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.