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Cockerel Cycle and French Cruller (Wayne Ferrebee, 2014, oil on panel)
It’s National Doughnut Day! To celebrate, here are two paintings from my Microcosmic Doughnut Series. Topologists and astrophysicists posit that our universe has a toroid shape—so I have combined my disparate background in history, toymaking, natural history, and Flemish-style painting to craft doughnut-shaped microcosms. Within these intricate cosmological confections, people and animals from throughout time converge in a never-ending circle—in the manner of the water cycle, the Krebs diagram, or an ouroboros. Thus the individual elements in these paintings not only have metaphorical significance, they are also part of a dynamic larger picture. Each landscape of dynamically intertwined symbols represents the cycles within individual life, history, or biology. Each little doughnut painting is its own self-contained world; yet, taken in aggregate, the individual stories of predators and prey, metabolism, historicism, world trade, or biorhythms of organisms signify even larger cycles of creation and destruction not readily discernible from the fixed perspective of an individual life. For example, the one above is about a classical French bon-vivant…or maybe it is about frogs or about cocks or chicken eggs. There is also a fertility aspect to it (not to mention a French cruller in the middle).
Furnace Doughnut (Wayne Ferrebee, 2015, oil on panel)
This second painting is less easily explained. A variety of brightly colored synthetic organisms fly up out of a baker’s furnace. Above the mysterious swarm, a humanoid figure in an asbestos suit and a blue-hot dragon spray fire on a salamander which basks in the radiant pure energy. Blue-black gothic stoves dance around beneath the centerpiece of the composition: a glowing lava doughnut congealing out of the primal kitchen…or is it just a delicious glazed doughnut with chocolate icing and an orange squiggle? The whole scene makes me hungry for cheap baked pastries…and for raw creation. Now I’m off to paint some more. Let me know what you think (and enjoy Doughnut Day with your loved ones).
Ferrebeekeeper is always chasing down where domesticated plants and animals originally came from. Bananas are from Malaysia and New Guinea. Quinces are from the Near East. Goats are from Crete and Iran. Turkeys seem to have come from Mesoamerica. Pigs are from Eurasia (sometimes these sites are somewhat less than specific). All of this leads to the question of what came from here? Are there any domesticated animals from eastern North America? Are there any domesticated plants that didn’t come from Eurasia or Africa or some tropical wonderland? It is autumn and the answer is right outside. All domesticated sunflowers everywhere descend from a variety originally native to the woodlands in the central east of North America. Some of the earliest archaeological finds of domesticated sunflowers come from 3000 to 3500 year old sites in Illinois, Arkansas, Kentucky, and Tennessee. Of course answers as to what happened thousands of years ago in societies which did not leave written records are always open to debate and to new findings—so a subset of archaeologists think that sunflowers too were first domesticated in the great temple societies of Mesoamerica. But until they come up with truly conclusive evidence let’s say the useful yellow plants are from Arkansas.
Sunflowers are a genus (Helianthus) of approximately 70 species of tall aster flowers (asters are a family of flowering plants which include cornflowers, periwinkles, cosmos, and lots and lots of other flowers which I have not written about). Domesticated sunflowers (H. annus) are annuals which grow to 3 meters (9.8 ft) tall in a growing season. According to my sources, the tallest sunflower on record somehow grew to a height of 9 meters (30 feet), which I find implausible (though I would dearly like to see such a thing). Sunflowers spend their energy on growing a full head of large oily seeds. The head of a sunflower is a complex and botanically interesting combination of different sorts of flowers growing together. The “petals” are produced by sexually sterile flowers which fuse their petals into an asymmetrical ray flower. A whole ring of these peculiar flowers surround the inner head, where individual disk flowers are oriented in mathematically complex relations to each other (seriously, try drawing the head of a sunflower and you will soon appreciate the peculiar juxtaposition of simplicity and complexity going on in the form).
Sunflowers were first imported to Europe in the 16th century. They have become commercially important in the modern world largely because of their inexpensive high-quality oil (although the seeds are roasted, milled, baked, and otherwise made into every sort of foodstuff you could think of). Young sunflowers do track the sun across the sky during the day, but they swiftly lose this ability as their buds open.
