The creative process | conversations with artists | the contemplative impulse in art

New Work at SAM Gallery

As August fades the light changes from amber to cooler colors. A recent visit to Whidbey Island and my favorite muse of land and sea, Ebey’s Landing, inspired this new print, “Passage.”

"Passage" fine art print, inspired by Ebey's Landing, by Iskra Johnson

“Passage,” 24″ x 24″, limited edition archival pigment print © Iskra Johnson

Sometimes a certain vista feels eternal. Seasons may alter the colors, as well as the winds and the taste of the salt, but the silence that holds it all remains constant. The official name of the Northwest’s main waterway is “Puget Sound,” but those who live here just call it the Sound. You will know why if you climb the bluff at Ebey’s Landing and stand there for awhile on a hot summer’s day. Give yourself enough time to settle into the golden grass, and let at least two ships go by. Then walk back along the beach and don’t leave until every pocket is full of warm stones.

"The View from Ebey's Landing" Archival pigment print by Iskra johnson

“The View from Ebey’s Landing,” 24″ x 24″, limited edition archival pigment print © Iskra Johnson

Both of these prints explore the aesthetic of traditional Japanese woodblock, approached from a modern perspective, using digital photography and printmaking. I am thinking about rice paper, and pale inks from porcelain bowls, and the colors of silk on old kimonos. In Yoshitoshi’s day, and in the time when Ebey’s Landing got its name, the world was roiled by mayhem and violence. Oh wait, and that might be true as well today . . . When there is a moment of peace, I’ll take it, and keep it with me.

“Passage” and other prints from The Floating World, Construction|Reconstruction and Infrastructure, are available at SAM Gallery. If you are interested in a studio visit to see other work I can be contacted here. A previous post tells the story of the Floating World and my muse, Yoshitoshi.


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A Meditation on August as Drought Comes to the Pacific Northwest

I have recently begun writing on Medium. Today I have published a piece about the garden, and what it is like to be a caretaker of Eden when global warming turns everything upside down. Here is an excerpt, with new artwork done in homage to the magnolia.  I hope you will visit Medium to read the entire essay and share with friends, gardeners, and anyone looking for ways to think about living in this time of drastic change.


magnolia mixed media on plaster by Iskra Fine Art

Magnolia, mixed media on plaster © Iskra Johnson


What is resilience? This is the question I ask myself hourly in the summer the West is on fire.

It is August. Poppies and cosmos intermingle, their ungainly stalks eye-high and lassooed with string. The distance shimmers in incense. The air is thick, and sound travels and bends slowly around corners. Even airplanes seem different, with the lazy small propeller sounds of a slower century. August defies the laws of breathing. You can exhale and stay there, moving neither forward nor back. Look at the dogs, and the lawn, indistinguishably golden and bleached, panting, lolling, wordless. Be like them. Walk barefoot into the garden at dawn in a long white dress and feel the stubble against your toes. There will be only one cool moment before evening and it is now.

I stand for hours with the garden hose, saving what trees I can before rationing begins. The ground dampens quickly but after months of heat I am no longer fooled. I can sink my fingers into the dirt and know it will be bone dry. When dirt changes character and no longer knows how to receive, the scientists call it hydrophobic. The garden hose and watering can, these symbols of all things fecund and generous and regenerative, have met their match.

The loudest sound in the garden is magnolia leaves. When they fall they clatter against the stacks gathered at the trunk. But as the lower leaves drop and the center becomes bare the crowns explode in feverish new growth and blossoms. I ask the nursery, and they say what nursery people always do: It’s too much water. Or not enough water. Or too much fertilizer or . . . not enough fertilizer. My favorite answer is “They are getting rid of the leaves because they don’t need them.”

If I were a magnolia I would want to keep all my leaves whether I needed them or not. I would want to be as beautiful as a grove in a Persian miniature. I scrape leaves into sacks already filled with what I have ripped out, what no amount of water will save from the heat: day lilies, creeping jenny, crocosmia lucifer, fragile fern, pale green hosta, the hellebore that laid down and never got up. What remains has deep roots, few needs.

 (Continue . . .)

