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quilt

Wildlife Quilt (Patricia Ferrebee, 2019), mixed cotton textiles

By accident, this week ended up being parti-color snake week.  I am very much ok with this outcome–especially since the brilliant reptiles brighten up a dull and depressing part of the year while at the same time they are still safely in brumation and we don’t have to worry about accidentally stepping on them (at least here in Brooklyn). Anyway, to wrap up the week, I thought I would show you this exceedingly lovely quilt which my mother made for me.  It is a wildlife quilt which features penguins, lions, bears, prairie dogs, orangutans, ostriches, llamas, and so many snakes.  The creatures are pieced together out of little carefully cut pieces of cloth which are lovingly embroidered onto the larger quilt.

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Alas, my photography skills are indifferent and I cannot show you the gorgeous glistening colors of the quilt.  Because my parents have a quilt/knitting store (which you should visit if you are in Parkersburg, West Virginia), mom has a huge variety of magnificent new cotton print fabrics. I like the way all  of the animals came out, but I am especially fond of the snakes which truly capture the brilliantly colored scales.

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Something that always strikes me at the zoo is how a brightly colored snake (which is a shape humans instinctively recognize and react to!) lying on a bed of completely differently colored twigs and leaves is difficult to see.  This quilt conveys something of that real-world effect (although my photographs do not capture the subtle scintillating colors of the fabrics and thus do not fully duplicate the verisimilitude).

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It is lovely to lie on this quilt and read.  It is like being on the veld or in the northwoods…yet without harsh temperature extremes or biting insects (or, you know, lions).

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Mom’s quilts become more beguiling by the year (I will have to show you some of her nighttime garden quilts someday), but this animal quilt is a particular winner because it has animals!  I think we can all agree that, one way or another, animals are pretty much the best aspect of life (even if not everyone is quite as fond of snakes and fish as I am). Look at the decorative stitching on that little snake in the early autumn forest!

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These amazing quilted reptiles (including this purse lizard from an earlier post) are a reminder that imagination, artistry, and craft can endow our lives with some of the beauty and meaning of the natural world if we work at it.  This is an important theme, which we need to return to, because it seems like the way we live and work in the industrialized automated world is not working as well for everyone as philosophers, economists, and social theorists of the late twentieth century envisioned.  The beauty of the snakes are also a reminder that I need to collaborate with my mother to make another animal quilt at some point–perhaps the Australian outback or the deep sea!

Thanks again mom, for this magical blanket (which is as warm and functional as it is lovely). Right now though I had better go throw a lesser blanket over it. There are some real (domestic) animals clambering up onto my wild animal quilt and although I love them with all of my heart but I don’t trust them for a moment with my cherished quilt.

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Mustang Sole (Wayne Ferrebee, 2017) Wood and Mixed Media

I got wrapped up working on a strange allegorical fish sculpture and failed to write a post today, so here is a sculpture which I built a few years ago which captures the wild freedom of the west (in, um, the form of a sleek predatory pleuronectiform).  The wheels, the running horse, and the fish all connote mobility and streamlined speed.  The mustang is emblematic of North America, but horses were actually introduced to the continent by Spaniards in the early 16th century.  Equids actually originated in the Americas (back in the Eocene, of course) but through the vicissitudes of continental drift, land bridges, speciation, and extinction they died out here and became quintessential Eurasian animals (we’re not even going to talk about zebras).  My favorite parts of this sculpture are the bend wooden components (which were a pain to steam and glue) and the 1970s rainbow of caramel, cream, and gold colors.  it is one of my favorite fish sculptures…but I am still trying to figure out exactly what it means.

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Two Rats (Masatami. Late 19th century), ivory netsuke

My favorite rat artworks are not from China (nor from the canon of Western Art–where rats tend to be depicted as vile little monsters), but from another East Asian culture which keeps the same lunar calendar and recognizes some of the same symbolic associations.   Here is a small gallery of endearing and playful rat pictures from Japan.

