is a success, but May should have some delights too, in the form of the iris, the peonies, and the azalea. Hopefully my Hydrangea was not nipped by the March blizzard to the point it will have no blossoms, this year. I guess we’ll find out. In the mean time enjoy the flowers!

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I promised a beautiful painting of Jesus for Easter and here is one of my favorite altarpieces from the Met.  This wonderful painting is “The Crucifixion with Saints and a Donor.”  It was largely painted by Joos Van Cleve (with some assistance from an unknown collaborator) and was finished around 1520.  The painting is very lovely to look at! Joos Van Cleve endowed each of the saints with radiant fashionable beauty and energy.  From left to right, we see John the Baptist with his lamb and coarse robe; Saint Catherine with her sinister wheel (yet looking splendid in silk brocade and perfect makeup); Mary is leftmost on the main panel in royal blue; Saint Paul holds the cross and touches the head of the donor (whose money made all of this possible); and Saint John wears vermilion garb and has a book in a pouch as he gesticulates about theology. On the right panel are two Italian saints, Anthony of Padua and Nicholas of Tolentino.  Probably this altarpiece was an Italian commission or maybe the Flemish donor had business or family connections in Italy.

But van Cleve’s delightful saints are only half of the picture. In the background, the unknown collaborator has painted a magnificently picturesqe landscape of cold blue and lush green.  Fabulous medieval towns come to life amidst prosperous farmlands.  Rivers snake past forboding fortresses and great ports.  The distant mountains become more fantastical and more blue till they almost seem like surreal abstraction in the distance.  You should blow up the picture and let your spirit wander through this landscape (I think WordPress has discontinued that feature in a bid to frustrate users, however you can go the Met’s website and zoom into the painting and step directly back into 16th century northern Europe).

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Somewhat lost in this pageant of visual wonders is, you know, Jesus.   The painting’s lines don’t even really point to him. He suffers on his cross in emaciated, gray-faced anguish, forgotten by the richly robed saints and the wealthy burghers of the low country. Only the Virgin seems particularly anxious. Yet, though Van Cleve has de-emphasized the savior within the composition, he has painted Christ with rare grace and feeling.  The viewer can get lost in the landscape (or looking at Catherine’s lovely face) but then, as we are craning our neck to see around the cross, the presence of a nailed foot reminds us this is a scene of horror and divinity.  I have spent a long time looking at this painting and I found the the juxtaposition of wealth, industry, fashion, and riches, with the overlooked figure of Jesus naked and suffering to be quite striking. It is a reminder to re-examine the story of Jesus again against the context of more familiar surroundings. I am certainly no Christian (not anymore) but it seems like there might even be a lesson here for America’s ever-so-pious evangelicals.  With all of the excitement of wealth and political power and 24 hour Fox news and mean supreme court justices and billionaire golfers and super models and what not, I wonder if there is anyone they are maybe forgetting…

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I wanted to do a short post about a snake from my childhood: Heterodon platirhinos, the eastern hog-nosed snake.  This snake is a harmless fossorial colubrid snake which lives from New Hampshire to Minnesota and ranges from the southern parts of Canada down to northern Florida.  It lives in woodlands and dense meadows where it burrows in sandy and loamy soil and hides in leaf litter hunting for its favorite prey—amphibians–especially toads.

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The hog-nosed snake is mildy poisonous, but its fangs are in the back of its mouth (the better to grip struggling toads) and its venom is not harmful to humans.   The snake is incorrectly known as a puff adder because, when threatened, it hisses, puffs itself up, and flattens its neck out like a little cobra.  Do not confuse the hog-nosed snake for a real puff adder, Bitis arietans, a deadly viper indigenous to Africa south of the Sahal.

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The hog nosed snake also has another theatrical trick for evading predators: it plays dead with such gusto that it begins to reek of death, expels foul slime, and even bleeds from the mouth.  The snake is so very convincing at looking dead that, when I was a boy-scout, we were warned not to harass the entertaining little reptile lest it harm itself with its zeal(although perhaps this was mere PR for the master thespian).

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“He was so young….Whyyyy?”

The hog-nosed snake is also very cute, with beautiful ruddy leaf patterns, a blunt little nose and eyes at the front of its head.  I haven’t seen one in decades—I wonder how they are doing out there in the woods of southern Ohio.

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