A note on the artwork: I will be showing as part of Seattle Sampling in November, and am developing some new mixed media ideas on plaster. Stay tuned to see how this evolves. It’s very exciting to try a new and messy technique, blending digital imaging, surface, paint, lots of rags, buckets, doing and redoing.

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How to Purchase Artwork from Iskra Fine Art

I currently sell my work through the SAM (Seattle Art Museum) Gallery and directly through my studio. SAM Gallery has a wonderful new space in the museum in the heart of downtown Seattle. One of the unique and very smart things the gallery offers is the option to rent art as well as purchase. Many companies and individuals start by renting art at a very affordable monthly rate and then decide to purchase, with the rental costs going towards the purchase.

My print prices range from $300 for the smallest work to $1,800 –$2,500 for larger prints, and the cost is the same whether you purchase from the gallery or through me. To learn more about my prints and about digital printmaking go to the print section of my website. If you choose to buy from me directly I can ship unframed prints to you if you are out of the area, or I welcome you to contact me for a studio visit, where you can see a large body of work and examples of framed work.

I also work in many other media besides printmaking, and I sell my drawings and paintings directly or through SAM Gallery. The prices of these pieces vary greatly depending on medium and size, so if you have interest in a particular piece please feel free to contact me for more information.

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Seattle Art Fair and Satellite Events, July – August 2015

“The Seattle Art Fair will showcase the vibrant culture and diversity of the Pacific Northwest by building on the region’s existing momentum to create a truly unique, innovative art event that will further establish Seattle as an influential player in the global art landscape.” — Seattle Art Fair

Emeral City Skyline, photocollage by Iskra

Photocollage © Iskra Johnson

Seattle artists and collectors are buzzing, in their quiet Northwest way, about the opening of the Seattle Art Fair next week. There is so much happening!! Yes, it deserves two exclamation points. To get the big picture, preview the official fair at Artsy. Visit the fair’s events page to see the line up of lectures, site-specific work, and partâys, chief among them the gala fund raiser opening benefiting Artist Trust. Many of Seattle’s finest will be participating, as well as an impressive roster of the best galleries from Los Angeles, New York, Miami, Asia and Great Britain. Thank you Vulcan for bringing the world to our city.

The Seattle artist community has rallied with an astonishing line-up of satellite art exhibits and events running concurrently over the course of a week. I don’t know how I will choose what to do, because I want to see everything. I’m a jeans and earrings person, so the burning question is what am I going to wear?? I think I will call Kelley. Maybe she can loan me an ensemble or two. Since the official Art Fair is pretty well publicised I thought I would use this space to give some ink to the satellite events and exhibits that will be happening around the fair and concurrently.

Out of Sight at King Street Station

From Vital 5, and curated by Kirsten Anderson, Sharon Arnold, Greg Lundgren and Sierra Stinson, this 24,000 square foot survey of contemporary art in the northwest will showcase 80 emerging and mid-career artists:

Vital 5 Productions has a long history of championing contemporary art in the Pacific Northwest. Since the mid-1990s, we have been producing exhibits, events, experiments and creative content that celebrates all that makes our region so dynamic, original, and largely out of sight. When we heard about Vulcan producing the first annual Seattle Art Fair in the summer of 2015, it was almost immediate that we wanted to support the fair and harness the international attention the fair will bring to Seattle. From this energy emerged a new exhibition opening July 30th in the historic King Street Station.

You can try running between the two openings, The Official One and Out of Sight because they are within a few blocks of each other. Tickets to Out of Sight opening night and fair can be purchased at Stranger Tickets. Keep track of Out of Sight on Facebook and Instagram.

Satellite Seattle

Thanks to the initiative of Seattle artist and entrepreneur Kate Sweeney we have Satellite Seattle:

Satellite Seattle is a new website designed to showcase and celebrate the richness of arts culture in Seattle. Aggregating and presenting an exciting schedule of activities in orbit around the Seattle Art Fair, events across the city will be included in one site that will have information on venues, events, artists, maps and opportunities to participate.

Satellite Seattle will also be hosting four days of events designed to share and appreciate the talent of our city, working in partnership with Northwest Film Forum, Yellowfish, Capitol Hill Arts District, Studio Current and New TMRW, with artists and venues focused on Capitol Hill.