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Treasure Boat with Three Rats (Kubo Shunman, 1816, (year of the rat)), woodblock print

I wish I could explain all of the puns, allusions, and anthropomorphized fables behind these images, but, alas, I cannot.  You will have to enjoy the rats relatively free of context (although I note that the ratties seem to be hungry adventurers…and several of the artworks come from rat years which occurred hundreds of years ago).

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Three Rats (Kono Bairei,1889 (Year of the Rat)) Diptych woodblock print in pastel shades

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Man and Huge Rat (Kunisada, ca. 19th century) woodblock print

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Figures from ” Chingan sodate gusa ” published in 1787

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Rats and fish (Kyosai Kawanabe, 1881) woodblock print

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YEAR OF THE RAT, MID 19TH CENTURY, SURIMONO, COLOUR

One thing that does jump out is that the Japanese found reasons to be charmed and pleased by the curiosity, bravery, and altruism of rats.  Even in the twentieth century, when American cultural influences weigh more heavily on the Japanese canon, there is still an independent likability to these rats.  Do you see it? Do you have any favorite Japanese rat images of your own?

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Toy Rat (Japanese, 20th Century) Plastic

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Virgin and Child Enthroned, with Prophets (Cimabue, ca. 1290-1300), tempera on wood

Cimabue was the link between Byzantine art and the art of the Renaissance. His use of shaded form and realistic proportion would lead to a sweeping revolution in painting, yet his work maintains the stolid architectural grandeur (and sloe-eyed otherworldliness) of art from the eastern empire.  According to Vasari, Cimabue was Giotto’s master, and although scholars have disputed it based on enigmatic sentences in ancient documents, artists accept it as truth because there is so much of Cimabue in Giotto’s works. This painting originally hung in the Vallombrosians church of Santa Trinita in Florence (Cimabue was a Florentine).

Although the Madonna and Roman-philosopher-attired Baby Jesus (and their bevy of dusky angels with ultramarine/scarlet wings) are quite grand, my favorite part of the composition is the giant strange ivory throne they are seated upon and the Old Testament prophets arrayed along the bottom.  From left to right these are Jeremiah, Abraham, David (see his little crown), and Isaiah.  They are reading and writing in phylacteries and the two prophet prophets, Jeremiah and Isaiah are looking up at the messiah, a sight they never beheld, yet beheld before all others.

I’m sorry for the paucity of posts this month.  To mark the end of the somewhat disappointing two thousand teens (the teens? the ’10s? how do we even write out that decade?), I have been in a seasonal creative slump.  This brown mood might not be solely a reaction to the lackluster decade (and the troubling path of ignorance and excess which humankind currently seems to be set upon), but also a reaction to the death of my first artistic mentor, my mother’s mother Constance Fay Pierson (April 24, 1927 to December 7, 2019).

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Grandma has a competently written obituary in the Weston Democrat which outlines her life of education and travel (although sweeping stories of Somalia, the Congo, Kenya, Italy, and Indonesia during the ’40s, ’50s, and ’60s were obviously more thrilling to hear about in person). Likewise, the writer has indicated the primacy which family had in Grandma’s world by the simple expedient of naming everyone in her immediate lineage (although it is too bad that the pets Johnny, Flash, Muffy, & Pharaoh didn’t get a shout out, since they were family too). However, neither the obituary nor the eulogies at the funeral have done justice to Grandma’s creative and artistic life.  Since her encouragement, patronage, and teaching were instrumental to my own life path, I would like to share some of her lessons with you.

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The vivid beauty of the places she went was enormously important to Grandma Connie, and she was always remarking upon the unique characteristics of the clouds, the trees, the waves or the hills of a particular place at a particular time.  Grandma could paint and she made charming alla prima paintings of the places she went and the things which were most striking to her (I have included a picture of a North African dhow above and a road in Central Africa a few paragraphs below…but alas, I don’t know the dates).  She also had a deep love of the the sculptures of the ancient Mediterranean world, the illuminated manuscripts of the Middle Ages, and, above all, the paintings and drawings of Italy and France.  Since she lived outside Washington, we would go look at those works at the National Gallery or the Walters Museum when I was visiting her as a child.