The sunflower has garnered a vast variety of spiritual, aesthetic, and cultural meanings as it moved around the world and became one of humankind’s favorite crops. However nearly every culture is inclined to associate it with joy, beauty, abundance, and the sun. They are wonderful plants.
Here is a simple but extremely lovely small still life painting by Hendrick Andriessen, a Flemish Baroque painter who specialized in “vanitas” paintings. The entire composition is designed to remind the viewer how transient human life is. The fragile pipe stems are easily broken (and tobacco’s pleasure is brief and tainted). Each lovely cut flower withers away, The quivering flame is blown out…and nothing represents the dreadful onrushing nature of death like a human skull. At the apex of the composition is a fragile bubble ready to burst.
As summer ends, this composition seems fitting in many ways (for example it was my birthday this past weekend). Additionally, the bubble has symbolic significance in other realms than art. We all knew the China bubble had to pop…..
Joos Van Cleve was active in Antwerp from 1511 to 1540. His winsome figures have a delicacy and elegance which is somewhat in contrast to the earthier figures of Flemish painting. He was also a pioneer in putting large decorative landscapes behind his figures (although, to my eyes his landscapes are much inferior to landscapes by the greatest artists of the previous generation—like Bosch and Patinir). In a way Van Cleve’s great innovation was combining the elegance and color of French art, the ecumenical breadth of Flemish painting, and the verisimilitude of Italian painting. This magnificent picture of the Virgin and Child with Angels rewards close scrutiny. You should blow up the image (for this is a huge file) and enjoy the appealing little details such as the deer woven into the rug, the tart summer cherries which a footman is offering to Mary, and the same footman’s studded jerkin!
Of course Van Cleve was not the peerless master that some of his more well-known contemporaries were and he sometimes overreached. Looking at the less-than-perfect curly-haired angel in the acid-color jerkin gives me hope for my own career as a painter (whereas sometimes the works of Raphael and Perugino leave me in despair about ever picking up a brush).
Through the dark and improbable marketing magic of the Big Baking industry, today is National Donut Day (or possibly “National Doughnut Day” depending on how classical your tastes in pastry spelling are). Donuts are sweet snacks usually made of deep-fried flour dough. The traditional doughnut is ring shaped, probably because that is a very efficient way to make and evenly fry such a pastry (if the cake was a sphere or a disk, there would be uncooked dough in the middle), however there are also rod-shaped doughnuts, crème filled donuts, crullers, bearclaws, and heavens only knows what else! Donuts have a creation myth wherein a magnificent Dutch sea captain who loved pastries was piloting his galleon through a towering storm. The mariner was unwilling to let his ship sink and his crew perish, but he was equally unwilling to forgo the pleasure of fried pastries for even one moment, so he stuck the donuts on the ship’s wheel so he could devour them as he faced off against Poseidon. I say this is a myth because it seems likely that donuts predate the Dutch. They were probably invented by Sumerians in equally trying but now unknown circumstances. It’s still a great story though! I have heard that law enforcement officers have their own secret donut creation myths, but, since I am not a policeman these sacred traditions have never been vouchsafed to me. Maybe if you ask any of our friends in blue about this, you should be very circumspect…
Ferrebeekeeper has an immoderate fascination with toruses which stems from a peculiar combination of aesthetic, mathematical, and mystical factors. In my personal world of symbolism, the universe itself is a torus (it seems like it might well really be a torus, but our understanding of such matters is incomplete). The most familiar torus here on our Newtonian scale is the humble–but delicious & multitudinously variable—donut! So I paint lots of symbolic microcosmic paintings of donuts. I was amassing a whole wall of them, but I started to sell some so that I don’t have to live on the streets. Maybe they will be worth a bunch of money someday…. You could do me a huge favor and say exactly that to the art world professionals whom you meet in your life!