Check out their calendar of events, and while you’re at it put Vanguard Seattle and City Arts on your reading list. I’m sure the smart people there will have some trenchant observations about this week long art circus.

Art of the City

In around the infamous TK Building and farther afield, take a look at the lineup for Art of the City. Arts, Music, Performance, open lofts, in the electric heart of Pioneer Square’s art scene. If you are visiting Seattle from out of town why don’t you just settle in for awhile?


The wonderful people at Collect are cultural partners with Seattle Art Fair. On Saturday, August 1, they will be running circulator busses to take participants to offsite events. Your ticket entitles you to a VIP pass to the fair, which includes access to the preview party on July 30th. Check out Collect on their Facebook page.

Seattle Art Museum Gallery Artists at Seattle Art Fair

Come visit SAM Gallery and see a special show in celebration of the Seattle Art Fair. I will be exhibiting in the company of many other artists who’s work I adore, including Warren Dykeman, Kate Sweeney, Linda Davidson, Troy Gua, and Kate Protage. One of my pieces from the show is below.

The Green Bridge, Archival Pigment print, by Iskra

The Green Bridge, Limited Edition Archival Pigment print © Iskra Johnson

That’s the round-up! If I missed something do shoot me a note and I will either add it into the text here or publish your comments.


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In Defense of the Back Yard: Urban Density and Urban Eden


If I start this little essay with a Latin name will you stop reading? If I say “cornus controversa” for instance? I could say “dogwood” of course, but since this piece is not about dogs and only indirectly about “wood” why not go bold, if obscure? Common names can be so misleading, rather like those movie reviews which prevent you from weeping at the heroine’s tragic fate because in the back of your mind you keep hearing the movie was just a “tear-jerker.” I sometimes catch myself wondering if my favorite tree is really as beautiful as I think, or if it is in fact just a frantic panting mess, a dog slobbering on my knees and ripping up the Irish Moss. But then I go back to rolling its proper title under my tongue.

As in, “the other morning I had my back turned to the cornus controversa when I heard a sound of wings.” And even with my back turned and my eyes looking at the weeds in my hand I could tell that this particular wing sound belonged to a new bird, something with color. I turned around to see a flash of red – and in fact it was true: the finches had arrived. My heart skipped. Red will do that. I love my chickadees and my wrens and even, sort of, the sparrows, but basically they are all just some variety of dirt and twigs on wings. The finches have a lilt, and a song, and a cheekiness that makes me want to follow them everywhere.

They were just testing, and I didn’t see them again for a week, when they decided to stay and make a home. But in that week I reflected many times on the moment of turning around, and of how even though I have never consciously listened and categorized all the wing sounds of the birds in my garden, even though I am a city girl who does not forage for nettles or shoot squirrels for lunch, some primal part of me knows how to hear wings with my eyes shut and tell the color of the bird from the sound.  I am still a human animal with knowledge born in Eden.


This is what gardens, (common term: “yards”) offer us in the city: a chance to keep one foot in the animal kingdom and remember where we came from. Those who keep gardens provide necessary refuge for the bees and the birds and the dragonflies and all the other indigenous citizens so readily sent to slaughter in the mania towards urban “density.” As I watch what is happening to Seattle in the building boom I see not just the drastic revision of our architectural landscape, but a war on nature. When I step into the urban conversation I often find myself in the position of having to defend nature, as density visionaries and “sustainability” activists go into powerpoint frenzies proving the crimes against density provoked by “single-family residential zones.” I try to point out that every yard-less über-green gray-water-recycling blue-jeans-insulated tower of clustered humanity makes yet another impediment to the cross-town traffic, and survival, of nature. You need landing places, watering holes, blooming oases, not just for the citizens of the natural world to survive, but for the nature to survive in us.

I get a universally blank stare: nature isn’t in the equation. If you want some of that, that luxury amenity not provided for in the lease, you can get in your SUV and go hiking twenty miles out of town, or ride a bike on the Burke-Gilman trail, or go to a “park,” ie. a cordoned-off refugee camp surrounded by concrete barricades where nature is quaranteed for our viewing pleasure. As the buildings rise and the idea of view corridor is ruled against in courts we not only lose the garden, but the view: the majestic distance becomes a micro distance, where unless you have a penthouse, the Olympics and the Cascades are but a screen-saver on your device, as you bend your head ever downward through the silent corridors of Amazon City. But that’s probably ok, because on screen it says the mountains are there, somewhere, and their care has been outsourced to the Sierra Club – hasn’t it?