Grandma showed me how she painted and she bought me my first real paint set at an art store outside of Annapolis. She made sure I had each of the fundamental necessary colors, cerulean, ultramarine, ochre, sienna, sap, Naples yellow, cadmium and alizarin red, white, and black…but when I also wanted a preposterous iridescent yellow with scintillant stuff in it, she bought that for me too.   It wasn’t so good for painting the Chesapeake Bay or the sky but it was great for portraying imaginary glowing dinosaurs or ancient divinities.

This was important because one of Grandma’s greatest talents was to see a boring hall and say”what if this hall was lined with suits of armor holding halberds and great swords?” or to look upon a squatly constructed house and say “it would be so beautiful if it had a cupola or a Gothic spire.” She could see things with her imagination!

Now nobody is likely to come along and build pagodas or widow’s walks upon the concrete & clapboard dime stores and garages of Clendenin, West Virginia, but the feasibility of such ideas was not necessarily the most important thing to Grandma. She loved the humor and the wild unpredictable joy of imagining such juxtapositions.

The secret key to endowing life with beauty and meaning is not necessarily lovely items or cross-referenced tomes, but observation first and then imagination–the rainbow-colored skeleton key which unlocks, well, everything.  In our world of store-bought imagination, everyone’s faces are glued to their computers & cell phones to see what color-by-numbers digital wonders Hollywood can whip up.  Grandma Connie always advocated looking at the beauty of the actual world, then, if such was insufficient for your amusement, she suggested juxtaposing it with fabulously dressed luminaries from all of world history or with amazing and beautiful animals.  If there was no actual ostrich just add one!

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At her funeral a stout bearded mountain man of West Virginia unexpectedly appeared and signed the mourning ledger. It was one of her students from when Grandpa was in Vietnam and Grandma was teaching high school French back in West Virginia.  He said “I never though of myself as a scholar, but Mrs. Pierson convinced me otherwise. I went to college because of her…and I majored in Romance languages!” Grandma would have been delighted to have influenced his lifepath towards scholarship, but she also would have been delighted by the unexpected juxtaposition of the man and the major.

We are going to need to mash a lot more unexpected ideas together if we are going to get anywhere. We need to make better use of our imaginations not just in art, but everywhere.  That is one of the major lessons of art!

I wish I could have written more about Grandma’s amazing life, or about the things we drew and talked about together.  I also wish I had told you more about her generosity, her erudition, or her elegance, but there is no time: I need to go draw some beautiful monasteries with the Tuscan moon…and some ichthyosaurs wearing feathered hats.  Grandma taught me that the beauty, significance, and grace of the past is never gone.  It lives on in art and can be summoned forth anew with additional creative enterprise.  The world’s beauty and the human imagination are both never-ending fountains of meaning and delight.  Thank you Grandma, for showing me his truth of art and life. Now to get to work on some never-seen juxtapositions to honor (and baffle) her spirit.

 

Let’s talk about the most difficult lesson I encountered in class in grade school. To be honest, I feel like I never really mastered it…or perhaps the lesson is still ongoing.  It might not just be me…

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“These are the times that try men’s souls…”

Although I had no natural affection for numbers, I was always successful at middle school because I read everything insatiably and yet still wanted to know more about existence.  School isn’t really set up to sate this desire (except for the IB program, which is amazing and would solve all of America’s problems in a generation if only it were adopted everywhere).  Sadly, success at school generally involves the same sort of things which bring workplace success: showing up on time, giving people the answers which they want to hear, and completing tedious busy-work tasks.   But, back then, I was competent enough at doing those things, because I knew it was mission critical to getting into a good college–which was the ultimate culmination of existence.

All of that is backstory for explaining the most difficult lesson I ever had in grade school. It is one which I still struggle with, because it involves some paradoxes at the heart of knowledge, meaning, and success.  It also bears on life’s true lessons (the fact that I was a bookish twerp lacking popular esteem was probably the true lesson of middle school, but it was extracurricular, whereas this particular failure was enshrined in a report card). Back in the 1980s I had a blithesome free-spirited art teacher.  She was a good art teacher and I still recall the assignments she gave (copying a bird exactly by means of a grid; making a random squiggle and then expanding it to be a drawing; watercolor on a wet paper; exactly copying a piece of money).  Her opinion was also valuable to me, as I am sure any good student (or 15-year-old boy with a pretty teacher) will understand.

