Art, the Heights and Depths

This has been a week where reality has unexpectedly intruded on my personal foolishness. I have several blogs none of which I maintain with the diligence that I should. However the events of this week demand that I write something if for no other reason than to try to clarify my thoughts. So I’ve decided that this is the best place to try to work out the events and issues of this very strange week.

It’s all about art.

First the good. This past Friday was the 113th Annual Student Exhibition at my alma mater the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the Academy it’s the oldest and I maintain the best art school certainly in the United States most likely the Western hemisphere. PAFA has produced many of the greatest artists of the last several hundred years. When I think back on my time there I feel incredibly privileged to have attended. When I meet anyone who has gone to the Academy, whether I know them or not, I feel a deep bond of fellowship that is hard to put into words. To define it in terms of popular culture it’s the “Hogwarts” of art schools and each year releases a new crop of wizards upon the world. Some rise to heights that we could hardly imagine. Some fall into the depths that lurked in our nightmares. Some do both.

The “ASE” is an opportunity for the students graduating to show themselves and their work to the world at large. It is always a mixed bag of work of course filtered through the observers personal tastes and perceptions. Attending is a chance to see new work and perhaps for us that went to the school meet up with old friends. This week is show was no exception. The quality of the work varied from excellent to just terrible. Some of it was well done just not to my taste. Other pieces were things I’d expect to see a flea market. Those left me wondering what the creator had been doing for four years.

I know two people who are showing this year, Mike Manley and Nancy Bea Miller. I’m pleased and somewhat relieved that I can very honestly say I liked their work very much. Mike is showing a few figurative pieces but primarily small landscapes. Mike is perhaps the hardest working artist I know. He illustrates, teaches, does a weekly syndicated newspaper comicstrip, edits “Draw” magazine, and relentlessly paints. His work is very much to my taste and it has been a pleasure to “ride along” with Mike’s journey through the Academy via social media. I’m sort of sorry that he’s graduating the masters program although I’m sure he’s ready to move on. Nancy’s work I wasn’t as familiar with but I was impressed by her ability to capture her subject. Fairly large portraits are what Nancy was showing. Portraits are tricky. I’m sure that most people think that getting a likeness is the hard part of a portrait. It’s not. Showing the internal life of the sitter is what sets a good portrait apart from the pack. There was a real person behind the eyes of Nancy’s subjects. That’s a hard thing to accomplish. It should be interesting to see her work in a couple of years to see how that facility has developed.

I’ve been going back to the ASE for a couple of years now after a way too long absence and it always leaves me quite buoyed and excited about art and to be quite honest somewhat depressed and ashamed by my own lack of production. That however is a topic for another day. Let’s just leave this part of this post celebrating the joy and promise that art can bring to those who create it and those who love it.

Now we get to flipside, the depths that artists can find themselves in, regardless of their talent and the power of their work.

There were a lot of good painters when I was at the Academy. There were good artists that became even better with time aging like fine wine. Then there were several who stood above the rest and can truly be called great. Among those was a man named Doug Ferrin. I know he’d rather not be talked about like I’m about to. Sorry Doug. I really need to write about the events of this week so I’ll apologize in advance. Doug walked through the front door of the Academy already a great painter. I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say that if the Doug Ferrin of the late 1970s had been showing among this year’s ASE participants he would have been head and shoulders above the crowd. I remember him as extremely gifted and incredibly hard working. We were friends, not best friends, but certainly friends. It has been a pleasure to reconnect with him in the last several years through social media. In the years that intervened his work has become, if anything, more impressive. His use of color, texture, and light are nothing short of remarkable. However, something else appears to have happened over the course of the last thirty five years. Doug has wrestled with demons. This week the demons won.

I am told that even back during our Academy days Doug battled with anger and depression. Perhaps I was and am too caught up in myself and my own issues that I didn’t see that. To me Doug was impressively talented, hard working, quick witted, and a funny guy. He had a sharp mind and a quick wit. Others saw a different Doug. Either I was just oblivious to that aspect of his character or he was good at hiding it. Perhaps both. I don’t know.