I have already put up photos of some of these doughnut paintings on this blog here and here (to say nothing of the painting of a toroid honey bundt cake which serves to represent the entire blog). In celebration of National Donut Day, here are two more Wayne Ferrebee original oil paintings (well, digital photographs of the same). The painting at the top is grandiloquently titled “There is Nothing Suspicious About these Glowing Treats in the Ocean Depths.” Three magnificent sugary donuts glowing within drift among the happy denizens of the deep ocean. A friendly anglerfish proffers a funny lure, while a near-eastern ewer drifts toward the ocean bottom. A glass squid with orange dots scuttles past the scene. In the murky background a passing shadow resolves into another friendly creature of some sort. A cynical & world-wary viewer might interpret the work as some sort of warning about impossible things that are too good to be true, but the enlightened art-lover recognizes it as an evocation of benthic wonders!
The second donut painting here is a very tiny painting (4 inches by 4 inches–so smaller than the image onscreen) which concerns the micro-world beneath us. It is appropriately titled “Cell Donut.” Against a dark magenta background, a courtly mummer performs some sort of dance/pantomime for a paramecium and a clutch of glowing eggs (or possibly cells). A diagrammatic cell is in the lower right corner with all the color and complexity of a future city.
I took a course in cell-biology one and in the first moments, as the biochemist started writing out the molecular processes of respiration, it hit me that the drama at a cellular level is, if anything, more intense and complicated than the goings on at our familiar human-size frame of reference. “Cell Donut” is meant to remind us that the real rewards and perils are within us already–for in the microsphere within our bodies, billions of cells are fighting, metabolizing, reproducing, and recycling with maddening vigor and ceaseless action. Also the tiny donut in the middle of the painting is a classic plain donut…an ideal symbol for national Donut Day (as opposed to some of my other dozens of donut paintings, which can often be quite baroque, phantasmagorical, or strange…or are just straight-up bagels!)
I hope you enjoy these paintings, and I also hope you manage to drop by the bakers to enjoy a well-deserved donut or two!
Note: No matter what I do, or how I try, I cannot get these paintings to display properly! It is obvious that Word Press hates me and hates my artwork, despite the fact that I have essentially been working for them for free for half a decade. I’m afraid you’ll have to click on the paintings in order for them not to appear all hideously cropped and mutilated as they look above. [sotto voce] mutter mutter…should have chosen “Blogger”…mutter, curse… “never “Fresh Pressed”… grumble grumble.
Happy Saint Patrick’s Day! Last week’s post about Kelly green did not seem like enough to celebrate that vivid and timely hue, so here is a little still life painting I made long ago back when I was painting small collections of household objects. The symbolic import of the painting is unclear, but, thanks to its color palette, it certainly has a Saint Patrick’s Day feel. Protestant orange is condensed into a small glowing sphere—an orange star? A gumball? An eye? Two electric fuses of brass and muted green sit nearby. The majority of the composition is dedicated to a silk handkerchief filled with horrors and delights. Upon the glowing green field, a golden ring glistens evocatively next to a small bottle of some unknown elixir or extract. But beware: beside these ambiguous treasures a tiny orange scorpion lurks–waiting for the unwary hand. To me the composition has always seemed like what a person would find inside a leprechaun’s pockets if one were foolish enough to look there. Or maybe these are purchases from a derelict gumball machine which someone kept pumping quarters into in fading hopes of getting something better…
I’m sorry we have been stuck on the lugubrious story of Oisín and Niamh for so long. To make up for it, here is one of my own paintings…and it isn’t just any painting: in fact it is a special painting which symbolically represents this blog. If you let your eye wonder through the composition, you will recognize many of the familiar themes and topics of ferrebeekeeper. Space is represented by a golden planet with Saturn-like rings, and by a rocket. Additionally, the entire composition takes place in outer space (as does everything–if you think about it). Against a backdrop of nebulae and swirling galaxies a domestic turkey takes wing and a school of belemnites (long vanished mollusks which are related to squid, octopuses, and cuttlefish) use their own jet propulsion to swim among the stars. A blue Chinese ewer made of porcelain floats in the bottom left corner beneath a swarm of eusocial bees which are issuing from a gothic beehive on the back of a great green river catfish. The goddess Hecate, the strangest and most evocative chthonic deity of ancient Rome brandished torches and a venomous serpent. Growing in the nothingness beside the witch goddess, a poisonous monkshood represents gardens (and poisons). In the center of the composition is a fearsome Andrewsarchus—the largest mammalian land predator. The mighty (albeit extinct) beast bears an ornate cobalt cake plate with a great glistening honey bundt cake. The wheat in the cake represents agriculture (as do the turkey and the bees), but beyond that, the cake’s toroid shape hints at larger cosmological mysteries. Taking a step back, the painting is composed of colors and it is itself visual art, the symbolic representation of humankind’s enduring search for meaning.
