By Jane T. Ahrens
As I approached the Red Barn Gallery Charlie Ferguson and his granddaughter Jessica were just opening up for the day. Charlie with crossword puzzle in hand, and Jessica securing the barn doors open, both greeted me with welcoming smiles.
I felt a little shy and a bit like I was intruding, but that melted away as I began to chat with them. Charlie was pleased to show me around the gallery and into the back room where so many of his paintings and etchings are on display. I was especially intrigued with his small sketch of a group of islands in the Philippines and one of a pair of reptiles from a farm a friend of his ran in the South Pacific.
I recently read Charlie’s memories A Path Less Traveled and it was a gift to see in person the images in that book. They were coming to life on the walls of the barn.
I asked him about a still life with a bandana and a Wild Turkey bottle – interesting and a different subject matter than those we usually associate with Charlie’s more familiar works of Fishers Island landscapes and sailboats racing. He said with a wink, “That bottle had a note in it – whomever finds this note will know the liquor was consumed…”
In the early 1980s and again in the 1990s my husband and I purchased two of Charlie’s etchings, both of geese flying in formation over the waves. I think at the time I liked them because they reminded me of an etching that hung in my grandmother’s living room on the Cape and then in Shaker Heights. As I read A Path Less Traveled I discovered why. Charlie wrote in the chapter titled ‘Charlie as Teacher’, “While at Trinity, I also earned a Masters Degree. Teaching three days a week and taking evening classes was not easy, but I prevailed. I wrote my thesis on an American artist Frank W. Benson, a fine wildlife artist.” I arose from my chair on our porch and checked the signature on the etching of sea birds in flight my father had since given us, and has hung next to Charlie’s two etching in the last three homes we have had. In fact, it is by Frank W. Benson. It all makes sense now and I had the pleasure of sharing it with Charlie during my visit.
At the recommendation of Ogden Pleissner, a sporting artist who shared a studio in Vermont with Norman Rockwell, Charlie began attending the Arts Student League of New York in 1946. There he studied under Frank Vincent DuMond. Later that summer Charlie and his wife Alice found and purchased “an old wreck of a house” which Alice named ‘Flounder In’. Charlie told me that during a later visit to Fishers Island, when Mr. DuMond stayed at Charlie’s parents house ‘Brookwood’, Frank visited Flounder In and said, “Never sell.”
I agree with Mr. DuMond. Founder In is a most special place as I discovered when Jessica and Charlie graciously invited me out for a visit. The road on North Hill is a bit tired and after the early morning rain looked more like a stream than a road, but Charlie said, “That keeps the grandchildren from driving too fast.”
Carefully tended to over the years by Charlie and Alice, their extended family members and friends, the little house on the beach exudes Charlie’s personality. Calm, kind, gentle and thoughtful, strong and determined. It has withstood more storms, hurricanes, and Fishers Island’s winter weather than one can imagine.
I had a short tour and met Albert with whom we shared some crackers for his mid-day snack. Charlie wrote and illustrated a book about Albert and his long time companion Victoria, the wise herring gulls who fish off his beach and rest on his rocks. Charlie guesses that he and Albert are about the same age.
As I departed I envisioned Charlie getting to work on his current project, a painting of his beloved dog Lee Lee frolicking on the beach with the puppies she might have had, and reflected that I wish I had had the opportunity to meet Alice years ago.
I have a special reminder of my morning with Charlie. An old (Charlie said it is one of his earliest) etching of Flounder In. There were several in the folder at the barn and I asked him which he liked the best, that is the one that will join his other framed etchings in our island home.
If you would like to visit Charlie at the Red Barn Gallery, it is open 10:00-noon in season. There you will discover his varied works of art and the treasure of books he has authored and illustrated. One of my favorites is Flounder In, a collection of drawings and watercolors from his pocket-size sketch books.
You may also find:
~ A Path Less Traveled, The Memoirs of Charles Ferguson
~ Victoria and Albert’s History of Fishers Island, Part I and II
~ Twenty-seven Views of Race Rock Lighthouse in the Four Seasons
~ Twelve Months on the Enchanted Isle Fishers Island, NY
~ Lee Lee: A True Tail
~ A Thanksgiving Story
~ Sea Fever
~ Fishers Island Club and its Golf Links (with Pierce Rafferty)