I had heard that he’d developed a drinking problem in the intervening years. At the Academy he wasn’t one of the hard drinking hard partying crowd. Most of my memories of Doug are of him working. He had a studio down the hall from me at Peale House. The studios then were small and the canvases tended to be big. We’d both drag ours out into the opposite ends of the hall to get some distance and perspective. This would often lead to some good natured art criticisms shouted back and forth down the hall.

“It’s too brown!”, I’d yell looking at his painting.

Looking at my work he’d yell back, “Way too bright Hires!”.

I’d heard and read in his blog that Doug had done some jail time because of an incident involving an exploding toilet a few years back. It had sounded like a high school prank gone awry. It wasn’t, it was part of a pattern. This week the pattern caught up with him.

Self Portrait by Doug Ferrin

© Doug Ferrin

At four AM Thursday morning Doug blew his hand off.

As I write this Doug is, by all accounts, in Einstein Hospital under arrest being charged with creating weapons of mass destruction. The ATF is involved. One of the best painters it has ever been my pleasure to know has most likely lost his painting hand and will be facing severe repercussions. It’s a tragedy on so many different levels that I can barely process it. The police found various bomb making materials in his apartment. Although exactly what that means I don’t know. A history of similar, granted less catastrophic, events has come to light. How this story will resolve itself is anyones guess. In the worst case he’ll be thrown in a dark box for years in the best he’ll be able to get some help and find his way back into the light. I’m told that this isn’t a story of the system failing. Doug had been in and out of programs and therapy for years to no avail. I can only hope that this time he can find the help that he needs to beat the demons back forever. I can also hope that if I, or anyone else I know, finds themselves on the edge of that slope that someway to be pulled back can be found.

There is talk on the PAFA Facebook page about what we, his friends, can do for Doug. Right now we don’t even know exactly where he is. If that information comes to light I’ll post it in the comments. Just knowing that he’s not alone will help Doug I’m sure.

So what are my conclusions? What do I think we can take away from these stories? I’m still not sure. Artists live in a world of fantastic heights and deep abysses. For those of us involved in the life it’s hard to know where we are. To reach those heights we risk the fall. I think that we are a fellowship. One the world outside that fellowship can never quite understand. I think we need to hold on to each other desperately lest we fall.


Rebooting This Site!

I’m teaching a Web III class at Moore College and I’m going to be using this long abandoned site as a way of demonstrating WordPress. I’m not going to delete content but will be changing everything else.

I’d like to be able to use this site as a place to express thoughts and ideas on subjects other than art, design, technology, and food that I deal with in other blog sites. Hopefully I can kill two birds with one stone: have an example to be able to show the class and come out the other side with a functional blog that I can maintain.

Has it really been five years since I touched this page?!

My Second Life Part IV: Just One Last Test…

In which I find out that I’m screwed.

There’s a lot of testing that goes on in hospitals. It seemed every hour or two, day or night, someone would come in and take blood, test my blood sugar and test my blood pressure. It really didn’t bother me at all, I was glad that someone was checking on me. I always asked what my numbers were and began to mentally chart my stats. It seemed to me that I was improving!

Diabetes is a strange disease. As I said one of the things that they were constantly testing was my blood sugar levels. A couple of times in the middle of the night my sugar levels were too low. It made a surreal situation even more bizarre to have a nurse shake me awake saying, “Mr. Hires? Mr. Hires?! I need you to wake up and eat this turkey sandwich”.


“Eat this turkey sandwich and drink this juice”

OK …um, what time is it?

“Its two AM. Eat the sandwich.”

Its not a conversation that I’ve had before or since.

Periodically I’d be wheeled out to some remote location on another floor to be x-rayed or otherwise scanned. On these journeys I got to see more of the hospital then the curtains around my bed. A few things disturbed me. First was the “art” that lined the hallways. My God people! How is this allowed to continue? I think the intention of this night gallery of pastel landscapes and vases of flowers was to sooth the nerves of the sick and their grief stricken visitors. It had the exact opposite effect on me. I felt I was being wheeled through a fun house where the walls were festooned with the works of Saturday afternoon PBS painters run amuck. A kaleidoscope of the mundane – visual muzak. Certainly a shame when there are so many talented local artists.