This leads to a form of cultural, linguistic and species poverty culminating in the kind of conversation I had yesterday with representatives of One of Seattle’s Two Internet Providers (pick just one!) (then start screaming!). I had a connectivity issue, and in the process of getting help with my problem I had to reveal the name of my wifi network. In keeping with the nature meme that word was “nasturtium.” In conversations with three individuals well-versed in the modern world of device and artifice, over the course of one hour with at least 25 repetitions of this word on my part, not one person managed to pronounce it. Note, I didn’t say Tropaeolum. I said, that flower you eat, the most common garden flower of summer, the ones the aphids farm and ultimately destroy in August, the one with honey at the end you can bite off. “Nashrum” was the closest anybody came. And so finally I said, I’ll bet your grandmother knew this word, it’s a flower. Do you remember flowers? Or grandmothers?


These are seeds. N A S T U R T I U M. They will grow up to be flowers. You can eat them.

I hung up the phone and wept. There goes the knowledge base. The coming generation of people will only know flower names by looking through a flower app.  Or pointing at a florist shop at “that yellow one.” As we lose the names for things we lose the un-named knowledge of things. They say information doesn’t matter any more, only story, but you have to have language to tell the story. The naming matters as does the knowing of things in your body. Gardeners learn the names. They learn the dirt and the water and the right mixes of compost and lime.  They learn how to care, and they learn to tend, a verb not unrelated to the adjective “tender” as in “gentleness and concern or sympathy.” When modern assumptions begin to thwart a gardener’s sympathies this practice of tending can set them back on track.

Last summer I stood barefoot in my lawn and noticed that it had turned to clover. My immediate uncensored thought, inspired by the Lowe’s garden circular and a lifetime of hearing about how to keep your lawn free of weeds, was “I could spray it with something.” And then I noticed nearly a dozen honeybees, all drinking from the clover. I have signed approximately fifteen petitions this year about the bees and bee-killing pesticides—I had no real intention of spraying my lawn. But that automatic thought was the industrial advertising complex speaking inexorably through me, and it jolted me that I could have that thought, even as bees were inches from my feet. With all the reflexive demonization of lawns as suburban indulgence it had never dawned on me that they actually host bees. I will be growing more clover, needless to say.

After the red finches came and settled in, in a nest I have never been able to locate, something astonishing happened. It was as though word got out to all the other bright birds that my garden was now a rainbow safe-zone. And so now each morning I wait in hapless wonder, (knowing that waiting is the sure way to be missed by grace) for the two new golden finches and the mysterious greengold bird that I think is a vireo. They always arrive in the cornus, and from there they flit from tree to pot to bamboo, sometimes stopping to tiptoe along the rocks to the edge of the pond and wet their feathers. When I designed the garden a friend from Audubon told me to think like a bird, and make many intermediate heights, as perches. The bird knows that a cat or an eagle or a crow…. or a bulldozer and a proposed use sign, could come at any moment, and they seek refuges in places with layers of safety. Think of that next time you look at the burgeoning city: imagine that you are a goldfinch or a shy wren or a vireo –– where would you land? And then maybe think again about the neighborhoods, and all that “wasted” green space between houses. It is there for the continuity of  life, to keep it, and us, connected.

Listening for wings.

Urban Density and Nature: A Few Thoughts on Solutions

“Yes but–the people are coming, in droves, and the goldfinches can go somewhere else. Be practical.” It is the curse of the beautiful places that the people are, in fact, coming, and beauty may not survive them. I don’t have all the answers, but my part has been to build a tiny addition onto a cottage in my backyard and in this way create density without displacement of the wild. Two more people live here, and we have twice as many birds, thanks to careful densification of the landscaping to create privacy for the humans. It was not easy, as although Seattle in theory supports ADU’s (accessory dwelling units) they made it hellishly difficult. The requirement for parking was draconian–you can build a multistory unit on Capitol Hill with NO parking, and out in the part of the city with no sidewalks and no parking scarcity you have to design your project around cars parked onsite–even though there is plenty of room on the street. I’d recommend to the city to go easy on us, folks, encourage this kind of infill.


