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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.

 

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There is one last annual task to be done (which I dread—which is why I put it off until the very last day of the year)—which is writing the 2018 obituaries.  Usually I use the last week of the year to write about people whose work was important to me or who were overlooked by big media outlets (which have a facile fascination with interchangeable movie stars and pop musicians). However, this year I lost somebody important to me, so the unmet artists, scientists, politicians, and celebrities who died in 2018 will have to find someone else to write tiny blurbs about their lives. I will only write one obituary, for my grandmother, Mary Rose Ferrebee (March 24th, 1927 – October 30, 2018).

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As a nation, we tend to regard the crazy fearless people of the frontier and the wild west as lost into the distant mythologized past…but for me, I got to live up-close and personal with such people: my grandparents!  Grandma Mary was indeed larger than life in such a fashion, but in an especially down-to-earth way which makes it hard to quantify the breadth of her legacy. Let me explain by giving you the portion of her biography I know about.

Mary Rose Ferrebee was born  (Mary Rose Jarvis) in Granny’s Creek, West Virginia in the late 1920s.  She had an adventuresome youth spent flouting conventional mores and stereotypes—a trend which culminated during the Second World War when she entered into a career in aviation manufacturing. She described this phase as when she was “Rosy the Riveter, painting the fluorescent yellow tips on [Grumman] Hellcats.” Coincidentally, it doesn’t sound like that glowing yellow Hellcat paint was especially wholesome, since health problems led her away from aviation and back to more traditional careers in short-order cooking, bartending, and cleaning.  It was also during this era when she met Grandpa Dencil, back from the war early, who courted her with a banana (a rare and precious commodity during the war). Grandma apparently said “I don’t want a banana I want the real thing!”  This high standard of honesty cemented their relationship, but it also sometimes led to tensions in an era when most people did not always express what was on their mind so openly.

The family traveled to the West Coast in the fifties (my grandfather decided to take up the, um, aerospace trade, painting missiles and ICBMs at Vandenberg), and then back to West Virginia where Grandma ran a bar/restraint/hotel (an inn, I guess).  All sorts of folks from all walks of life came through there (Senator Byrd even played his fiddle at the Henry Clay Hotel, back in the day), but usually it was local people having a drink, playing pool, and gossiping.

I remember many exciting things from the hotel, like listening to “Whiskey River” on the jukebox, playing pinball and video arcade games (the first of my childhood), and listening to the tales about the secret lives and strange fates of everyone in the county.  As the keeper of a public house in a small town, Grandma knew everything about everyone.  She also, you know, ran a bar in West Virginia and she sometimes had to deal with particularly unruly patrons breaking pool cues over each other’s heads (for which eventuality she kept a chrome .357 Magnum snubnose somewhere back behind the bar, in order to invite unwanted customers to go home).

Operating the town’s beer hall privileged Grandma with a profound grasp of people’s desires and weaknesses and while other people maybe would have used such knowledge to aggrandize and enrich themselves, or at least to twist the knife with cruel taunts, Grandma more-or-less accepted peoples’ appetites, eccentricities, and flaws as a part of the broader tapestry of life (which is not to say she didn’t spend a certain amount of time feuding with people who had disrespected her).  She was particularly blunt about sexual and bathroom matters and although this made me blush and blush as a child (and a teenager, and an adult…and now), it strikes me as a wise choice for living a more healthy and honest life.  I wonder how many people live miserable lives or die long before they should because society has convinced them that ever talking about such earthy concerns is somehow indecorous.

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Grandma always had time and resources for the people in her life…or for anyone who needed help.  Growing up I often recall my parents being able to make important purchases thanks to Grandma’s largesse, and she likewise bestowed homes, cars, tuition, and mortgage payments to other children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren.  Whenever I came to visit, she would give me cigar boxes of half-dollar pieces or rolls of two dollar bills from the bar safe.  There were many such presents and much praise, Not only was she enormously generous, she was also fearless and she always stood up for those who could not stand up for themselves .