My other observation terrified me. The hospital was run on Windows! My god my life was in the hands of Bill Gates! I prayed that a service pack or some crap DLL didn’t inadvertently kill me. Every time I was x-rayed I thought, This is it! This is the time a Windows security loop hole allows in a virus, I get zapped with a billion rads of gamma radiation and become a monstrous shambling beast. Oh it happens all the time! They cover it up.

Finally I was told that they’d run one more test and I’d most likely be sent home. Yeah baby! Home! Home where I could get more on the TV than Walker Texas Ranger and House. Home, where I could take a shower. Home, where most importantly, there were no damned room mates! What’s the test? Bring it on!

Well, it turns out that they want to tap a big vein in my leg and run a camera up my circulatory system and snoop around my heart a bit. They’d inject the area with a dye that they could use to scan my heart. See what’s really going on. Oh, and what’s that? I’m going to be awake through the whole thing? Swell.

The next morning a burley and indifferent orderly wrestled me on to a gurney and sped me once again through those corridors of bad taste to a room full of equipment designed by Jack Kirby. There a Doctor and several rather attractive assistants got me ready. Some pain killers and some movement of equipment later they were ready. To tell you the truth I didn’t feel a thing. And then there it was – my heart on a grainy video monitor beating away.

“Well that’s not good.”

Those words are very high on the list of things you don’t want to hear at a time like that. It turns out that out of the four major arteries that feed the heart one was totally blocked and two others are about 85% blocked. Holy crap! Suddenly I’m not going home. I’m going to the cardiac unit at Our Lady of Lourdes hospital in Camden for triple bypass heart surgery!

Next: I take the most expensive car ride of my life and get a new room mate. 

The Emergency Room, the First Hospital, and the First of the Room Mates from Hell

Part III – My Second Life
Sorry for the delay in releasing this chapter of my on going saga. Christmas, New Years, and a bit of writers block got in my way. 

So you’d think that I’d have rushed right to the emergency room from the doctors. I mean that would have been the reasonable course of action especially since the hospital is directly across the street from the doctor’s office. I literally could have walked there but for some reason I went home first. Why? To tell you the truth I don’t actually remember! The closest I can come to an explanation is that there most have been a few things I needed to do thinking that my Dad and other relatives would be stomping through my house. I didn’t want to have them passing judgement on my while I was laid up. Also I really didn’t think I’d be in the hospital for any length of time. I felt bad but not life threateningly bad.

When I got home I called my friend Netty one of the few people I knew I could get hold of in the middle of the afternoon. I thought it best that someone knew where I was going. Netty volunteered to come drive me to the hospital so that my car wasn’t sitting around in the parking lot. This was, in hindsight, a very good move, otherwise my car would most likely still be in the hospital’s parking lot!

Emergency rooms are strange and busy places. The last time I was in one it was five AM and I was pretty much alone. This time there were a wide variety of people waiting around watching bad day time talk shows to pass time. Heart issues get a priority so I didn’t have to wait too long. However I remember one woman waiting in a corner with her family who looked so tired and hurt that I wished they would take her before me. It was obvious from her bald head that she was fighting cancer and it seemed to me that she was very brave as she patiently waited to be called.

Seemly quickly I was ushered into a curtained area where I was examined, blood was taken, and I continued to wait. At one point I was taken out for chest x rays. After a small wait while the blood work was being done I was informed that I was indeed having congestive-heart failure but also had high blood pressure and diabetes. Swell. So I was to be admitted for “a day or two” while they got my condition stabilized. Little did I know that it would be weeks before I saw my home again.

