By Mark Jenkins
Oct. 4, 2019 at 8:00 a.m. EDT
In his formal portrait of venerable D.C. milliner Vanilla Powell Beane, Benjamin Ferry depicts her surrounded by hats and standing in front of a large mirror. People who try on hats want to see how they look, so of course Beane’s shop would have mirrors. But Ferry slyly includes reflective surfaces in many of the pictures in “Hats Off,” his show at Gallery Neptune & Brown. A hand mirror awaits use in one painting, and a rendering of the shop’s exterior treats the display window as a mirror of the neighborhood. Beane’s business is looking good; Ferry’s is looking.
Beane turned 100 on Sept. 13, a date designated “Vanilla Beane Day” by mayoral proclamation. Ferry’s tribute is this suite of paintings and drawings, which he began after moving to the Brightwood neighborhood. There he discovered Bené Millinery, whose clients have included Dorothy Height and Maya Angelou. The hat maker herself, though, is the only person Ferry portrays.
The shop is a traditional sort of place, which Ferry chronicles with old-fashioned realist technique. The paintings are oils and mostly still lifes, observing the hats as if they were flower arrangements or bowls of fruit. These pictures can be appreciated for their documentary value or as studies in color, massing, texture and shadow.
There’s more dynamism in the drawings, made with colored chalk or charcoal with white highlights. Ferry used the latter media to make the vivid “Magic,” in which the hat maker’s hands are so active that they multiply. In a show of quiet pictures of finished products, this drawing crackles with the energy of work in progress.