After she retired, some disreputable folk down the river had a big ill-mannered fighting dog which ran around the river bottom snarling at people and forcing them to abruptly rush inside.  Since this included Grandma’s little grandchildren and great grandchildren (who would be seriously injured or killed by a dog attack), she asked the neighbors to keep the dog fenced up or at least tied-up, but they laughed at the request of a seventy-something woman and went back to drinking and doing whatever else they were doing.  One day these neighbors were in their backyard drinking, carousing, and ineffectually shooting at cans.  Grandma went over and asked if she could shoot some cans too.  They laughed and acquiesced, perhaps thinking to teach an old lady some pointers or to have a laugh at her attempts, whereupon she pulled out the trusty .357 and blew enormous magnum sized holes in the cans which they had not been hitting.  “Tie up that dog!” she said as she left, and this time her wishes were followed.

She was large (not to say fat) and strong and she also had that .357, which taken in combination with her maverick personality make her sound like an intimidating person, however I think anyone who knew her would characterize her foremost as kind and generous to excess (and also as fun and funny).  My mother would despair since she (Mom) would give my grandmother the gifts the latter wanted—fancy dishes, kitchen gadgets, or new towels or what have you—only for Grandma to give them away in turn.  Grandma, however, seemed to think that owning a bunch of junk was not really the principal fun of life—another laudatory perspective which we could all learn from. With characteristic generosity, she decided that, upon her passing, she would donate her mortal remains to science (the medical teaching hospital at WVU).  As she said “I sent so many people to college, that I decided I would like to go there myself.” Not only is this helping the family save some money (a final cigar box of cash), but it is helping a new generation of healers learn.  However, it robbed Grandma Mary of a fitting eulogy, which is why I am writing this.

Frankly though, Grandma never yearned for the fame and universal acclaim which other people pursue so doggedly. I don’t think Grandma thought of greatness as being all that great (perhaps she recognized that “great” people have money troubles, erotic misadventures, and go to the bathroom like all other people). Or to explain it better, I think she saw that every life was great to the person living it and the glowing esteem of the world was a sort of political trick, mostly unrelated to the actual important business of life like making sure people are fed, children are cared for, and the sick or infirm have somebody to look after them.

When I was a child, I thought it was normal to always live in a glorious golden halo of love where people tell you how great you are and give you things.  It is NOT the norm (thanks so much for the update, New York), but it always seemed like it, thanks to my family. Grandma Mary was an especially big part of that. I suspect everyone who knew her would say the same.

Grandma gave me so many things—big home cooked meals, toys, whatever book I wanted, tvs, video games, musical instruments, boxes of money, jewelry, a truck…you name it, and I took and took with both hands. But now that she is gone, it strikes me that what I would really like to have is her generosity, her warmth, her courage, and above all her loving heart (I think she would smile, too, to hear me still asking for more).  She was such a big part of the world that I never really thought about how it would be with her gone.  It is like the mountain or the forest or some other ancient & impervious force of nature vanished.  However, her love is still here with all of her family and friends (who are numerous).  Her tireless care, affection, and kindness are woven into the very fabric of existence, not like the ephemeral works of models, rappers, or tv charlatans, but in a truly integral way that sustains people for life and holds up the world.

Readers, I hope you don’t think I am ending on a down note for the new year.  Grandma lived life to the fullest, and it is up to us to do the same in this new year and in all the others to come. Her gifts of generosity and compassion could indeed be ours too, if we just muster the strength of character to give with such an open heart.

Good bye Grandma, I love you.