I suspect that ever since the color of the year was announced to be radiant orchid, my readers have only been asking themselves one question: “Are there any purple catfish?” There are many imaginary purple catfish in the arts and in fantasy (and in a world of fluorescent lights, all sorts of things can take on a lavender hint), but there is also a real purple catfish! Native to the clear flowing streams of Guyana, here is Centromochlus reticulatus, also known as the purple oil catfish or the driftwood cat.
Centromochlus reticulatus is a shy and retiring catfish which likes to hide by day in driftwood and come out at night to feed on whatever tiny invertebrates or other foodstuffs they can find. The adult fish are extremely tiny and measure only 1 inch (2.7 cm) in length. Like many little catfish, the fish may be shy and nocturnal but they are also social and friendly with each other. Indeed aquarists report that they can sometimes be seen coming out to feed in little pseudo-schools where they frisk and dance in happiness at being together. Their most distinctive traits are the handsome honeycomb spots on their backs, their long whiskers, and cute all-black eyes (which are covered in adipose tissue and “lack orbital rims”). Because they are so furtive, their wild range is somewhat unclear: although they are most common in Guyana’s Rupunun River, they reputedly also live in various nearby South American waterways (including the northeastern tributaries of the mighty Amazon).
The little fish are not exactly a Pantone dream color: younger fish are a demure purple/pink (although in older specimens the purple may fade somewhat). And yet I find the tiny lavender catfish to be very endearing.
A couple of years ago I was in a sumptuous private garden outside of San Francisco. The Mediterranean style garden was filled with gorgeous silvery trees bearing strange deep purple fruit. When I earnestly praised the trees to the garden’s owner, he looked surprised and informed me that they were olive trees. I was raised thinking olives were disgusting squishy things that came in jars. Only after moving to New York did I realize how varied and delicious they can be. I ran to the nearest tree and pulled off a ripe black olive and popped it into my mouth…and promptly involuntarily spat it out. The fruit was indescribably bitter and vile. “Oh there’s a process to preparing them for eating,” said the owner nonchalantly.
That was my first experience with a living olive tree (Olea europaea), one of the plants which appears most frequently in Western literature and art. In Greek, Roman, and Biblical writings, the olive has easy primacy over all of the other plants, fruits, trees and flowers (other than the life-giving grains). It is a defining symbol of Mediterranean culture and civilization.
There is a classical Greek myth about the creation of the olive tree. Poseidon and Athena both wished to be the patron deity of Athens. The dispute was becoming heated, but before it came to outright war, Athena proposed a contest: whichever deity could provide the most useful gift (as judged by Cecrops, the snake-bodied founder-king of Athens) would be the city’s special god. Poseidon presented his gift first. He raised his trident and brought it crashing down on the acropolis and a spring of water gushed into the air on the spot where the Erechtheion was later raised. The citizens were delighted—until they tasted the water and found it to be as salty as the ocean. Then Athena struck a great boulder with her lance. The rock split open and a beautiful tree with silver leaves grew in the spot—the first olive. Not only were the olives delicious, the oil was good for illumination, perfume, and cooking. The wood was made into votive statues and other useful things. The tree was drought resistant and tolerated brackish water. As always, Athena was victorious and the city was named in her honor.
Wild olives (oleasters) were used for oil, fuel, and wood for at least 19,000 years. It is unclear when they were first domesticated, but domestication happened in many different times and places (possibly from different wild antecedents). Domesticated olives are propagated through grafting and cloning—since seeds can yield undesirable strains. As I discovered in San Francisco, ripe raw olives are so bitter as to be inedible—they must be treated with salt or lye (!) in order to become acceptable to the human palate (although goats and cattle do not object to untreated olives). The oil obtained from crushed olives was far more important than the fruit itself. Olive oil is almost pure fat and is resistant to spoilage for longer than a year. Not only was it the great preservative of classical society, it was the basis of cuisine, medicine, personal grooming, perfume, and sacred ritual.