Now I worked harder in art class than at any class because I loved it, but a lot of students regarded it as a sort of free period where they could chat, flirt, and maybe doodle a bit if they felt like it. Back in those days I was still smart and hard-working. At the end of the semester, it was time for grades, and the teacher gave us a last strange assignment: give yourself the grade which you feel is appropriate.  Now I was a 15 year old lad, but I had read enough fables to recognize a trap. “This must be a lesson in how to behave with modest decorum!” I gave myself a B plus, because, although I tried extremely hard (much harder than the louts who spent every class socializing), and although my drawings were better than most everyone else’s, I had never succeeded at the level which I wanted.  I could see every feather out of place on the sea eagle I drew (and the overworked beak with an unsatisfactory little hook).  I can still see that sea eagle, damnit.

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The oafs (who didn’t even complete the art assignments!) naturally gave themselves perfect marks.  I assumed that the degree to which I had tried (which was substantial) and my abilities as compared to my classmates (also substantial) would be recognized by the teacher who would correct everything into a familiar bell curve.  This was an unwarranted assumption.

The final report card revealed that the teacher gave us all the same grade we had given ourselves.  The teacher said: “art is about what you think of yourself!” My horrifying B+ became a finalized part of my permanent record! The oafs all got A pluses which they are probably still savoring (in workcamp, prison, General Electric, or the White House) to this very day.

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Anyway, I survived that 9th grade “B” in art class.  Thanks to my parents’ profound generosity and to my love for reading and writing (which was probably also a gift from my parents), I ultimately got out of school with a “golden ticket,” a degree with general honors from the University of Chicago!  Of course, instead of becoming a crooked hedge fund manager and basking in the world’s envy, I ripped up my ticket and I live as an insolvent artist.

“Art is what you think about yourself.” It is a terrible definition of art.  Yet it somehow passes muster in New York’s contemporary art scene which is more self-involved than a Kanye West song.  I have tried to master that sort of pure self-involvement (just look at this essay), yet I still can’t think of art as merely a solipsistic musing on self-identity (nor as a badge of hierarchical status).

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Success in America is defined as making a huge amount of money.  It is humorous how often people cite this completely inaccurate definition to explain things: “Oh it was my job” or “We made a great deal of money” as though this has anything to do with wisdom or knowledge or what is useful or right.  Society is having a great deal of trouble comprehending what is wise, useful, and right. I blame our education system (though perhaps I should instead blame artists…or myself).

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La belle Hortense (Francine Huot) acrylic

Here is some contemporary chicken art by Canadian painter, Francine Huot.  Huot was born in Chateau-Richer,  a town near Quebec City and she came to professional painting later in life, after raising a family and making a career as a nurse. 

Look at the splendid bravura lines of jagged red, white yellow and brown which form a ball of abstract calligraphic squiggles…which is somehow a perfect hen striding through the summer countryside.  Some paintings are filled with allusions, deeper meanings, and extraordinary portents of doom and glory.  This painting is not like that at all.  It is a beautiful swift impression of a chicken.  Yet its bravura freshness and speed also convey real feelings of the darting hungry energy of the poultry yard.  It is a lovely work of contemporary impressionism.  I wonder if Huot’s life as a nurse (a profession where one does extremely neccessary things with swift economy) influenced her life painting chickens with a flurry of swordsman’s brushstrokes!

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“Glove” (Wolf Silveri, ca. 2019) Photograph

As a known fish-themed artist, I like to keep an eye on what the world’s other fish-artists are up to (these are artists who draw/paint/sculpt fish…not artists who are fish).  A couple of day’s ago, the Washington Post ran a little miniature show of works by the photographer Wolf Silveri, who became fascinated by the melancholic seafood on display at the marketplace while he was buying dinner.  Silveri read that there will be more plastic than fish in the world’s oceans within the next few decades and he wanted to create a disturbing series of unnatural hybrids to reflect this unnatural state of affairs.