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Happy New Year! Welcome back to Ferrebeekeeper.  We’ll talk about the perils and sweet promises of 2018 later this week.  It is a year which offers much…assuming we can prevent complete political meltdown, war, and pestilential horror (and can manage our empty & overheating economy into something more useful). There is another election coming (thank goodness).  Innovation,experimentation, and exploration, though woefully underfunded, still continue.Here at the old blogstead, I am adding some new topics and leaving behind some older themes which are played out. Also, for my professional life, I am planning a big new art project and some exciting shows. So keep watching for details on all of these things!

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But first I want to start the year with a homily from my grandmother.  Grandma Ferrebee is (locally) famous for her kindness and generosity, but also for her earthy wit and her grasp of the barnyard fundamentals which underlay the (thin) veneer of society. Additionally, she ran a beer hall in rural West Virginia for decades so beneath the affable exterior is the cold steel required to run a small business of any sort, much less one with a lot of drunken hillfolk running amok.  I didn’t always appreciate her bucolic wisdom when I was younger (the scatological nature often struck me as unseemly) yet lately this fable seems uniquely apt. Here it is (paraphrased):

Once upon a time the organs of the body became embroiled in a noisy contest concerning which organ was preeminent and controlled the body.

The brain said “I am the seat of intellect and I direct all of the conscious and unconscious nervous impulses.  The limbs do what I say and the body responds to my commands. I alone can apprehend the future and create lofty abstruse thoughts of things beyond rude physicality.  I properly and truly rule the body.”

The heart then replied “I am the seat of emotions.  Your fears and joys…your hatred and yearning comes from me.  I am synonymous with love–eternal and sublime! Plus, on a more literal level, I pump the blood which make all of the organs function.  The heart is the center of a person and I am the most important organ.”  

Then, before any of the other organs could say their piece, the ass stopped working: the system filled up with shit and the whole body died.

It’s…uh..pithier when Grandma tells it with her West Virginia twang and her knowing looks, but I think I have conveyed the fundamental message.  It is a message we need to think about in our “United” States. This red/blue rubbish is useful for pundits, but poisonous for a functioning nation.  Our political parties of increasing furious ideological purity are becoming like some autoimmune illness. Ayn Rand Republicans who believe that a healthy and robust society can exist without a thriving middle class and contented workers (to say nothing of scientists, creative professionals, and technocrats) are deadly con-artists misleading us into disaster

Likewise democrats who split hairs over esoteric social manners, and carp forevermore on status conveyed by hereditary victimization left over from bygone eras have lost sight of the future as well.  We have a motto about how things are supposed to work.

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It is a dangerous time for our nation.  I am writing here about The United States, which I know best, but all of the great democracies are afflicted by a wave of strife and malaise…indeed the whole world is convulsed by change so rapid that only authoritarian nations are dealing with it at all (mostly by pilfering the till and building Potemkin cities).  We can talk about the larger ramifications of this in the coming year, but first we need to talk and listen instead of shouting slogans like we are in the cultural revolution or something.  Democracy is not inferior to whatever China calls its brand of oppressive authoritarianism, but we need some reforms to make it work right. And we need to be patient and compassionate with each other while this process happens.

Above all, we must remember that, just like in the story, society needs people of all sorts in order to function. The nation needs both the sharp-eyed riflemen from Kentucky and the shrewd-minded accountants from Montclair. The states are deeply heterogeneous but stand beside each other through any crisis–structural, cyclical, or natural. We are not the “Fiscally Independent and Selfishly Aloof States of America”. Our name is much finer than that. We need the brain and the heart (and everything else) to work together if we are going to move forward…or even survive (for with a vastly greater population, our margins for error have shrunk).  Also we need to go back and think symbolically when we look at this story and not just put the ass in control.

One of my readers commented about how much she enjoyed the fact that my “Swarm of Ideas” cloud ends with the words “Space Turkeys”, two very different topics which seem to be elided because apparently I write about turkeys as much as I write about the vast cosmos.  Well, I don’t have any stories about space turkeys, but I did have a rocket turkey back when I was ten.

