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Thomas Ferrella and his Greatest Inspiration, Aralina Ferrella

Thomas Ferrella (b. Detroit, 1956) is a self-taught artist whose artistic sensibilities range from sentimental to punchy, utilizing a variety of mediums including photography, painting and sculpture. He has incorporated text into many of his artworks and has collaborated with poets on several projects, which aids in aligning his sculptural work with artists’ books. Although the themes in his artistic oeuvre vary widely, he says of his own work, “my inspiration comes from my assessment and love of the natural world.”[i]

One of the aspects that drew me to Ferrella’s work is that even a cursory Internet search reveals he works in many different mediums and on scales both small and large. Ferrella’s multi-media sensibilities are not necessarily seen as an asset to some in the art world however. A gallery told him they could no longer represent him because clients were confused by his wide range of skills. To their point, the Internet reveals that he was a doctor, plays in an improvisational soundscape band, and that he is a painter, photographer and sculptor.[ii] I fail to see the problem, but apparently Ferrella’s varied interests have been a deal-breaker for some. I do understand that initial knee-jerk reaction of realizing that an artist was a doctor though. Upon meeting another Madison-based artist recently, I explained that I was working with Ferrella on this project. He quickly searched his mental Rolodex and said, “Thomas Ferrella? Isn’t he that E.R. doctor who went crazy and started making art?” The term “crazy” is relative, but in a way it rings true for many self-taught artists.[iii]

Ferrella’s professional career as an emergency room doctor influences his art in subtle ways, but he is perhaps most influenced by his mother, Aralina Ferrella (b. 1925), and her artistic practice. He is quick to show off her works, from her miniature sculptures made from spent chewing gum to wall-mounted, framed objects made from tar that she peeled off the street in response to the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill.

Ferrella’s parents are both first generation Italian-Americans, raised in the rural town of Stonewood, West Virginia. He describes his parents’ families as dirt-poor coal mining families in a town filled with Italians. Both of his grandfathers died rather young, one probably from a ruptured appendix and the other in a coal mine accident, leaving the mothers of both his parents widowed and impoverished at the height of the depression. There was hardly a better place to learn about resourcefulness in America than in homes such as these. His mother dropped out of high school to care for her own ailing mother in the brick house her father built. There was no running water and the loo was out back. Ferrella remarks, “When I was growing up, Mom was cooking everything.” True to her depression-era formative years, Mrs. Ferrella went to farms and bought food by the bushel. She made her own sausage and pasta and sewed almost all of the children’s clothes and Halloween costumes. Ferrella’s Polish friends in Detroit were bewildered by capicola, prosciutto and all of the other Italian delicacies at his house.

His father, James Ferrella (b. 1925), served in WWII and soon after went to work at a car factory in Detroit while attending night school for accounting on the GI Bill. Ferrella comments that his father has absolutely no artistic inclinations: “He likes to fix things and read newspapers.” Ferrella quips that his father is incredibly personable and is frequently “the life of the party unless you have heard his stories and jokes more than fifty times. He should have been a stand-up comedian.” After becoming an accountant he spent a remarkable forty years with the Sheller-Globe Corporation, making a life for his family that his own father could have hardly dreamed; complete with atomic-motif barkcloth curtains and modern furniture. Shortly after the transformative 1967 riot in Detroit, corporate headquarters moved to Toledo and the Ferrella family followed.

At some point, Ferrella’s mom started developing a collection of bones and pieces of found broken glass that she displayed on windowsills all throughout the house and in the garden. Her curio collections grew and she began making ornaments from the leftover pieces of hog intestines used for making sausage. She would inflate the intestines and turn them into knotted designs and hang them in the utility room to dry, resulting in three-dimensional, semi-translucent sculptures. She followed that inclination and in her early sixties she blossomed as an artist. She decided to pursue her newfound passion and secured a studio space in a beautiful old brick convent in downtown Toledo. Surrounded by other artists, “she hit her stride” in Ferrella’s words. “Dad would dig up bushes from the yard and she would spray them off, invert them and embellish them with found objects.” One must wonder whether her resourcefulness stems back to the depression or if there is something genetic at work. Ferrella is quick to mention his admiration, stating, “I think she’s an amazing artist…to take chewed bubble gum, dryer lint, tar from the street and to make it into something eclectic, fun and beautiful.” He describes her influence on his work as having given him the flexibility of seeing that anything can be made into art and to not shy away from unfamiliar mediums.

[i] Ferrella’s comments and biographical information were conveyed directly through multiple meetings and e-mails exchanged in 2015 and 2016. Most of his biographical information was relayed during a conversation on April 30th, 2016. 

[ii] Not all of Ferrella’s art is environmentally based. He is currently engaged in a series on race called 1 World. One of his longest running series is the Wisconsin Roadside Memorials project in which he has been photo-documenting roadside memorials for the past fifteen years.

[iii] There are many artists who loosely fit this stereotype. Eugene Von Bruenchenhein is one example.

Thomas Ferrella and his Greatest Inspiration, Aralina Ferrella