Secluded backyard cottage–room for birds and for people.

The inner core of the city is not the only place you can find cultural diversity. Backyard cottages allow people of different phases of life and income to live in proximity, in a way that mass gentrification and monolithic apartment complexes may not. Across the country cities are looking at how to best do this. Much has been written about the cottage movement in the Bay Area and in Berkley. In Seattle a great resource for backyard housing information is the backyard cottage blog.

Meanwhile, the population of North American birds is crashing, as reported in National Geographic: “A National Audubon Society report called “Common Birds in Decline,” for instance, shows that some widespread species generally thought to be secure have decreased in number as much as 80 percent since 1967, and the 19 others in the report have lost half their populations. The figures reflect an array of threats faced by birds throughout North America.” And in an article from the University of Washington Conservation Magazine, “while parks and preserves are important refuges for urban wildlife, the so-called matrix – which they describe as the “mosaic of land uses between habitat patches” – is equally important.”

Let’s look at development in a more truly organic way, beyond the buzzwords of “sustainability,” “density” and “green” to what is really going on on the ground. Let’s consider the perspective of the wildlife among us, our fellow citizens, –– before they disappear. I’d like to end with a word from the dogwood, excerpted from a lovely article about the history of the common name for this tree. I can’t guarantee the origins of this, but I would love to think it is true:

“The Cherokee also had a legend concerning the Dogwoods. They believed that a tiny race of people lived in the forest and watched over them. They were called The Dogwood People. They taught them how to live in harmony with the land, and watched over the elderly and the infants. The Dogwood People believed in doing good deeds for others for the simple acts of kindness, not for personal gain, or to have someone indebted to you.”


“Makers’ Marks”: Iskra in Painters Under Pressure at the Virginia Inn

I am very excited to be in a show with my printmaking salon opening this May 7th. As one of the salons originally started by Seattle Print Arts we have been meeting for well over a decade to critique and inspire each others’ work. We include in our ranks a psychologist, architect, calligrapher, graphic designer, massage therapist and scientist, and the depth of professional experience in this wide range of disciplines informs the discussion. We also have backgrounds in diverse forms of art making. Our name, Painters Under Pressure, alludes to the explosive possibilities when paint is put under duress and standard methods are subjected to unexpected intervention. In this show at the Virginia Inn you will see mixed media, monoprint, potato print, linocut, painting, and digitally composed work.

Here is one of my pieces in the show, hot from the image laboratory. I composed this while thinking of the idea of the “glimpse” and how in a very short moment both Arcadia and Industry may fade into the rearview mirror of our cyber-kinetic present.


The Green Bridge, Archival Pigment Print, 24 x 18, 1/3 © Iskra Johnson

To see the event posting and share with your friends through Facebook please visit Makers’ Marks:Painters Under Pressure at Virginia Inn. The Virginia Inn, at 1937 First Avenue, is a wonderful bar and restaurant on the edge of the Pike Place Market, a great place to start or end the First Thursday Artwalk. We hope to see you there from 5 to 8PM –– come test out our signature drink, custom mixed for the show. Name this cocktail, please, we can’t decide! Press & Brayer, Pressure Valve, Bourbon Roller Flats, Amber Muse, Painters’ Proof ––?

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The Floating World: New Prints at the Alexis Hotel

“One must learn to float as words do, without roots and without watering cans. One must know how to navigate without longitude and without motor. Without drugs and without burdens. One must learn to breath like a wind instrument. The chord must be made of sand, the anchor of aurora borealis.” –– Anais Nin

“The term ukiyo-e, meaning “pictures of the floating world,” is a pun on a Buddhist phrase meaning “suffering world,” also pronounced ukiyo. Asai Ryoi defined the attitudes of the irresponsible but delicious floating world as “living just for the moment, focusing on the pleasure given by the moon, the snow, cherry blossoms, maple leaves, singing songs, drinking wine, diverting ourselves by just floating, floating, ignoring the pauperism that stares us in the face, refusing to be disheartened, floating like a gourd that drifts along with the river –– this is what we call ukiyo.” –– Yoshitoshi’s One Hundred Aspects of the Moon, by John Stevenson


