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These are troubled times for the nation as we sort out what portions of archaic, outworn, or unethical philosophy have brought us to this ghastly low point.  Our national leaders have conducted some focus groups, examined some metrics, and taken a great deal of money from interested private parties.  This has allowed America’s leaders to comprehensively conclude that they are certainly in no way to blame for mass death, unemployment, and nationwide unrest.  We still need a scapegoat though, and one prominent group has been singled out for particular moral censure.  This time next year a great many of these familiar figures may be missing–gently lead out to pasture, forcibly retired, or worse.

I am speaking about mascots of course! Not only has Gritty been accused of punching children in the back (so far he has, surprisingly, been cleared of all charges) but Aunt Jemima, Uncle Ben, and, almost certainly, the Washington Redskins are on their way out too. Yet this is the great thing about mascots. They are designed to reflect our values by selling us corn syrup, wood pulp, and brain damage.  When it is obviously time for them to go we can just take them out and put them by the curb (unlike say Mitch McConnell, Devin Nunes, or Ted Cruz who have decided to take the country straight down into hell along with them).

big boy

Is this who we are…or who we were?

We all know about what happened to Aunt Jemima, but an equally famous frontman mascot is also being surreptitiously mothballed (although, looking at him, it seems quite possible that he will fight his way back from the basement). I am talking about “Big Boy” an iconic brand of the bygone automobile age.  Big Boy began in Glendale California in the 1930s and quickly became the name, logo, and emblem of a chain of diner-type restaurants across the country.  During the ’50s and ’60s when American life was conducted entirely from cars (as far as I can tell based on anecdotes) the oversized statues of the shiny anime-eyed be-pompadoured lad in checked suspenders were everywhere.  I have my own fond memories of hamburgers and sundaes with grandparents during the 1970s and 80s.  Indeed I even took the winsome Lorraine Hahn to a Big Boy in Falls Church when I was a junior in high school (an all-time apogee for the brand…and for my young dating life).

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However tastes change and Big Boy has really been losing steam in the last few decades.  Even though he isn’t exactly a problematic mascot as such, his cisgender (?) Warner Brother cartoon masculinity and his eagerness to serve don’t seem to quite fit our times.  Therefor, Big Boy is being given emeritus mascot status and the job of shilling new food offerings at Big Boy franchise locations will be handed over to…

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Dolly! Dolly has been an obscure supporting character from “Big Boy” comic books of the 1950s, but now 70 years later she is getting her chance to helm the franchise.  It has been a confusing year and Dolly looks comforting and nice, maybe she will breath some fresh vitality into a restaurant chain that I really do have a surprising number of fond memories about.  I hadn’t thought about Big Boy restaurants for years until writing this post, and then suddenly long vanished vacations and special meetings with family members have come flooding back and now I am blinking away tears thinking about how all of those fudge cake sundaes really meant that Grandma loved me.

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Anyway best wishes to Dolly.  She has some big shoes to fill (snicker) but I feel she is up to it.  Big Boy himself will still remain enshrined in the name. Additionally, I suspect that a number of franchise locations will look at the cost of tearing down a 14 foot concrete statue during a pandemic and discover new appreciation for old boys.  In the meantime I wish everyone in the restaurant and hospitality industry the very best. That is always such hard work…and frankly it seems impossible right now.  I promise I will come buy a hamburger from you all as soon as I can (you are invited too Lorraine, if you are somewhere out there).  This post was supposed to be funny and snarky, but it has made me reflect on the real sentimental power of silly shared kitsch.  I wonder if people 70 years from now will be misting up over memories of diner food with loved ones under the familiar shadow of Dolly…

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Today (June 21st 2018) is a sacred day.  In the northern hemisphere it is the first day of summer, the longest day of the year. I love each season a great deal…but I unabashedly love summer the most. At evening the sky is alive with fireflies and bats.  The garden is filled with roses, lilies, and hydrangeas which gleam like particolored stars in the long fluorescent twilight. As the weather warms the oceans, New York City is revealed to be a beach paradise. I live in a West Indian neighborhood and for a season it is like I live on a Caribbean island: everywhere there are stalls filled with tropical fruits, women in bright sarongs, bike rides to the coast and the dulcet songs of the islands lingering in the air as children laugh and cicadas chirp. Summer!

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But there is a sadness to the solstice too, which I guess is part of life.  The first day of summer is the longest, and from there, the days get shorter and shorter.  If the winter solstice is the effective beginning of the year, the summer solstice is an end too.  Things have peaked.  Even as the nights get hotter they get longer.  Before you know it, it will be autumn and then winter again.  And all of our days are getting shorter too.

Lately I have felt sad.  Year by year my dreams slip further away from the tips of my fingers, and there is no going back to rectify anything, even if I wanted to (and I don’t want to: what else would I be? Some crooked banker who is ruining the world? An ignored ichthyologist discovering minute differences in triggerfish peduncles? The least popular literature professor in a miniscule liberal arts college somewhere?)  I have always felt a deep affinity for my nation, but lately I feel like a foreigner…even in Brooklyn, to say nothing of West Virginia! I have always felt that art was important…a guidepost to the numinous in our world of unfeeling stone, but lately it just seems like another empty battle for status.

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The summer solstice is a day when you can see the past…and the future too, shimmering like Fata Morgana above the pink ocean waves.  It is possible for a second to hear the horse carriages and trolleys passing up old Flatbush…or even to imagine Brooklyn as a patchwork of farms, or a forest with a few hunter-gatherers…or as the terminal moraine of the Wisconsin Ice sheet.  Think of it! a wall of ice taller than the skyscrapers was here. Or you can look the other direction and imagine the sun setting beyond cities of tumbled down towers and ruined concrete cenotaphs.

