A good number of us who grew up in Wisconsin were eager to book it out of here for bigger things upon turning 18. Many do so and never look back; others have chosen to make this place their home, to stand watch as it changes and help develop new pathways – particularly for artists.
Mark Ferrell, an Appleton-based fine art photographer, can identify with this feeling: getting out of one’s stomping ground and seeing the world. And that’s exactly what he did, except Ferrell’s hometown is Queens, New York. A long and winding road led him to Appleton, and now that he’s here, he says, “I want to stay. This is my home now.”
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I had the chance to speak with Ferrell at length after the opening night of Take Me to the River (TMTTR) in Kaukauna, where he’s exhibiting his photography.
His story is not easily predicted. Once upon a time, the photographer was a world-class track athlete and Olympic prospect, having trained with and competed against other future Olympians (Larry James, John Carlos, Tommy Smith, to name a few). He grew up around tremendously hard-working parents and neighbors in St. Albans, a middle-class, black neighborhood also home to Jackie Robinson, Count Basie and James Brown.
“I always viewed running track as a kind of performance,” Ferrell says, adding that his team’s obliteration of the national two-mile relay record led to the University of Kansas offering Ferrell a track scholarship.
Sports journalist Marc Bloom wrote an article in the publication The Runner in 1986 about Ferrell and his competitors. Describing the team, Bloom wrote, “Mark was the artist who was moved by an inner spirit that drew upon language, melody and nuance.”
Viewing any of Ferrell’s photographs today, those same principles are palpable in his pieces, which is what he wants most: for people to really feel his work, quite literally. He describes with passion and intensity his efforts to hold on to the integrity of print.
“I’m a printer… that’s where so much of my experience is,” he says. In his mind, there is simply no portable digital match for seeing or holding a professional, museum-quality print, adding, “it’s a whole different experience—that’s photography.”
Running in college was not nearly as rewarding as Ferrell had hoped, so he left early to pursue photography after a two-year stint in the U.S. Navy, hoping his service there would help with photography school. But his running days provided an opportunity to engage a skill that would serve him well through life: the ability to set and doggedly achieve his goals.
You have to visualize what you want, and then make believe it’s already here.
Briefly returning to collegiate running at St. John’s in New York after his time in the Navy, he decided photography was the path he needed to follow. He discovered a passion for printmaking after a chance visit to a print shop with a friend. After watching the dye transfer process in action, it became his life for the better part of the next two decades.
His interest in the arts and seeing the world led him to tour with rock bands in the ’70s and ’80s as a lighting technician and a photographer. Sadly, many of the iconic photos he had created along the way, including images of Miles Davis, Etta James and others, were mostly destroyed in a flood and lost in a difficult divorce.
“I had hoped to make a book,” he said with a wistful shrug. “But then again, I did. Last week I delivered a book I made of my friend’s daughter’s quinceanera. It turned out amazing; they loved it.”
Prior to his new career in Appleton (which he was first introduced to in 2004 when his mother, who was in her 90’s, and sister relocated here), his photography and technology-based endeavors ended in 2008 under a struggling economy and with his business partner retiring. After this, he had actually given all his photography equipment away to his niece as he worked other jobs in New York state.
“It was Christmas 2010 when the woman I was seeing asked me what I wanted for Christmas,” he recalled. “I answered jokingly, ‘Buy me a Nikon,’ and she did.” It was then that his “photo eye,” as he calls it, opened up again. Some of the first photographs Ferrell took on that tiny camera are proof he has a gift for composition.
In March 2011, while back in New York, something in his head said, Stop here and take a picture. He was standing in front of the Hudson River in Peekskill. “I did, and the photograph resonated. The passion was awakened.”
It was the Hudson that brought him back to photography. And that river, in some ways, brought him to ours.
It was a few months later that Ferrell found his way back in Appleton. He decided he would join this community, and since then, he has felt a strong pull to call this place home permanently.
Mark was quite literally breathless describing his reaction to the opening of TMTTR. “I wish there had been directional mics set up to record people’s reactions to the work,” he said, adding that the feeling of watching others absorb his photos was the best high of his life.
“The arts community here has welcomed me with open arms, like family,” Ferrell stated, which spurred him to dive in more passionately than ever on developing the business side of his art work. He walked away from Fox Valley Technical College with two associate degrees, and he’s now eager to work with and mentor young artists in the community, which is already happening within the TMTTR exhibit.
Sometimes that voice inside you gets so loud, you can’t ignore it. I’m hopeful that as an artist and a person I can always give that gift of unexpected kindness.
He seems especially passionate about developing his art and ability to do these things here in the Fox Valley – a place filled with artists who have changed his life. It’s clear his work will change and affect the people fortunate to experience it here, as well.
Check out Mark’s work over on his website.
Text: Katherine Chicquette Adams
Photo: Rachel Crowl