Bronze Turkey Tom

My family had no luck raising our first batch of turkeys, which had been semi-feral specimens obtained from a disreputable stockman.  We next obtained a single pair of bronze turkeys, which are august and splendid birds.  The hen, Brown Sugar, was our favorite bird ever.  She would steal up to visitors, lay her head on their knees, and make delicate purring peeps of happiness as they stroked her iridescent feathers.  Unfortunately the tom turkey, Biff, went a bit…off and started attacking everything red.  Bronze toms are big: Biff probably weighed 50 pounds.  Since our chicken shed was red (as was my mother’s coat) the situation deteriorated and Thanksgiving time found us with only the hen turkey.  Brown Sugar was lonely, so next spring we ordered a large batch of bronze turkeys from the mail, and the flock of adorable little turkey chicks imprinted on me and followed me around field and hill as they grew to full size.

As all of this was happening, I was first tasting the joys of model rocketry.  Rocketry kits pictured a seductive spaceship ripping through the heavens, but when you opened the package what you got was a lot of unfinished balsa wood, some derelict cardboard tubes, a cheap plastic cone, and an immense fold-out sheet of finicky instructions.  You had to provide your own craft glue, exacto knife, and spray paint.  Anyway, I visited Grandma that year and prevailed upon her generosity and craftiness to participate in my new craze. Together she and I built a “Starship Vega” (it was mostly Grandma who built it, since I lacked the patience to properly set the fins).  But, when we went to launch it we discovered that the launching pad came separately!  For months thereafter, the glorious Starship Vega set on a shelf, taunting me. I had to wait till my grandparents visited the farm and brought me a birthday present before I could launch the thing.

The Starship Vega: except mine was spray painted the same burgundy as the family station wagon and had no decals (they all ripped or stuck together).

At launch time, turkey-raising collided abruptly with model rocketry. My flock of hand-raised bronze turkeys rushed over to see what my family was up to, and they were particularly curious about the rocket launch pad.  They kept sidling up to the pad just as I was done counting down, forcing me to initiate safety procedures, remove the launch key (yes Estes provided a safety key), and run onto the launch field to shoo away my turkeys.  Finally I got them all away from the miniature spaceship except for my favorite turkey, the dominant tom, Guy Smiley.  Guy was once again closing in on the launch pad, but still within a roughly safe distance.  All the other turkeys too started edging nearer.  The sun was beginning to head down.  I would never get a better chance.  I pushed the button.

My rocket leaped into the sky with a mighty hiss and a great white gunpowder cloud.  Poor Guy Smiley also leapt into the air.  He weighed over 40 pounds so it must have been a dreadful shock that propelled him up above our heads.  When he landed his poor head was a ghastly yellow (turkeys’ moods can be read by their head and wattle color, but this was the only time one turned yellow) and he uttered a weak croak before fainting and slumping into a heap.

In the mean time my rocket had turned into a distant twinkle above the cornfields.  Would the shoot deploy?  It did!  But unseen wind currents carried the spent vehicle far away, over the Amish neighbors’ cornfield.  I ran desperately, but it was no good—a botched recovery! For hours, I searched the August corn, until my mom called me in, but the Starship Vega was gone for good.  Only months later did a report emerge:  the Amish kids found it, and unable to comprehend the finer points of rocketry, crushed it to bits.

Pictured: The Right Stuff?

What about the poor swooning Guy Smiley?  Less ardent rocket enthusiasts among my family rushed to his aid, but he was already recovering.  After fifteen minutes of quivering, blanching, and muttering odd strangled chirps, he recomposed himself entirely.  His head grew ruddy again, his tail fanned up, and he strutted around the other turkeys with greater vanity then ever–having alone braved the noble pursuit of the heavens.  The incident also cemented my parents’ affection for Guy Smiley.  The other toms from our flock all eventually encountered the block and the axe, but, like Brown Sugar, Guy is buried under the old apple tree with my other beloved childhood pets.

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