Arts & Culture / Featured / Image / Media / Mosaic / October 10, 2012

Knox’s duck paintings hold hidden depths

This painting hangs in the first floor of Seymour Library near the printers. Called “Ducks Discussing Old Main,” it was painted by Professor of Classics Stephen Fineberg. (Casey Mendoza/TKS)

Most Knox students have seen the paintings of Daffy Duck hanging on the walls of Seymour Library or the Gizmo and wondered why they were there.

The answer involves Canada, the Greeks and a passion for art.

The paintings were done by Professor of Classics Stephen Fineberg, who shares a passion for Greek culture and making art.
“I wanted to go to art school, my mother was a painter … I really wanted to be an artist,” he said.

The painting in the Gizmo portrays a duck amongst beakers — and yes, that is a duck pun — and was apparently a gift to a retired chemistry professor here at Knox, who donated the piece to the school. Fineberg claims that he made up the notes and diagrams in the picture, calling them “fake chemistry.”

The painting in Seymour Library, featuring one duck lecturing another with Old Main in the background, was in storage until Fineberg agreed to give it to the school.

“The taller duck is me, and the younger one is a student,” he said. He claims the student-teacher relationship was meaningful to him and he liked to portray that in his art.

“Everything here is really about me and the student, in my own mind… it’s about that relationship,” he said

According to Fineberg, he first came across the image of a running Daffy Duck in a shop in British-Columbia, where he was teaching at a university.

“I wasn’t terribly happy there,” he said.

He saw a likeness in the image, sensing that it represented him escaping from Canada. “I thought … he’s getting out of here, and I thought: it’s my alter ego.”

It was at this point that he said to himself, “I’m going to start doing cartoons. I think I’m going to try it; see what it’s like.”

Duck art illustrated by Professor of Classics Stephen Fineberg. (Courtesy of Stephen Fineberg)

Fineberg began to draw the duck in various works of art.

“I was interacting with works of art, and I went back to take major works of art and paint in ducks,” he said.

He painted ducks in Matisse pieces, implemented his image in Greek culture (“Duckrates”) and politically charged the duck as a Klu Klux Duck in “Suspect American Fowl,” taking inspiration from expressionist Philip Guston.

“It just struck me as really funny, not that I think the [KKK]… is funny, but I do in the way Guston did,” he said.

“I started putting them everywhere,” he said. Fineberg put the ducks on his family’s checks, which were used in town.

“It turned out everyone in town knew them,” he said. It got to the point where everyone recognized him due to the duck checks, and they never had to show ID.

“I started thinking: ‘This is really a great function for art,’” he said. The ducks had become a part of “social media,” in a way, which fascinated him.

Duck art illustrated by Professor of Classics Stephen Fineberg. (Courtesy of Stephen Fineberg)

The ducks have also appeared on official college documents, after Fineberg disliked Knox’s new stationery and added his ducks to the letterhead. He sent a letter to President Roger Taylor, stating that he was going to be using his duck letterheads. He received a return letter from President Taylor, stating that he accepted Fineberg’s new stationery and that they would declare it the college stationery.

At one point, he tried to get Warner Bros. to sue him for using Daffy Duck’s image. Warner Bros. told him that they were sorry and would like to sue him, but since he had made no profit from the use of an already fading image, they could not take legal action.
What is especially surprising is the apparent power these ducks have.

“Whether good or not, they certainly have had social effects,” Fineberg said.

Fineberg’s ducks have managed to permeate political, social and emotional boundaries, “propagandizing for social good.”

In one instance, an interactive piece of his was featured in a show, encouraging annotation from viewers. Eventually, a hateful note appeared.

“It’s art bringing out something that needs to be said,” he said. This note, in turn, prompted a unified anti-hate response from the community.

“It brought out something not very nice, it brought out the community response … and it resolved its problem the way it could, and the artwork became the center of it,” he said.

In another case, the ducks (“Every Duck has a Dark Side”) helped a colleague realize that painful, repressed emotions existed within them.

“Amazing things have happened… and you never know what they’re going to be or what people are going to say,” he said.

“Because it’s a cartoon, it appeals to people at a level that a real painting might not,” he said. “The silliness gets you to the seriousness of it.”

The ducks were even featured in an exhibition in New York. He was offered representation from an art dealer if he moved to New York, but decided to stay and keep his job.

“I got a positive review in art forum, and I got a positive review in The New York Times,” he said.

Fineberg claims that he draws the ducks because of a personal connection he has to the image, going on to state his fascination for art that pushes the boundaries in society related to political differences or conflicting opinions.

“It’s been serious and not serious for me … it’s really, on some spiritual level, really serious to me,” he said. “But it’s also frivolous, it’s silly, I don’t take myself seriously as an artist. But personally, it’s very important to me.”

Connor Schmidt

Tags:  art British Columbia cartoon checks chemistry Daffy Duck Greek culture KKK Klu Klux Klan letterhead Matisse New York New York Times Old Main painting Philip Guston propaganda Roger Taylor Seymour Library stationary Stephen Fineberg the Gizmo Warner Bros.

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