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The solstice reminds us of oceans of time all around us.  Cronus is standing at our elbow with his scythe and hourglass (or is that bearded old man a druid? Or is it the mirror on my dresser?) We have to catch this fleeting moment as the years wheel away. We have to do something important!  But what?

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Double-headed Serpent Carving (Aztec, ca. 1500 AD, wood, turquoise, spondylus, and conch)

Double-headed Serpent Carving (Aztec, ca. 1500 AD, wood, turquoise, spondylus, and conch)

In Aztec mythology, snakes are symbolic of rebirth and renewal. Since serpents regularly shed their skins and emerge shining and fresh as though made anew, they seemed to Aztec mystics to transcend the dull cycle of aging. Likewise snakes’ ability to hide in the earth, swim in water, and climb high into the rainforest canopy made them a symbol of transcending physical boundaries: snakes were seen as liaisons of the gods capable of traveling through heaven, earth, and the underworld.  In fact many of the most important Aztec gods were snakes like Xiuhcoatl (the fire serpent), Mixcoatl (the cloud serpent), and Quetzalcoatl himself (the feathered serpent who acts as chief of the gods).

Here then, as a final post of 2013 and a first post of 2014, is an exquisite Aztec artifact:  a double-headed wooden serpent inset with a mosaic of turquoise, spondylus (thorny oyster), and conch shell.  Once upon a time the ornament had eyes (possibly of gold or pyrite which were affixed to the wooden serpent with gluey beeswax) but they disappeared at some point in the five hundred years since the object was made—and their absence might make for a stronger piece. The serpent was probably worn as a pectoral (the opposite side is unadorned and hollow).  It is made from wood from the Spanish cedar (Cedrela odorata) a tree with natural termite resistance long-used to make boxes, musical instruments, furniture, and fine carvings (obviously).

(Detail)

(Detail)

Really look at the carving for a moment, it was a sacred treasure of a mighty vanished civilization. It represents the nature of time: mighty and ferocious with unknowable divine attributes, but also regular and cyclical (and beautiful).  The double-headed serpent has no beginning or end. Like an ouroboros, or a figure-eight, it is a symbol of infinity—of time closing in on itself in an unending circle.

The Aztecs of course ended: their realm blew apart in fire, bloodshed, and smallpox.  Their greatest treasures were melted down for inbred Spaniards to wear as chains…or hung up on a wall at the British museum.   But of course the Aztecs are not really gone.  Their descendants are everywhere and their customs live on.  Likewise the living spondylus shell in the ocean is the descendant of countless millions of generations of evolving mollusks—changing color, shape, and temperament over the long eons.

I chose to highlight this this simple object because it unites so many of the topics on this site: snakes, color, art, trees, history, mollusks, bees (because of the wax), the underworld, and the heavens.  The double-headed snake represents the way in which many different ideas are enmeshed with each other and flow together, even as time relentlessly pushes us all onward.  Isn’t that what life is?

Best wishes for a very happy new year and, as always thank you for reading!

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(Detail)

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.

Donut Universe with Centaur and Mummy (Wayne Ferrebee, 2010, oil on panel)

 

Torus with Spearman, Bagpipes and Barnacle (Wayne Ferrebee, 2011, oil on panel)

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.

It has been a long time since Ferrebeekeeper added a new post to the gothic category.  In order to remedy that deficit (and perhaps to focus somewhat on the strange & troubling nature of time itself) here is a gallery of gothic clocks.  Something about the ornate yet solemn gothic style seems particularly suited to instruments which measure the passing of time.  Until recently, clocks were precious and expensive items and it was very appropriate to dress them up in stylish little reliquary-style cases.  Additionally, like churches or crypts (which were frequently constructed in the same style), clocks betoken a world which transcends human understanding or control.  Nineteenth century clockmakers particularly relished the gothic aesthetic so most of the clocks below are gothic-revival era objects from England, France, or Germany. However clock makers from before the 19th century also looked to medieval sacred conventions when crafting their timepieces (as can be seen in the ancient sconce clock from 16th century Germany).  Perhaps even more strangely, modern clock-makers also frequently refer back to the gothic tradition.  At the bottom of my gallery I have included some startling resin clocks made by contemporary manufacturers. The modern timepieces might have jumped from “gothic” to “goth” but they still resemble little shrines to the omnipresent and ineluctable force of time.

Gothic Clock (Germany, 16th century AD)

Antique French Gilt Brass Boudoir Clock (Jarrot Freres)

Oak Case Gothic Revival Bracket Clock, Barraud & Lunds, Cornhill, London, c. 1838-1842

Vienna Regulator. Gothic style, probably from around 1865

Japy Freres Brass Mantel Clock (Gothic Griffons Nouveau)

Libert Gothic Cathedral Clock (French, 19th Century)

Antique Waterbury Steeple Gothic Clock (19th century)

Mahogany Gothic Double Fusee Bracket Clock by Webster Cornhill (English, 1890)

Neo-Gothic Style Partial Gilt Clock (French, 19th Century)

Oak Fussee Gothic Bracket Clock (Tiffany & Co.)

Antique Bronze Gothic Mantle Clock (Austrian, late 19th Century)

Walter Durfree 9-tube clock with Hersbhepe works and Gothic mahogany carved case.

Bielefeld Clock (the pattern is available at http://www.finescrollsaw.com)

Contemporary Resin Gothic Dragon Clock (from Dragon Artwork)

Grim Reaper Gothic Wall Clock (Contemporary, resin)

On Borrowed Time Gothic Clock (Contemporary, resin)

Contemporary Gothic Resin Clock

Contemporary Wall Clock

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