Thomas Ferrella’s Way to Art
Ferrella received his bachelor’s degree in Zoology from Miami University, Oxford, OH. His interest in art was cursory but from the age of sixteen he always had access to a darkroom. He toyed with the idea of becoming a photographer, partly influenced by his dad’s 8-millimeter projector that was always running at home and his love of the outdoors. He was also attracted to the abstract and he loved how photography could fool the eye and mind. While he was applying to medical school he simultaneously submitted applications for several fine arts programs in photography, but a conventional profession was strongly encouraged and seemed to make sense for him. Ferrella recounts the circumstances, “I had a friend who lived ‘on the other side of the tracks’ in Toledo whose dad was a doctor and I was attracted to their lifestyle. Yet, I also remember my brother being pre-med and being frustrated until he decided he was going to be an artist.” Ferrella went on to describe the hell that broke loose at home as his brother, Andre, was at odds with his parents’ expectations. Andre stayed the course and went on to be an artist. Ferrella recollects, “I was somewhat torn between the two disciplines. I happened to be good at math and science, with a strong attraction to human anatomy.”
Ultimately, Ferrella was accepted to medical school. He relays that he chose that path out of ego more than anything else. In his words, he “became a physician for all of the wrong reasons” and not out of altruism or a desire to help others. Despite his success in medical school, he felt out of sorts and contemplated dropping out or switching his focus to wilderness or high altitude medicine research. It wasn’t until his last rotation in medical school that he found a practice that suited his personality – emergency medicine. He pursued this new passion and graduated from the Medical College of Ohio (now University of Toledo) in 1983 and went on to receive his board certification in Emergency Medicine in 1988.
Meanwhile, Andre pursued his MFA in Madison. After a trip to Europe (where you could get real coffee and pastries) Ferrella visited his brother and instantly liked Madison. “State Street, Miles Davis, the lakes, coffee shops, this is cool, right?” Santa Cruz and Santa Fe were also on his short list, but he ended up moving to Madison before setting out to find a job. He started out as a freelance emergency room doctor with a company that sent him all over Wisconsin. In 1990 he became a founding partner at Meriter Hospital in Madison where he carried out his respectable thirty-year career as an emergency medicine physician.
In 2013 Ferrella retired, although he emphasizes that quality of life was always more important to him and his family, following a work to live lifestyle rather than a live to work edict. About fifteen years ago he started exploring his creative inklings again. “Honestly, I think I had a stroke because now all I can think of is being creative… I want to paint, I want to carve wood.” Now it is as if he is he is putting himself through the rigors of a fine arts program, emphasizing artistic exploration, assertively applying for shows and grants, building connections and “paying his tuition.”
Ferrella is certainly making his way into the art scene but he feels he is often discounted because he doesn’t have the connections or a degree in the arts. To say he doesn’t have connections isn’t exactly accurate though. Landscape painter Jonathan Wilde, the son of acclaimed Madison artist, John Wilde, is a friend of Ferrella’s. Wilde is Ferrella’s go-to guy for all things about painting, bringing him questions such as, “can you mix stand oil with turpentine, spray or brush varnish, put thin paint over thick paint or paint on such-and-such a substrate?”
Ferrella’s painting style is similar to cataloging. He paints what he sees as accurately as possible in the most vivid, yet realistic, colors. When asked how he learned to paint he responded, “That just came out of nowhere… This excites me because nobody taught me to do this. I know this is not high art, but I’m a bit like a kid in a candy store. It’s super exciting to eat the really good candy.” I reminded him of a Picasso quote and he immediately bristled that he didn’t want to be compared to Picasso. I pressed on, “a quote about unlearning everything from art school.”[i] Ferrella agreed:
The best art comes from kids, up until right around third or fourth grade. They are just streaming directly. The reason I know this is because I spent a lot of time with my kids, and between third and fifth grade the teachers start teaching art rules and then they get intimidated and realize they aren’t following the rules. They beat the creativity out them. Everybody has this creative spirit. It just gets buried. Maybe that’s why I’m like a kid in a candy store, because I’m tapping into that creative spirit once again.
Ferrella first started painting while laid up with a broken hip that he sustained after being run off the road while biking. His mother traveled from Toledo to help him recover and she set up a painting space for him. Now, painting is reserved for his downtime, when he doesn’t have other pressing projects. He paints from his photographs, things he remembers and things he recalls from landscapes. At the moment, it is what he loves most of all his artistic mediums. He explains, “I’m attracted to painting because it’s meditative. You really get lost in the image you are creating and you are only limited by your skill and your imagination. Everything is possible on a little two-dimensional square… I will put in a fourteen-hour day and not blink an eye.”
In all of his mediums, Ferrella tends to work in series. He enjoys taking a visual cue, developing an idea and figuring out how to engineer it. For his current project on race, called 1 World, he has photographed over sixty people behind frosted glass. Describing his process, he comments, “I know those portraits of people blending together are beautiful… so, how do I use that? Problem solving is fun and frustrating, but to see it come to fruition is really exciting.” From that specific series he created a large pentagonal wood frame and inserted five prints of these portraits. He attached the frame structure to a bicycle wheel hub and hung it from a tree. It spins in the wind and because of this motion and the blurred images, the skin tones of all the people blend together, hence emphasizing our sameness (fig. 4). He remarks that he is fortunate to have a friend in Enrique Rueda of Madison, whom he sees as a kindred soul. Ferrella bounces many of his ideas off of Rueda who is a musician, video engineer, designer and a master woodworker. Ferrella jokes that he also attends YouTube University. He uses Google, accesses other resources around town and talks to people he considers art-friendly to figure out how to approach projects:
I’m in awe of a lot of artists, but I also feel like they are just people who are passionate and happen to push boundaries. I have this same underlying passion. I don’t get intimidated by doing something new. I just figure, somebody else can weld, why can’t I weld, paint, glue, sew paper…? If I can’t, I just work to develop those skills.
[i] Pablo Picasso is widely credited with saying, “It took me four years to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to paint like a child.”