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Many years ago I defeated a cruel demon…or so I thought, but now that demon is back in my life wreaking havoc.

Oval Model Study (Wayne Ferrebee, 2003) oil on canvas

Long ago, when I first came to New York City (back in the nineties!), I did so for one overwhelming reason–to learn to paint realistically! Every day I would work as a stooge at a meaningless, ill-paid office job, then, at night, I would stand neck-to-neck in a crowd of aspiring artists desperately trying to capture the likeness of a real person. Every weeknight, for three-and-a-half hours, I would get more and more unhappy as my legs started to ache and my concentration started to waiver while, on the canvas, the lines of noses and eyes and mouths (mouths are so ridiculously hard to paint!) would begin to sag and drift and change color. Then I would clean my brushes of the poison cadmium and lead, lament my ruined clothes, and ride home on the subway. I would get home at about midnight, have dinner & unwind, and then be up at 7:30 AM to drag myself into the horrible, horrible office to do it all again.

I did this for a year or two before the master portraitist who taught the class even knew my name. Eventually, I could capture a basic likeness. Sometimes it even seemed like I had a hold of some burning creative ember fallen from heaven and the paintings would light up with secret divine fire, before again abruptly becoming muddy lumps smeared on geometric circles & rectangles of cloth.

Oval Model Study (Wayne Ferrebee, 2006) oil on canvas

Whenever a painting seemed to be good I would be so proud. I would take it home and put it up on the wall…and then the defects would start to appear to my eyes. Eventually I would have a bad day at work, or a relationship setback, or some other emotional low point which would pitilessly expose the stupid deficiencies of both my life and my artworks. Then I would grab the ill-made paintings off the wall and slash them apart in paroxysms of rage. Afterwards I would feel painful regrets, as I realized how hard I had worked on a painting which was basically ok except for a fuzzy elbow or maybe even for some defect I had only imagined. Also my friends looked at me aghast (finally realizing how emotionally challenging a life in the arts is) and I would feel ashamed for worrying them with my melodrama.

Eventually the constant exigencies of my ill-fated toy company pushed me out of the night class for good. I still had so many of these paintings that I had worked so hard on. Yet over the years they dwindled as I drank more and as the little toy empire also began to falter and come apart. My angry demon of self-reproach and self-hatred became more savage. My personal collection of student works dwindled down to eight (including only four that were sort of complete). But then I jettisoned that toy company, changed my life around, and embarked on a whole new phase of artistic labor. The last few paintings stayed up on the wall, unmolested. They watched as I trudged to new meaningless day jobs, and crafted doughnut after doughnut, and then flounder after flounder. They became constants in my life as I tried to make things work, until this week, when for various reason, I could no longer abide the sight of these strangers’ faces hanging in my bedroom mocking me for the aspirations I cherished when I was twenty five. The demon had returned.

Tondo Model Study (Wayne Ferrebee, 2004) oil on canvas

For a furious moment of incandescent scarlet rage, it felt wonderful to destroy these failed reminders of the years and years of desperate, fruitless struggle. Only now that they are gone do I realize what friends these faces had become. They were always there through good times and through hard times watching me trudge along America’s treadmill to nowhere. Likewise they watched at night when inspiration struck and I got back to work painting and drawing. From the wall they watched me turn middle aged and saw my youthful strength & illusions drain away. For good or for ill, there will be no more paintings like these. My artistic path has led me elsewhere and I am unlikely to have the luxury to ever return to this pure style

Now I wonder if maybe the three paintings were ok after all. Perhaps the fading cadmium and ochre did hold a luminous fragment of truth about who people really are in their secret minds and hearts. Maybe I actually succeeded in catching a little hint of Rembrandt’s genius or Raphael’s divine mastery. Whatever the case, they are gone now forever because of my temper tantrum. I am sitting around like a ghoul lamenting the absence which I orchestrated.

Art is a journey to the terrifying world of pure ideas and back. It is a dash to the mythical real of gods and monsters. Perhaps you can occasionally return with a glistening treasure of numinous worth. More likely your heart will be wounded and you will be locked in a dark mirror, or forced to put on a fool’s motley garb, or otherwise trapped in the underworld.