“The bottom of the bucket / which Lady Chiyo filled has fallen out/ the moon has no home in the water” –Yoshtoshi, portrait of the poetess Chiyo

The inspiration for my latest series comes from studying ukiyo-e and particularly the life and work of 19th century artist Yoshitoshi. Outside of comic book historians and collectors of Japanese prints, this renowned Japanese woodblock master is no longer familiar to most North Americans. His career spanned a period in Japanese history of violent political and social upheaval, the Meiji Restoration, in which Japan began its transition from a feudal society to a modern one increasingly influenced by the West.


Chikubushima Moon – Tsunemasa, by Yoshitoshi

In his exquisite and elegiac woodcuts Yoshitoshi drew upon the drama and exactitude of Noh, and a wide vocabulary of historical Chinese and Japanese art styles. His subjects ranged from hyper-violent scenes of massacre, suicide and war, to serenely composed tableaus of domestic life in the pleasure quarters of early Tokyo. What captures me throughout his work is the sense of attention he brought to what is lost in the face of change. Whether depicting courtesans or samurai or the rising moon, his art honored the heritage of Japan’s past. Many of Yoshitoshi’s best images are a complex mix of brutality and meditative reflection. Visually his prints resonate both as theater and as elegant abstraction, in which every mark and shape fits like a puzzle with the whole. Today, as we face new waves of violence, displacement and relentless “progress” the essence of his work remains as relevant as when it first hit the streets of Edo over a century ago.

As a contemporary print maker working with digital media I always ask myself: Why this media for this subject? What can I do digitally that I can’t in some other way? And how can I provoke a sense of surface and tactile reality equal to work printed ‘by hand?’ I am in love with silk and with the pale translucence of woodblock skies. In all of these new pieces I imagine that I am working with fabric or fine rice paper, and that even as I may use a digital method I am holding a fine hake brush as I make the sky. Just as Yoshitoshi’s work existed as prints I want these to exist in the same way, as works on paper telling a story. The subject of my story is how we navigate, how we learn to float, when the known world is slipping away, when industry is becoming antique, when human reality is challenged on every front as the camera and the computer mediate our sensory experience. I was fortunate to have a friend who took me down the Duwamish River in a canoe, and many of the photographs embedded in the prints were taken on that trip, eye-level with the river and the great ships and barges that make the river their floating home.

Here is a selection of some of the prints on display. All of them are in limited editions of three, 24″ by 24″, printed in archival pigment ink on Hahnemuhle German Etching. The exhibit will be up through August 4th at the Alexis Hotel in Seattle Washington, 1007 First Avenue, 98104.

The Floating World Archival Pigment Print Iskra

The Floating World

Dream Ship, Archival Pigment Print, Iskra

Dream Ship

Duwamish 5 (Othello)

Duwamish 5 (Othello)

South Park

South Park

The Shipping Lanes, Archival Pigment Print by Iskra

The Shipping Lanes

Except for the Yoshitoshi prints, all images © Iskra Johnson and may not be reproduced without permission. To see all the work in this series visit the new print portfolio The Floating World.

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Taking Refuge: An Evening at the Seattle Asian Art Museum

Thus we live in a world that first existed inside the heads of others, a world built up through innumerable sustained acts of intentionality, a world where everything speaks not of nature and her processes but of its makers in their resistance to those processes. In a very real sense we can be described as living inside the heads of others, in an excess of interiority that obliterates our own relation to material origins, to biologies, to our bodies. In some way, making was intended to override the givens of nature, to create a world; that world has itself become a given whose terms are more limited in their scope for imagination and act. The world is so thoroughly made it calls for no more making, but for breaching its walls and tracing its processes to their origins. “Taking apart” has become the primary metaphor and “backward” the most significant direction: the creative act becomes an unraveling, recouping the old rather than augmenting the new. ” –Rebecca Solnit

Seattle’s Asian Art Museum sits in a stately Art Deco building nestled among trees in Volunteer Park. Known for its an extensive collection of Asian art, SAAM also hosts visiting scholars and exhibits of contemporary Asian artists. The park and the building create an exquisite setting for contemplation. Although as a long-time student of Asian calligraphy I used to go there often, over the years the habit has left me. I think I tell myself everything in the museum is just too old, the artists are dead, and I already know it all. If I’ve seen one brush stroke I’ve seen them all. And if I want a review of Asian art there is Google…..

