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Ferrebeekeeper has a longstanding obsession with Gothic concepts and forms.  We have explored the long strange historical roots of the Goths (which stretched back to the time of the Roman Empire and the northern corners of Europe), and looked at Gothic aesthetics ranging from clocks, to beds, to gates, to houses, to alphabets, to cathedrals.  Today’s Gothic-themed post straddles the divide between literature and architecture.  We already saw such a two discipline dynamic at work with the beginning of the Gothic revival, an aesthetic movement which grew up out of a popular novel The Castle of Otranto.

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The term “Steamboat Gothic” is sort of a reverse case.  In 1952, Frances Parkinson Keyes published “Steamboat Gothic” a long-winded romantic novel about the lives and loves of a riverboat gambler and his progeny as they pursue their fortunes over generations beside the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers.  After the novel came out the great 19th century wedding cake mansions of columns and porches which stood along these rivers came to be known as “steamboat gothic.”  This beautiful filigree style was thought to resemble the many tiered decks of great southern steamboats from the belle epoque of river travel.

Steamboat Color Litho Oval Color Cooled Down

Many different Victorian design trends come together in “steamboat gothic”–the Italianate, Gothic revival, and Carpenter’s Gothic mix together with style trends like Greek revival and “nautical.” The mixture simultaneously evokes the beauties of classical antiquity, the ante-bellum south, and 19th century middle America.

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Look at these beautiful porches and porticoes.  I wish I were on the veranda of one of these beauties sipping lemonade and looking out over the river (although really I would probably be being bitten by mosquitoes as I desperately painted yet another layer of snow white paint on a big empty house).

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Hunter/Jumper (Wayne Ferrebee, 2016, colored pencil and ink)

I don’t know what happened but the drawings in my little book seem to have a country/horsey theme lately.  Above is an equestrian jumping over some weird antiques in the middle of a nebula.

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Provincial (Wayne Ferrebee, 2016, colored pencil and ink)

Here are some down-home characters (maybe corporate mascots?) annoying a hard-working farm woman and a quail.

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The Gate (Wayne Ferrebee, 2016, colored pencil and ink)

This is a vignette sketch of the eminent bar in Park Slope.

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Dawn Horse, Culture Vulture, Doughnut Man, & Princess (Wayne Ferrebee, 2016, Colored Pencil and ink)

I guess this is about unwholesome sugary treats maybe?  Frankly I have no idea–I am as surprised and perplexed as the vulture, however I like the expressions on the animals.  The dawn horse looks so pleased.  They usually look scared.

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Horse Treats (Wayne Ferrebee, 2016, Colored Pencil and Ink)

This horse just looks pleased to be presented with such an array of treats.  I think that gray block is a salt lick. I need to draw more horses.  They are pretty but they are not an easy subject!

A crane-type construction vehicle

A crane-type construction vehicle

In addition to writing your favorite blog (:)) I am also a toymaker with a leather apron, a droopy mustache, and the desire to build impossible wonders to delight and amaze the world. Way back in 2011, I put up pictures from my upcoming book “Things that Go: Green & Groovy” which was a guide for building amazing toy vehicles out of common household rubbish, wooden wheels, and craft paint.  Some of the vehicles were really cool!  I turned common garbage into nifty-looking vehicles…albeit ones which did not run on their own (I was sort of like Fiat or Kia).

A missile cruiser!

A missile cruiser!

Alas! As usual, my creativity was no match for the sinister vagaries of the world economy.  There were sourcing/pricing problems in China, regulatory fights, and goodness only knows what other sorts of business headaches for my poor publisher.  The publisher had hoped to alloy the positive aspects of the toy business together with the uplifting aspects of book publishing (toys are sold directly to retailers, whereas books, nightmarishly, are sold by consignment).  Her good intentions were thwarted at every turn and she learned directly about the anti-competitive forces the large toy companies utilize to prevent products from small companies from ever reaching market (something I learned about when I made “Zoomorphs”).  All of this happened during the great crisis in the world of publishing. Gosh!

A planetary space base!

A planetary space base!

Anyway, what this means is my cool book has still not made it to the shelves.  This strikes me as particularly ironic, since I was continually goaded to build faster—and I turned out all of the many, many toy vehicles at a staggering pace.  I thought I would share a few more of these vehicles with you here on my blog so that at least somebody gets to enjoy them!  Also to build buzz I guess?

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Maybe the vehicle book will happen someday, but in the mean time I have other toy projects…and other writing projects…and other art projects.  Keep watching this space to see those projects–they are going to be amazing!  Also let me know if you need any directions on how to build a miniature cardboard wheelbarrow before the book launches in sometime in the unknowable world of the far future.