I should say a word about the hospital, Kennedy in Cherry Hill, New Jersey. While it was obvious that it was in need for a infusion of cash to fix up the physical plant the staff was top rate. I am especially impressed with the nursing staff bout here and at Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital. The shear amount of abuse and bullshit that nurse have to put up with is staggering! I’m in in total awe of their dedication and patience.

I was wheeled up to a room on the fourth floor. The usual modern standard is one or two people per room. Here it was four. I felt like I was in a malaria ward and it was here that I was first exposed to “the room mates from Hell”!

The absolute least offensive was an old man who did little but sleep and moan. I felt bad for him. He had a gaping down turned mouth and looked like a withered weathered old tree. He was never awake for more than fifteen minutes at a time and received no visitors. Periodically he would moan like the wind was whipping through his branches. He was just sad and I never did get to know anything more about him.

Directly across from me was a guy who was a sheet metal worker in for some tests. At first this guy seemed quite normal. That lasted until they took him down for some testing. Upon returning him to the room he declared that his cell phone had been stolen. Now I never saw him with a cell phone and, in fact , had I both a cell phone of my own and my laptop with me that were never touched regardless of how many times they dragged me out of the room for tests. The Nurse claimed that she had warned him to have anything of value locked up with security. However he had apparently passed on this and left the phone on his bed. Returning it was now gone. I’m not sure what kind of phone it was but it must have been solid gold from the way he carried on. He started screaming and cursing out anyone and everyone involved with the running of the hospital. As he built himself into a froth he became progressively more and more hispanic. What I mean by that is he initially came of as an average guy but the time his tirade hit fever pitch he was like an X rated “Speedy Gonzolas” cartoon. Doctors showed up. Nurses showed up. Orderlies, security, just people who wanted to know what the hell was going on began pouring into our room. Eventually his girl friend came and he got dressed and stomped off into the night not to be seen again. The next day the hospital’s administrator came by the room and apologized personally to me. She didn’t apologize to anyone else – just me. I think there must have been some guilt for keeping me in this mental ward.

The worst of the lot was the guy to my immediate right. I never saw him because of the sliding curtain that separated us but if he wasn’t in for falling off a roof I’d have suspected him in the great phone robbery. Where do I start with this guy? I guess I should begin by explaining that while you want to give those you are trapped with their privacy it’s pretty much impossible under these conditions. I mean I would have slept better if I knew absolutely nothing about this guy but that was impossible. He had a running number of phone conversations and arguments where the details of his life unfolded to me like some poorly written after school special. Over the course of several days I found out the following about him:

  • He was about 22 years old and homeless living on the streets of Camden since his girl friend had thrown him out.
  • He had been working as a roofer  when he’d fallen of the roof hurting both his legs and back.
  • His parents, whom he called “Mommy” and “Daddy” (which is just creepy for anyone over the age of eight) wanted nothing to do with him.
  • He had been in Narcotics Anonymous.
  • Although he had a history of mental illness and violent outbursts it had been a while since he had last “wailed” on someone.

So just terrific! Here I am confined to a hospital bed and the guy next to me is a homeless psycho drug addict with a history of beating the crap out of any one that even looked at him funny. I spent a lot time being quiet and pretending to be asleep.

He, in the other hand, spent a lot of time on the phone vacillating between threatening his girl friend and begging her not to throw his clothes out into the street – again. It was during this period that I began to really appreciate the incredible and difficult job that nurses do. Whenever a nurse would come by Captain Psycho would beg for pain killers and then argue about the amount and types he was being given. It was as if he was ordering from a wine list – “What do you have in the way of a dry dilaudid?”. He’d argue that the pills he was being given weren’t the same size and color as the ones he was used to. When the nurse would come around in the middle of the night to take blood and blood pressure he’d curse them out and then spend several whiney minutes apologizing before he asked for more pain medication. What an ingrate! A couple of hundred years earlier he would have been thrown over the city’s wall and left to rot in the moat! These men and women weren’t doing anything but trying to help, trying to make us well, and he heaped abuse on them at every opportunity. Nurses are saints!