I can tell myself all kinds of things about museums and deadness and irrelevance. And then one day real death comes to the museum and jolts me out of complacency. Antiquities I took for granted, knowing they would be forever in the cultural vault, are blasted in a few hours into rubble. Human beings are mowed down by zealots who have captured eternal instant replay on television while the art itself, and the sacrificed human beings, vanish. This must be in the back of my mind when I make a turn into the park one evening with no forethought or planning or any special reason at all. I am on my way somewhere, I have something important to do, but instead I stand in the twilight above the reservoir in front of the museum and breathe deeply the air of the day before spring. Plum blossoms fall into the little pond that had two swans when I was a child. The door to the museum is open and the graceful Art Deco windows fill with amber light.

Inside I can turn right to see Mr.’s Japanese hyper-now pink and neon Neo-Pop or go left and backward in time. I turn left and realize immediately that I know nothing, that I have never seen anything here before and that every brush stroke is a new event. It is a Thursday evening, and only a handful people are in the museum. The quiet is luxurious. I can take as long as I want to to stare at small things. Like how the paper on this long scroll of plum blossoms by Qi Baishi is done in pieces and glued together, in a set of ascending stutters and near-misses as the brush stroke continues from one sheet to the next:


Rice paper shrinks and expands on contact with ink. It is a formidable challenge to push and pull a brush to the sky, stopping and starting at the edge of each branch in just the way a tree grows so that the plum itself is not offended by the effort.


This piece alone changes my heart rate. I have stepped one layer back in time.

The exhibit is called “Conceal Reveal: Making Meaning in Chinese Art, ” and old is mixed with new. I stop in front of this painting by contemporary Chinese artist Wang Huaiqing:


“Here the artist plays with layers of symbolic meanings by setting a meiping vase upside down on a red table, alluding to the overturning of the past as well as expressing the auspicious message that peace has arrived. In Chinese, the word “vase” (ping) is a homophone with the word for “peace,” and the word for “table” (an) is a word that means stability and harmony.By turning the vase on its head, Wang alludes to the Chines word for upside-down, (dao), a homophone for “ to arrive.”

In other words a reminder that the past was not a bowl of cherries and people have been beheading and invading and cultural revolutionizing since the beginning of time. If we upend the vase and start over is it more or less peaceful? Ask the man who wrote The Better Angels of Our Nature. He seems to think we are on an upswing and that human beings are becoming less violent with the passage of time. We are conversing more and peaceably exchanging world views.


And standing up for our better natures. Or at least trying.


I would like to dress in a nine dragon summer robe, and sleep on a pillow made of white earth, where the dreams arrive carrying love notes on trays and the lotus always rises from the mud by noon. I would like to be an Arhat and inspire the sculptor who built this face of hemp and lacquer, layer after layer laid over wood or clay.


I emerge from history to more history, the skylit central courtyard ringed with Indian statuary, the space making me dizzy with its height and purely secular, graceful beauty. Through the doorway I can glimpse Mr’s nightmarish vision of adolescent school girls and Fukishima, tiny televisions and random detritus spilled into a towering installation in the south wing. Another time, for that. I am full and at peace, and grateful. Maybe contemporary art is supposed to disturb me, unravel my paradigm and make me fret even more than I usually do, but for now I’ll take refuge in what remains of tradition, and in institutions devoted to preserving culture and civilization. For an hour or so I will turn my face up and live in museum light.

The quotation from Rebecca Solnit it courtesy of a wonderful talk given by artist Michael Cherney at the Seattle Asian Art Museum the following weekend as part of Asia Week. Do take a look at his work, it is phenomenal. All images above were photographed at the current exhibit at the Seattle Asian Art Museum.