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So, over the holidays I gave some coloring books to my friends’ daughter.  It was gratifying to see how the coloring books, by grace of being the last presents of Christmas Day, stole her attention from the electronic doodads and the flying fairy which could actually fly (although, as a toymaker, I am still thinking about that particular toy).  In gift-giving, as in gymnastics, going last is a position of strength!  The little girl, who is four, graciously let me color one of the illustrations–a sacred elephant which was composed of magical spirit beings from Thai mythology–which I colored in fantastical fluorescent hues (while she colored her way through a collection of amazing animals from around the world).  As we were coloring, the adults at the party made various observations about coloring—about who colored inside the lines and what it indicated about their personality and so forth.

From Dover's "Thai Decorative Designs" Coloring Book amazing

From Dover’s “Thai Decorative Designs” Coloring Book amazing

I think my elephant turned out pretty well (although since, I failed to take a picture, you’ll just have to believe me).  Also I think my friend’s daughter was inspired to try some new techniques—like darkening the edges of objects.  It also seemed like she tried to pay more attention to the lines.

The experience took me back to my own childhood when I loved to color coloring books, especially with grandma or mom (both of whom had a real aptitude for precise coloring).  However I was also reminded of being deeply frustrated by the books on several levels as a child.  First of all, I was exasperated by my traitorous hands which would not color with the beautiful precision and depth that the adults could master.  I always saved the best picture in coloring books for later when I was grown up and could color it as beautifully as I wanted it to be colored.  As far as I know, these pictures all remain uncolored—somewhere out there is that 1978 Star Trek coloring book picture with all the crazy aliens, just waiting for me to come back with my Prismacolor pencils and nimble adult fingers and finally make it look good…

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Most importantly, I was frustrated that the most amazing pictures—the ones that were exactly as I wanted them to be–were not in the coloring books at all.  You have to make up the ones you really want and draw them yourself.

Aesthetics have gone wrong—it has been taken over by charlatans who cannot think up good pictures.  Instead today’s marquis artists are obsessed only with provocatively going outside the lines.  Like the kid in first grade who always did what he thought would be shocking, this quickly becomes tiresome.   Additionally, I think we all discovered that the “shock value” kid was easily manipulated.  So too are today’s famous artists who all end up serving Louis Vuitton (I’m looking at you, Takashi Murakami) or other slimy corporate masters who simply want free marketing.  Art and aesthetics should be more than ugly clickbait!  Our conception of beauty shapes are moral conception of society and the world. Therefore my New Year’s resolution is to be a better painter… and to explain myself better.  Next year I promise to write more movingly about beauty, meaning, and humankind’s place in the natural world (which I have finally realized is the theme of my artworks).    Avaricious marketers and art school hacks are not the only people who can take to the internet to explain themselves!

Takashi Murakami 7

Takashi Murakami 7

And of course there will be lots of amazing animals and magnificent trees and exquisite colors and crazy stories from history (and we will always keep one eye on outer space).  The list of categories over there to the left is becoming restrictive!  It’s time to bust out and write about all sorts of new things!  Happy New Year! 2015 is going to be great!  Enjoy your New Year’s celebrations and I’ll see you back here next year!

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The seventeenth century polymath Robert Hooke was immensely influential in popularizing science.  His seminal work Micrographia, published in 1665 was the first scientific book to become a best seller.  In the volume, Hooke described various plants, animals, and manufactured objects as seen through his hand crafted microscope.  Crucially, the book contained vivid and detailed engravings which allowed the public to see what Hooke had seen. Many of the illustrations folded out to become larger than the book thus further emphasizing the nature of microscopy.  Hooke was the first to coin the word “cell” because he thought that the constituent components of plant tissues resembled monk’s cells.  By changing the way that people apprehended the world Micrographia laid the foundation for the amazing microbiological discoveries of Antonie van Leeuwenhoek.  In addition to biological specimens, Hooke included illustrations of objects like the sharpened ends of needles and pins (which looked blunt under his microscope’s magnified lenses).  This helped the general public to comprehend how truly different the microscope’s vantage point is from that of the naked eye.

A page from the Huntington Library's copy of Micrographia (photo by lemurdillo)

Micrographia also contains Hooke’s speculations concerning combustion, which he (correctly) believed involved combining a substance with air. Hooke further posited that respiration involved some key ingredient of air–and he was thus well on the way towards discovering oxygen.  Unfortunately these ideas were not well understood by the seventeenth century scientific community.  Hooke’s contemporaries were also challenged by his assertion that fossils (such as petrified wood and ammonites) were the remains of living creatures which had become mineralized.  Hooke reached this conclusion based on microscopic study of fossil specimens and he believed that such fossils afforded clues about the history of life on the planet—including the history of species which had died out.  Needless to say such concepts were challenging to the theological community of the time.