Eventually they took him away. Off to the ungrateful bastards ward I assume and the bed to my right was blissfully empty for almost half a day – but it didn’t last.

The final room mate I’d have at this hospital was an older gentleman and in comparison to psycho homeless guy he was alright. His only problem was he was that he was partially deaf and refused to wear his hearing aids. Subsequently everthing he said was expressed as a shout. So at three AM “so you’re going to take my blood pressure” translated as “SO YOU”RE GOING TO TAKE MY BLOOD PRESSURE!!!”. Annoying but all in all an improvement over being scared for my life.

Next: How “just one more test and you can go home” became two months.

The First Doctor in Just Years

Note: Not really understanding how WordPress works the first part of this thread exists as a separate tab/page. Not being able to figure out how to add to that page I’m continuing my story as part of the main blog.

So I made the decision to get myself to a doctor. But my insurance has always baffled me. I needed to find a “primary care physician” and had no idea how to start. Blue Cross Blue Shield had sent me a phone book of doctors that were in their network. Most were specialists in fields I was unfamiliar with. All I needed was a general family doctor and I just had too many options to make a good choice.

So I decided to use the internet. I don’t know why I hadn’t thought of this sooner. I practically live on the internet. So I looked up Blue Cross Blue Shield’s Web site and sure enough they had a search engine for the doctors I could use as part of their “network” right on the front page. Well that was easy. Sort of felt like an idiot for not thinking of it sooner.

A little searching latter and I found a family practitioner  right in my neighborhood. Great! I was almost all set. I found my battered insurance card where it had lurked in the back of my wallet for years and gave them a call. Unfortunately they were booked up and couldn’t see me until Monday. Had I understood the seriousness of my condition I would have called another doctor. But I was determined to stick with this one in that I knew where his office was. In retrospect another stupid move.

So I waited. It was a long miserable weekend. Not only did I feel terrible but I was horribly bloated. Now for those of you who may not know me I’m pretty fat. I never really thought of myself as fat but that is the reality of the situation. I think I must have the opposite of the condition where skinny young girls starve themselves because their self image was that they are fat. It just didn’t enter my mind. But here I was all bloated and the quality of my flab had changed. It was hard and unmoving. I thought maybe in addition to an antibiotic that I could get the doctor to give me a diarrhetic as well.

So eventually the weekend passed. I spent it in bed watching TV and being miserable. When Monday morning rolled around I started to get ready for my appointment with the doctor and I panicked. Where the hell was my insurance card? I remembered taking it out of my wallet on Thursday. I even remembered thinking to myself that I need to put it right back where I had found it because I was going to need it. But here it was an hour or two before my appointment and it was nowhere to be found. Damn!

To this day I don’t know what happened to it. I searched my bedroom – no luck. I searched the house. I even went so far as to go through bags of trash like a raccoon spreading the refuse out across my kitchen floor but the thing was just gone.

I called the doctor’s office and explained the situation. Thankfully they agreed to accept a recent bill with my ID number on it in leu of the actual card. Whew! I calmed down a bit and got myself ready. I remember having to wear sweat pants and having some difficulty getting into my shoes but I managed to get in my car and drive to the doctor’s office.

I parked and got winded walking into the office. Once in there I checked in with the front desk and waited to be called. There were a couple of people waiting, a few kids playing with a box of plastic toys, and many bad magazines. It wasn’t long before I was called and escorted to a small examination room. The nurse asked me to wait and I took a seat on one of those padded benches covered in white paper. Before long she  returned and started by taking my blood pressure. It was really high. I don’t remember exactly what it was but I think the top number was 170. Then she asked me to get on the scale. My weight was so high that the scale couldn’t measure it. I knew I was heavy but this was circus type weight!

Concerned she went for the doctor. He took one look at me and asked her to give me an electro cardiogram. After a couple of minutes on the machine he made his diagnosis. He told me I was having congestive heart failure and I should go immediately to the emergency room. 

Next: The Emergency Room, the first Hospital, and the First of the Room Mates from Hell.