The oldest and most revered cult objects of ancient Greece, the mysterious xoana, were constructed of olive wood (although these strange sculptures were known to ancient authors, none have survived into modern times except as stone copies of the originals). In ancient Greece and Rome, victory—in games and in actual war–was denoted by a crown of wild olive leaves (also known as kotinos). Olive oil was equally sacred in the Levant where it played a part in Jewish sacrificial offering and priestly anointment. In the Bible, the olive is the first plant which the dove brings back to Noah as the flood resides—imagery which has become synonymous with peace. Ironically olive is also a dark yellow color (or a drab green) in universal usage by the militaries of the world thanks to the fact that it is not a color readily distinguished by human eyes and thus blends in with many sorts of terrain.
In the modern world olives have spread from the Mediterranean and now live on all continents except for Antarctica. Huge orchards of commercial olives can be found not only in Spain, Italy, Turkey, Greece and Israel, but also in South America, Africa, Australia and Asia (and the West coast of North America, obviously). In their new homes olives can be a nuisance. They are a serious invasive hazard in Australia and certain Pacific Islands. Because of their resistance to drought, they out-compete native plants and create a weedy monoculture. Their high oil content makes them susceptible to fires which burn incredibly hot. Of course not all olive trees are commercial plants, or dangerous weeds. Olive trees can live to immense old age and some revered specimens are at least 2000 years old. Such ancient trees are remarkable for their fabulous gnarled trunks and branches which take on an otherworldly appearance appropriate to their age. Additionally it seems somehow appropriate that the olive tree—which has a reasonable claim to being humankind’s favorite tree–is capable of living through the millennia.
This past April, I announced with some fanfare (or at least with bold letters) that Ferrebeekeeper was going to expand to feature a digital gallery of my paintings and other artworks. In retrospect, perhaps I should not have made that statement on April Fool’s Day (although that is the day I started blogging). Circumstances have indeed made a fool of me, and my projected site expansion has been delayed again and again. More than a season has gone by and still there is no art gallery. Fortunately, I am now confident that my gallery launch really is just around the corner! To give you a little teaser until the final version is launched, here are two of my miniature allegorical paintings from a series which I started more than a year ago.
Here’s the story behind the genesis of these works: when I was cleaning my pockets before doing a load of laundry I found a sketch of a centaur, a clock, and a snail trapped in a miniature torus-shaped universe. Although I’m not sure what prompted that initial sketch, I have since made several tiny paintings based around toruses which, as explained here are elegant metaphors for insular universes. Indeed some cosmologists and topologists feel that the actual universe might well be torus-shaped (or more precisely, shaped like a triple torus) an idea which appeals to my inner gourmand. The paintings are obviously echoes of each other. Both feature huge predatory animals lurking under pastries floating in outer space. The splendid toadfish (Sanopus splendidus) in the first painting and the gharial (Gavialis gangeticus) in the second are even facing the same way as if both waiting in ambush. Each panel also has an invertebrate, a galactic backdrop, and ancient beings brandishing hand weapons. However the cast and the props are quite different–a bold Assyrian warrior takes the place of the desiccated mummy while the gothic clock sunk in icing is replaced by a mournful bagpipe floating in space. A yellow lipped sea krait seems intent on escaping the entire scene.
What does all of this mean? Well, as Socrates surmised, artists don’t know what their works mean. Like everyone else we have to guess, but the reoccurrence of similar roles in the two paintings—even as the setting and the circumstances change–suggest to me the circular nature of interaction between living things. This theme is highlighted by the circular nature of the main subject, the torus. And of course there is something obviously and purposefully missing from both paintings, a physical and metaphysical emptiness exemplified by the famous hole in the donut, and the void of the universe. Whether this additionally reflects the hunger of the animals, the soundlessness of the bagpipe, the lifelessness of the mummy, and the timelessness of the stopped clock is an open question.