Fish are the center of my art right now (albeit in an extremely different way) and I have a history of making works out of garbage too, so I am deeply intrigued by Silveri’s compositions.  Yet I am also less than perfectly happy: these poor sea creatures seem more like sad props than like complex protagonists (as opposed to certain flatfish I could name).  Also the works seem less surreal than slapdash–but maybe that is a hazard of the photographer’s super-realistic medium (although the show’s title “We’ll Sea” also seems a bit facile).  Anyway, it is unsurprising for an artist to carp about a more successful artist, so I could be giving these pictures less credit than they deserve.  Above all, anything that makes people passionate about the tragedy overtaking our oceans is worthwhile.

Let me know what you think.  I am going to go work on some flounder art!

Not only is this World ocean Week, but it turns out today is National Doughnut Day!  What a week…

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Pancreatic Doughnut (Wayne Ferrebee, 2015), Oil on Panel

Before I was a dedicated flounderist, the dominant subject matter of my painting was doughnuts (I felt that the torus shape represented the universe/infinity, while the tiny size and sugariness of the confection made it a perfect representation of the hedonic nature of human aspirations).  Like all artists who change direction, I still have a few doughnut paintings I need to finish up.  Who knows what will happen to them? It is unclear if they will ever be finished…

However, I also have some finished paintings which I never showed anywhere or did anything with: they just hang around on my walls perplexing me.  To celebrate National Doughnut Day, kindly allow me to present one of my favorite of these previous generation paintings.  This is “Pancreatic Doughnut” which I painted in 2015.  There is a sugary sprinkled doughnut, a cherry-dip ice cream cone, and a strip of super-fatty bacon (which is glistening with blobs of oil just like a real strip of bacon).  These problematically sugary items are joined by a sinister bottle of rum and an alcohol molecule which looks like a friendly corgi but is definitely something more problematic.

The real thrust of the painting is found in the Congolese Mangbetu knife…a sinister hook which is about to plunge directly into the diseased pancreas in the bottom right corner of the picture.  Yet all is not lost.  Above the pancreas, an axolotl floats serenely like a translucent white angel.  Axolotls seem to possess the secret of regeneration.  Perhaps the grim effects of all of that metabolic damage and gastroenterologic mayhem could be undone…if only we could focus our efforts and our research on the right things instead of desperately trying to trap each other with addictive fixations.  It’s a dream of course, but thus do all great things begin.

Happy National Doughnut Day!

 

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The Sole Seed and the Space Ark (Wayne Ferrebee, 2019) Wood and Mixed Media

A month or so ago, I wrote a heartfelt post about humankind’s relationship with other living things and why I feel that our ultimate destiny lies beyond the Earth.  I am still thinking about how to say that message with all of the grace and power I can muster.  Everyone paying attention to current trends fears for the future of living things.  As humankind’s appetites grow exponentially we are bringing terrifying changes.  Yet humankind’s knowledge and abilities are growing too.   I hope you will read the post…or at least its Biblical-themed follow-up concerning the art of Noah’s ark.  in the meantime, I made a sculpture shaped like a flatfish to try to explain my conception in the non-linear language of symbols (coincidentally, flatfish are my symbol for Earth life with its hunger and deep beautiful sadness and with a known tendency to desperately snap at baited hooks).  There is the tree of life sprouting anew out of a battered ark and spreading seeds upon the cosmic wind (or are those pink stars?).  Above the ark is a mysterious figure which may be a symbol of our “life instinct” and our need to disseminate ourselves (or it may be a shrugging cartoonish new human–who can say?).  Interred in the crypt beneath the universe is the inverse reflection of the life instinct: our Thanatos death instinct (for we take it with us always, no matter where we go).  It is pictured as a strange human/lamprey mummy-thing writhing its gray fluke in its cramped chamber.

The cosmic fluke has a perplexed expression.  Perhaps it is less sure than I about the wisdom of venturing out into the unknown.  Or maybe it is just hungry…like all living things.

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