Simply Syndicated

I’ve been meaning for a while to write about pod-casts and I thought an easy entrance way to the subject would be to share my favorites. For those of you who aren’t conversant with pod-casts they are recorded audio programs (although there are also video pod-casts) on subjects both familiar and obscure produced and distributed by mostly average people. That is, not radio or entertainment personalities as we’re used to defining them – for the most part. I’d like to be more specific but pod-casts are part of a new media emerging from the internet and are not clearly defined. They can be done by both amateurs and professionals. They can be frivolous or deeply meaningful. Only with time will they evolve and take on their final aspect.

I feel that this new media is important. What is happening on the Net now is like the early days of traditional media – like the days of silent film or the beginnings of television. Its a place where people with greater visions then budgets can experiment and produce shows that are important to them.

And I’m pretty much obsessed with it – pod-casts in particular. I’ve been listening for going on two years and have heard both the good and the bad. So I thought I’d start with the best.

“Simply Syndicated” is a group creating pod-casts on a wide variety of mostly entertainment subjects out of Leeds England. Lead by Richard Smith this eclectic group of media pioneers produces shows such as Movies You Should See, The Definitive Word, Make It So, Books You Should Read, and many others. Each of their shows is worthy of an entire article unto itself and in the future I plan to do just that.

So why do these pod-casts rise to the top of the pile out of the thousands that exist? Frankly, I just find them the best! They’re consistently entertaining and informative. The people involved are genuine, funny, and honest. The point of view is truly English which is close enough to American that I find it accessible yet fascinatingly different from my own experiences, and there is enough variety that nothing becomes tiresome. This isn’t to say that their aren’t other pod-casts of such high quality available, but for me the offerings from Simply Syndicated stand alone at the top of the mountain. 

I think I’ve got to get a little more specific. I don’t want to short change any of their programs. I plan to eventually write an article about each one. Perhaps their premier program Movies You Should See is good place to start. MYSS is a great example of why their shows are so enjoyable. From the title you easily tell that it is a movie review show. Comparing it to another movie review show, American television’s At the Movies, it is immediately obvious what a different take on movie reviewing this is. At the Movies provides quick concise reviews of the movies new in the theaters. MYSS picks a movie and discusses it with a rotating group of friends often for an hour or more. When was the last time you heard an hour of truly interesting conversation? The films discussed are often genuine classics that you might not have heard of or seen, but for the most part these aren’t art house movies. They’re fun entertaining films that the panel members actually enjoyed watching. Which isn’t to say that their aren’t those who didn’t like the film or parts of the film being reviewed but they get to express their views in an articulate manner and their points are discussed. And these discussions aren’t dry. The people involved are actual friends and the discussions are like hanging around their living-room after watching a particularly good film talking about its strengths and weaknesses. Given time you feel you know these people and your happy that you do!

If you are looking to start listening to pod-casts I’d really recommend the shows from Simply Syndicated. Pick a topic that appeals to you and give it a listen. I really don’t think you can go wrong with anything they produce. You’ll find all of their shows on their Web site at:

Burn After Reading

I went last weekend to see the new Coen Brothers movie “Burn After Reading” and I’m not sure what to say about it. Its really good and I’d recommend that you go see it. Its full of great performances and quirky characters. The problem is when I think how to synopsize the plot I keep running into spoiler problems. Even small moments in this film are so good that I wouldn’t want to ruin them for anyone.

Lets give it a try. Two health club employees find a DVD containing the memoirs of a unemployed CIA analyst they mistake them for classified documents and try to sell them.

That really doesn’t do the film justice. The plot twists and turns taking us to some very unexpected places. It’s amazing how fully developed every character is – even minor players seem unique and well thought out! 

One of the problems describing the plot is that you realize that only we the audience have any idea what’s actually happening. The characters stumble bewildered in and out of each others lives with no real idea of what is going on.

The Coen’s have assembled a real all star cast and all involved are at the top of their game. If you liked Fargo or other Coen Brother comedies go see “Burn After Reading”. I’m going to give it an “A”.