A fold-out engraving of a flea from Micrographia

I am writing about Hooke because I saw an original copy of Micrographia at the Huntington Library in San Marino, California (I wrote about their exquisite gardens in the last post).  The book was part of a remarkable collection of original scientific books and documents, which was itself a part of a larger repository of rare books, handwritten letters and original manuscripts. The Huntington holdings include a Guttenberg bible, a fifteenth century illuminated manuscript of the Canterbury Tales, and innumerable original printings, correspondences, and manuscripts. I chose to highlight Hooke’s work because I have always been fascinated by how different the world looks through a microscope (above is Hooke’s engraving of a flea’s features–which can be compared with an earlier post about contemporary electron microscopes) however the real epiphany I took from viewing the collection was a larger one.  Even before the internet came to act as a sort of hive mind for humankind, we had a collective memory and source of communication—the printed word.   In addition to its magnificent gardens, the Huntington reminded me of how that worldwide shared network of ideas slowly developed. Viewing the bibliophile’s treasure trove at the Huntington library demonstrated the continuing purpose of libraries as museums and places of thought and discovery– even in a world where the entire text of a rare book like Micrographia can be found online.

A visitor regards a reproduction of Hooke's microspcope next to the Huntington's copy of Micrographia (From "Case Study of an Exhibition" by Karina White)

Two weeks ago I was back at my Alma Mater, the University of Chicago.  As a special treat I got to go on a tour of the nearly finished Mansueto Library book depository, which is being built as an addition to the Regenstein library. The Mansueto depository is housed in a lovely oval dome made of glass, but the real heart of the library is five stories underground, where a huge steel rack holds thousands of uniformly sized metal boxes.  These boxes are indexed in a computer database.  When the depository is finished, these boxes will be filled with books and periodicals of the same size (to create maximum efficiency).  Once a reader requests a book, huge robot cranes mounted on metal rails (in the fashion of trains) will zip to the correct box and route it to an industrial elevator up to the surface world. The Mansueto depository will hold 3.5 million books.

A Cross Section Diagram of the Mansueto Book Repository

The Regenstein library, a huge brutalist limestone building on 57th street, already houses 4.4 million books.  A large part of the library’s charm is the easy- to-browse stacks: if you wish to look up 8th century Byzantine emperors you can find an entire shelf of books about them. Scholars and students appreciate the unexpected discoveries and ideas which spring from such an arrangement (although I spent far too much time in the Regenstein browsing increasingly off-topic books which called out to my fancy). The librarians in charge of the Mansueto project did not wish to sacrifice this aspect of the stacks, so the Mansueto will largely house periodicals and academic journals (which aren’t easy to browse without an index anyway).  Books about related subjects will continue to be grouped together in a fashion visible to library patrons.

The Mansueto Depository takes shape beside the Regenstein Library

My tour group was one of the last groups of people allowed down into the Mansueto depository. Once the staff starts moving books into it, the cranes will be active and the space will become dangerous.  Then only technicians and service professionals will be allowed down into the temperature and humidity controlled space. Before seeing the apparatus, I kind of imagined the library as being like a computer browser: one types in a title and the relevant information magically appears. But the tour revealed how naïve such thinking was.  The robot workings of the huge depository were amazing to behold and their scale was unnerving. Serious and remarkable engineering went in to the building of the complex–which reminded me less of a library and more of the modernized steel foundry which I visited many years ago.  Like that foundry, the underground compound had the unearthly feeling of a place humans aren’t really meant to be in.  The scale of everything was wrong. The shelves were inhumanly large whereas the walkways were too small to be comfortable.  The dry cold air smelled of steel and electronics.  Yellow warning signs were inscribed all around the huge motionless robot librarians and it was easy to imagine them springing to life and going on a crushing rampage.

A Robotic Crane in the Mansueto Depository

Here is a colleague beside the metal shelves to give you a sense of scale

When the Mansueto is full, the Regenstein will be the largest collection of books under the same roof in North America. It may be one of the last edifices of its kind. Digital information is supplanting traditional printed books and magazines everywhere, and I feel a bit as though I am describing the scroll repositories of the library of Alexandria (even if I’m actually describing a state-of-the-art triumph of robotics). I hope the digital revolution does not undo printing and libraries to the extent that has been forecast.  Standing in the beautiful dome and looking out at the gothic campus I felt like I was visiting a future built around books rather than a dreary future without them.

The Gothic Buildings of the University of Chicago Quads seen from the Mansueto reading room

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