Dapper: adjective (typically for a man) neat and trim in dress, appearance, or bearing. Dapper is a word that easily comes to mind when you meet local artist Bob Fergison.
In nicer weather, you can see the 82-year-old Fergison in the vicinity of the EM&M building wearing his British flat cap at a rakish angle, generally in the company of several women and his dog, Shorty. Fergison adores women and the feeling appears to be mutual.
In celebration of the artist’s 82nd birthday, Fergison’s friend and fellow artist, Mike Koloski, with the help of the Zeise family yoga studio in Enterprise, is throwing a one-man exhibition for Fergison at 105 E. Main Street on Aug. 7 from 4-8 p.m. and Aug. 8 from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Private viewings are available by calling 206-450-1439.
Fergison and Koloski are old friends, and the two have occasionally painted together. “Mike and I go back a long ways. Our friendship has flourished over the years and produced a lot of good art,” Fergison said.
Fergison hopes for more success than he had at two previous shows which had a combined attendance of about 150 people. Those events featured Fergison’s cooking as well as his art — a combination which hurt sales. “We didn’t sell any paintings! People were too busy eating and drinking. I cooked roast beef, made my own baguettes and Biscotti. I was more interested in getting rave reviews on my pâté than on my paintings,” Fergison said.
Fergison was born in Seattle but raised in Portland. Other than a couple of years in the Army and occasional travel, he remained in Portland, where he worked in the business world before moving to the Wallowa Valley in 1989. “I came here because I wanted to quit drinking and had pretty much succeeded, but I felt a change of scenery couldn’t hurt,” Fergison said.
Although encouraged by his father to become an artist, Fergison went to both Reed and Lewis and Clark colleges and obtained a literature degree. He eventually entered the business world, building a career as an executive in the saw chain and metals industries “The saw chain company was very interesting work. My area was marketing/planning and training,” Fergison said.
After souring on the business world, he attended cooking school in Portland, which he called a huge mistake, although he loves to cook. “I associated fine dining with being a diner, not a chef,” Fergison said.
Shortly after cooking school, Fergison made his way to the Wallowa Valley, where he arrived soaking wet on a Memorial Day weekend in 1989 with $40 and a bicycle. He pedaled the bicycle to Wallowa Lake, where he spent the summer as a chef before returning to Portland — but not for long. “I looked around and realized, ‘There’s nothing for me,’ and I came back up here. Over time, good things happened, and some really wonderful women were part of my life here. Strong, intelligent and educated women,” Fergison said.
He did not resume his career as a chef or in business, as he desired more structure in his life. He went to work for Parks Foundry in Enterprise making slurry, which he called the best job he’s ever held.
At the foundry, Fergison enjoyed interacting with a different class of people. “I learned that guys with no advantages would sweat blood over their jobs, doing it right — it impressed me,” he said.
Although the business advertising world allowed Fergison to dabble in art, he did not embrace becoming an artist until the mid-1990s. Starting out with landscapes, Fergison eventually graduated to female nudes before branching off into boxing and horses. Boxing, because of the synergy of more than one person being depicted as well as the energy of the sport. The horses honor his father, a devotee of legendary western artist Charlie Russell. Fergison names artists Cy Twobly, Mark Rothko and Max Beckmann as major influences on his own work.
Depending on his mood, Fergison uses models and does preliminary sketches for his highly original paintings. Spontaneity is also a factor. “I don’t compose paintings, I just start. A lot of the creativity occurs on the canvas,” he said.
Fergison enjoys experimenting with his art. “I like using a four-inch house painter’s brush. You can really model with a big brush like that, then you can come back with details and lines,” Fergison said. He also prefers using the canvas as his palette and paints with a variety of implements including brushes, cloth, knives and even a dog’s hair brush.
Borrowing a figure from a completed painting and transplanting it to another painting is another Fergison trick. “Don’t be surprised if a figure looks familiar from another painting,” he said with a laugh.
Hardly the tortured artist, Fergison enjoys interacting with the community and even headed the Wallowa Valley Arts Council for a time and was awarded “Leader in the Arts” award by the Wallowa County Chamber of Commerce in 2005, an experience he relished. “Because of that, I was able to deliver a speech to over 200 people who were stuffed to the gills with prime rib. I got to say all the things I wanted to say, and I consider it a very successful speech,” he said.
A quick look at Fergison’s book cases will show he appreciates other forms of art including literature and music, but he said it doesn’t influence his visual art. “I watch a lot of C-Span when I’m painting. A lot of my best work is the result of my being angry at some politician,” Fergison said.
A dedicated partier, Fergison threw legendary parties, including one at his previous apartment that drew over 100 people. “I’m a good cook, and I like to do that, but I’m suffering from fatigue these days,” he said.
Because of ill health, including two cancers and eye problems that have nearly rendered him blind, Fergison hasn’t painted in six months. “I can’t do pen and ink life drawing anymore, but I have a number of paintings I can finish, even with my poor eyesight,” he said.
True to his innate good nature, Fergison isn’t bitter about his health and would like to inspire others. “I’d love to do some testifying and tell people about my experience. I don’t want my obit to say I struggled or fought against cancer. I own my cancer — it’s part of me. I’d just like to be remembered as someone who could relax and have fun with art,” he says.