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“The Shipping Lanes,” or, The Longshoreman Strike Illustrated


“The Shipping Lanes” limited edition archival pigment print, 25″ x 25″ © Iskra Johnson

Last weekend I took a sun-blown walk along the waterfront, down to the Chittenden Locks and back up along Golden Gardens. I returned with over a hundred new photographs of the northern bay and renewed excitement about seascapes as a subject. Along the way I passed through the living rooms of those who sleep without doors. There is no bookcase, no lamp, but sometimes a bright red sleeping bag, some boots and a pillow. Perhaps the painted walls are the memories of dreams in a restless night with second thoughts the next morning. Make an intention, transgress, give and forgive, mark and remark, then erase. That is very close to what I do in the process of collage. Art is my process of transcribing dreams, which change in the telling, and may not be entirely true.

The ships have been very still lately during the long dockworkers’ strike. Filled with cargo with no place to come home, eerily paused. The Clipper was captured awhile back, heading out to sea after emptying her cargo. It seemed shamanistic to make this image, like praying for rain. Even in this era of cyber-ether where sometimes you can’t believe that anything physically exists, everything depends on ships. Nintendo, for instance, or oranges.

Friday the strike broke. I won’t claim credit, I’m sure they had this all figured out before I finished the sky and the clouds. I’m just a member of the randomly employed artist union, standing on shore with my eyes open and dreaming outloud.

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The Patra Passage Opens to the Public, Museum of Glass February 15

It’s hard for me to believe, but it has been a full year since I attended the launching of the Patra Project and received the gift of the patra, the exquisite bowl gifted to me and 108 other people on condition that within three months we pass it along to someone else. The past year been a time of big changes for me, and the energy of this extraordinary project by artist Lynda Lowe has permeated my life in many ways. (You can read about my experience of the patra here.) I passed my patra on to photographer Rosanne Olson, and this is what she did with it:

Photograph copyrighted by Rosanne Olson.

She also took it down the Grand Canyon on a raft:

Photograph copyrighted by Rosanne Olson.

…and it did not break. Other bowls did break, and all along Lynda has seen that possibility, and prepared herself for the repairs, which will be as beautiful as the original objects. The art of Golden Repair is a form of spiritual practice in its own rite, beautifully written about by Michael Meade in a recent piece in the Huffington Post , excerpted here:

“While anguishing over reports of both cultural and natural tragedies I keep thinking of the old Japanese practice of kintsugi or “golden repair.” The idea behind this ancient ceramic art includes the sense that when something valuable cracks or breaks it should be repaired carefully and lovingly in a way that adds to its value. Thus, the cracks and fault lines in a valuable bowl would be filled with a lacquer made of resin containing powdered gold. Such a golden repair does not try to cover up the cracks in the vessel or deny the facts of the matter. Rather, the cracks and splits and broken places become filled with gold. Beauty appears exactly where the worst faults previously existed and the golden scars add to the living story and to the value of the container.

As a piece of “living philosophy,” golden repair suggests redemptive practices through which the damages of history and the tragic mistakes we make with the fragile vessels of both nature and culture might be repaired. Like any genuine process of healing and making whole again, golden repair requires that we first acknowledge and carefully study the exact faults and divisions that damage the shared vessels of our lives. If we see the globe of the earth as a living, sacred vessel that needs artful repairs we might imagine ways of helping it heal. If we could admit more readily to the tragic injuries that divide one group from another we could replace the bloody damages with golden lines that serve to remind us of the fragility of life as well as the possibilities of repairing shattered dreams and redeeming broken lives.”

This Valentines Day the bowls will be returned to the Tacoma Museum of Glass, where they were first introduced into the Patra community. The Patra Passage exhibit opens to the public on Sunday and continue through May 10. In conjunction with the exhibit there will be a talk, “The Mythologies of Beauty: from Aphrodite to the Patra Project” and book signing with author Phil Cousineau, Sunday February 15th from 3-4 PM.

I am looking forward to seeing what should be a truly beautiful exhibit. All vessels are for sale, and the proceeds go to support not-for-profit organizations and charity.

(Apologies to subscribers of this blog, I made a mistake in the first version of this post and the permalink was not good so I had to repost–you may get this twice.)

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