While we were in Joseph, Oregon, for a show about art in rural communities last summer, we heard about a painter you might not expect to find in cowboy country, where most of the art leans towards landscapes and wildlife.
“There’s a great artist here named Bob Fergison, who just turned 82, and he’s at least three-quarters blind,” said Seth Kinzie, the web developer at the Josephy Center for Arts and Culture.
“He’s very Max Beckmann-like,” said the center’s executive director, Cheryl Coughlan. “Oil painting with a lot of heavy brush strokes that are textural. Lots of nudes. He has one woman that was his model for years, that was very obese, but she only had one breast. If you take him a bottle of wine, he’ll open his studio.”
“He will also be happy to draw you naked if you feel the need to disrobe in front of a great live drawer,” Kinzie added, dryly.
I wasn’t keen on disrobing, but I couldn’t pass up the chance to meet Fergison, who currently has a show on display at the Josephy Center through Feb. 17.
Kinzie volunteered to drive me to Enterprise, and we climbed to the top floor of the only big apartment building in town. Fergison met us at the door with his small dog, Shorty. He began by giving us a tour of his shotgun apartment. Paintings hung on every wall — nudes in living room, nudes in the kitchen, boxers in the bathroom — all mixed in with upscale and downmarket furniture and memorabilia from a life well lived. Had I not been able to see the small town out the windows, I would’ve guessed I was in the Manhattan apartment of a New York eccentric.
A longtime friend of Fergison compared him to the man in the Dos Equis commercials, the ones with “the most interesting man in the world.” He spent time in the Forest Service and the Army reading aerial photography before becoming a “Mad Man” style marketing executive in the timber industry. He ran marathons and chased women.
Then, wanting to go sober, he shifted gears in 1982 and moved from Portland to Wallowa County. A menial job at a local foundry was his entrée into the local arts scene, where he soon leveraged his marketing skills to become a rural arts impresario, throwing parties and chairing the regional arts committee.
At 65, he started getting serious about oil pastels and painting. He reinvented himself as an artist, and demand grew for his landscapes.
Then, Fergison got sick. The diagnosis was multiple myeloma and esophageal cancer. He moved to Seattle for treatment.
“I had a consultation with my gorgeous oncologist,” he recalled. “She said, ‘I can’t assure you of anything beyond eight months.’ I could see the tears welling in my daughter's eyes. And I was impatient to get the hell out of there, because I was so thrilled that I could spend some money. And the first thing I did, I waltzed down to Egbert furniture, and I bought that sideboard and that chair,” he said, pointing to the chair I was sitting in. To house the furniture, he rented a luxury apartment.
I asked him when he was given eight months to live, and he said 2005.
“And here’s the result,” he added, laughing. “I have no money, but I'm still alive and it's 2015.
In 2008, his cancer in remission and his savings spent, he moved to this apartment in Enterprise.
Fergison took me down the hall to show me a small apartment the building’s owners let him use as a studio.
“I depend on my muscle memory,” he said, struggling to plug in a lamp. He suffers from macular degeneration. “I'm totally blind in one eye and at least 50 percent blind in the other.”
The small room is cluttered to say the least. Stacks of paintings leaned precariously against the walls, paintbrushes drowned in old yogurt tubs in the sink, and huge unfinished canvases were nailed to the wall in layers.
“This is going to be one of my best paintings,” he said, pointing to a 10-foot-long canvas depicting what looks like a bar room brawl. Like most of his paintings, the figures are outlined in black, with bright colors just beginning to fill them in.
“Someone said you could title this the Joseph City Council meeting,” he chuckled.
Fergison has always gravitated towards the thick expressionist lines of artists like Max Beckman and Egon Schiele, but the scale of his work has grown since his battle with cancer and macular degeneration.
“If there was a canvas stretched along the wall, and he could only see four or five square feet of it, that’s what he painted,” explained a longtime friend, painter Mike Koloski. “He’d paint from left to right, and it’s amazing to me how the composition would prevail when he couldn’t step back and the take longer views that other artists can. And that’s the most interesting thing to see in the show that’s in the Josephy Center now is this later work that we call Expressive Figures.”
A month after I met with him, Bob Fergison’s health deteriorated, and he moved to a nursing home in Seattle. Koloski gathered many of the paintings from Fergison’s apartment and studio, plus some in private collections, to curate the show that hangs at the Josephy Center through mid-February. But Koloski doesn’t think Ferguson’s ready to throw in the towel. Not yet.
“Bob is a survivor,” said Koloski. “Even though he is in a nursing home now and will likely remain in that type of facility, I would not count him out. Bob was given 6 months to live 15 years ago, and 5 years to live 10 years ago. He’s going to be around for a while yet.”