Mr. Ferri at work.
Celebrated American artist Ron Ferri has been a presence in the art world for over four decades and continues to lead an exceptional life. Raised in rural Rhode Island, he served in the U.S. Air Force and studied abroad in Europe during his youth. Upon returning to the states he focused on his work and soon evolved into an innovative modern artist. His works are in the Museum of Modern Art, the Smithsonian Museum, the Whitney Museum and the Musée D’Art Moderne in St. Etienne, France, to name a few.
Ferri has mastered a variety of mediums and styles from painting and sculpting to working with mixed media and day-glo lights. However, in the last fifteen years he has left his creations of modern materials and returned to painting and drawing. Recently, he showed a series of paintings in Roatan, Honduras. When not in the gallery promoting his work, he was teaching local children how to express themselves using paint and crayons. “I put all their paintings up on the wall and their faces lit up. They showered me with more love than you can imagine that it was one of the most fabulous emotions I have ever felt. I hope to do it again with other underprivileged children in other countries. It is an extraordinary feeling bringing hope and a smile to a child’s face simply with a crayon, a piece of paper and their imaginations” says the artist.
Let’s start with your childhood, where did you grow up?
I grew up in Cranston, Rhode Island in a very rural area. Farms, cows, pigs, goats, etc. etc.
And when did your interest in art and design first begin?
I was always a good art student but my passion when I was young was figure skating. I skated for about ten years every day before and after school; won five gold medals. In 1948 I attended the Rhode Island School of Design for a year and studied drawing, painting and sculpture.
Shortly thereafter you enlisted in the United States Air Force where you received training in electronics and went on to tour Europe and Africa. Can you tell me what that time in your life was like?
After high school I wanted to go to college to become an electrical engineer. I applied to two or three colleges but was refused so I joined the Air Force. After boot camp, they sent me to electrical school to work on B-47 Jet Bombers which were intended to drop the atomic bomb. I spent four years stationed in Florida but was able to travel to places like North Africa, Spain and England three months out of the year. After my military service, I decided to apply to art school and was accepted to the Rochester Institute of Technology where I studied for three years. Shortly thereafter I relocated to New York City to study art education and earned a Bachelors Degree. I continued my education at New York University and earned my MFA in Fine Art. It’s then when I started painting and design.
You had the opportunity to study under luminary abstract expressionist painters such as Hans Hofmann and Esteben Vincente and spent the early part of the 60s at the Academie des Beaux Arts in Paris. What did you learn from these painters and how did it permeate into your style and work?
I studied with Hans Hofmann in Provincetown for a summer; in New York City I studied painting with Vincente. In school you were taught drawing, painting and life classes in order to develop techniques in the classical manner. I also took life classes in Paris at the Academie des Beaux Arts for one semester.
Upon returning to the states, your style began to shift as you worked more three dimensionally with sculpture and mixed media paintings. What inspired the change in medium?
After painting for a few years I started to become more interested in light, neon light specifically, which brought me to Chicago for my first neon show in 1967. I continued working in neon for twenty years in France, Italy and Spain. I did shows in Paris and Rome developing new techniques using light and luminous gases. From there I went on to develop the first neon table with plexiglass and luminous gases.
How did critics and your peers perceive it at the time?
Neon was a new medium in 1964 – the show got lots of press because it was a new artistic expression. The critics were cool about the new creative movement because they knew nothing about gases and that those different gases burn different colors.
Did the training from your Air Force days have any influence when you began incorporating electronics into your work?
I guess the Air Force must have played some part in neon; it gave me a basic knowledge about electricity. From there, I experimented with new mediums. After twenty years I felt I exhausted the medium creatively so I went back to my training in traditional techniques of art. You lose your involvement with your art because your pieces are built in factories by some other person.
As we begin the year 2011, technology has never been so accessible with almost everyone owning and using an iPhone, iPad, etc. and in some cases there are those who are overly connected. What are your thoughts on modern technology? Do you see its future as positive or negative?
Modern technology is O.K. but for art it’s still to be used creatively. Computers are great for communicating but you lose your contact with a human being on a social level. There you are in front of a computer for hours but no tactile connection.
One example in which you used technology to your artistic advantage was an event for Tudor/Rolex where buildings in several European capitals became your blank canvases. You “painted” on them by using a brush on a large computer screen with your process becoming a type of performance art itself. Did you come up with this idea? Was that the first time you worked that way?
Rolex offered me the opportunity to use technology as performance art and to work on a
larger canvas — the size of a museum wall. You are able to see the painting develop right in front of you. The viewer is also allowed entry into the creative mind and how it works as the artist works.
This was the first time this has ever been done so it was groundbreaking for an artist to work like this. I did shows at the Triennale di Milano in Italy, Museo Reina Sofia in Madrid, Berlin’s Tempelhof Airport and the New Museum in Paris. It was the first show they did at the New Museum with 5,000 people in the audience watching. I was hooked on this medium. Hopefully I will be able to perform in other countries in the future because it’s a fabulous experience, like a “happening”.
I believe you used the same approach when working on the Eric Nally photographs for WANTED. Whether it is a public space or fashion images shot by someone else, when you work off of something that already exists it becomes a type of collaboration or dance. How do you know what to put down on said “canvas” and when to stop?
You don’t know what is going to happen on the canvas until you put your brush on the computer in front of you. Then the creative process begins until you as the artist decides to say it’s finished. Working on the photo is the same experience as working on the computer.
What serves as your inspiration today?
My inspiration today is as it always was. I am curious and want to see things with a new point of view to excite the viewer, to feel color, space and emotion.
Lastly, this interview is scheduled to run in WANTED‟s “Men‟s Issue”. As someone who has experienced and seen so much, I am curious as to your thoughts on what it means to be a man and masculinity?
To be a man and masculinity is to be true to yourself and being born with a penis.
Originally appeared in Issue No. 6 The Men’s Issue of aWANTEDmag