Yet I am not writing this painful essay solely about my own wrenching art career (indeed, to my eyes, this essay makes me look even more like a loser). Looking at the worldwide mess which constitutes the year of our lord two-thousand and twenty, it is obvious that I am not the only wounded soul snatching my best accomplishments from past eras off of the walls and slashing them up in fury. A few silly paintings are nothing compared to real faces of friends and family lost to this mismanaged pandemic. What does art matter when the world’s oldest democracy is ripped apart? Art reflects societies and our society is being torn to shreds as the far right becomes an evil, insane cult of personality and as the far left says that all of the nation’s oldest ideals are hopelessly tainted by dark sins of the nation’s youth.

I have always thought my self-destructiveness to be a shameful weakness unique to me and other unhappy people; yet now I see that it is an illness which is society-wide–a horrible danger inherent to trying to change and become better. There is no way for me to go back and piece these three destroyed canvases together. My oeuvre now exists without them. America will have to face some similar truths in an emotional audit. We will all have to work harder to save the good works, flawed as they are (no matter how frustrating we are with ourselves). We are also going to have to trudge back into the underworld…middle-aged, debt-burdened, and with deeper feelings of alarm and anxiety about who we really are.

On the other hand, I did accomplish what I came for. I learned to paint well. Now I just have to learn to live better (and maybe how to talk to gallery owners). If only I had some paintings to show them…

Ceres (Jean-Antoine Watteau, 1717-1718, oil on canvas)

Ceres (Jean-Antoine Watteau, 1717-1718, oil on canvas)

In my many posts about art and painting, I have shamefully slighted the wonderful 18th century. Here is a masterpiece by one of the greatest painters of that era, Jean-Antoine Watteau, whose career was all too brief. Watteau bridged the gap between Baroque and Rococo by bringing the naturalistic color and movement of Correggio to the rigorous classical tradition of great French masters such as Poussin and Lorrain. This beautifully painted oval composition portrays the fertility goddess Ceres shimmering among the lambent clouds in the long pink evenings of summer. Her garb of gold and shell color perfectly suits the joyous abundance of the season. Around her, youths are gathering the precious life-giving wheat while the astrological beasts of the summer sky gambol at her side.

Artist's conception of the Dawn spacecraft

Artist’s conception of the Dawn spacecraft

Of course I did not just pull this choice of subjects out of some crazy 18th century hat! As I write this, the NASA spacecraft Dawn is hurtling through the asteroid belt toward the dwarf planet Ceres, the largest body in the asteroid belt. Ceres (the dwarf planet) is located in the strange region between Mars and Jupiter. It is large enough to be spherical due to its own gravity but something seems to have gone horribly wrong there. It appears to be the shattered core of a world which either never quite formed or which was destroyed during the making—a miscarriage four and a half billion years old. Scientists have speculated about what the little world is composed of and how it was created, but telescopes have only revealed so much, and no spacecraft has visited prior to Dawn. This is a time of true exploration like the 18th century! Already Dawn’s cameras have spotted bizarre ultra-bright reflections from Ceres. Are they sheets of ice or metal…something else? We will have to wait till the probe enters orbit in April to find out, but I am excited to learn more about the formation of Ceres (which is to say the formation of the solar system) and to finally solve some of the mysteries of this under-appreciated heavenly neighbor.

This image of Ceres was taken by NASA's Dawn spacecraft on Feb. 19 from a distance of nearly 46,000 kilometers (29,000 miles)

This image of Ceres was taken by NASA’s Dawn spacecraft on Feb. 19 from a distance of nearly 46,000 kilometers (29,000 miles)

Of course I am also heartily sick of this endless disappointing winter. The sooner Ceres (the allegorical figure of abundance and warmth) brings life back to Brooklyn, the happier I will be. Let’s all keep our fingers crossed for exciting news from space and for the return of life and growth here on (the north part of) Earth after a long winter. Also anybody who wishes for the return of classical beauty and allegorical subtlety in the dismal world of ill-conceived & poorly-executed contemporary art will have my heartfelt appreciation and best wishes!

Ancient Greek stone carving of the goddess Ceres with poppies, shafts of wheat, and snakes

Ancient Greek stone carving of the goddess Ceres with poppies, shafts of wheat, and snakes

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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