“Joy is being willing for things to be as they are.”
― Charlotte Joko Beck, Nothing Special
I would also say that joy is seeing and delighting in things as they are, which can be an elusive concept when your life gets caught up in a construction project. Construction projects by definition require making things different. Better. Fixed up. Everything is most definitely not ok as it is, otherwise why are you going to all this debt and trouble?
As I approach the move-in date for my new studio I’ve become aware that for much of the past five months I’ve been completely not-here, now, at all. My tattered meditation practice has consisted of five minutes of thinking about not-thinking and then making elaborate to-do lists. During this time I have been living in a liminal zipcode where nothing will every really be fixed up: it’s its nature to be a little bit broken. Gentrification will never reach the upper pastures of Aurora, aka Highway 99, or the streetwalkers negotiating with men in hoodies on vegetable crates at the back of the Rite-Aid or the lake that time left behind, Bitter Lake. The geese will be there forever and nobody is going to shoo them or shoot them or make it nice for picnicking. Instead it will be a place where at 7 AM a thin man drinks beer, a very pale and large boy thumbs a bible, shredding its corners into the lilies, and five women in white headscarves sit on the bleachers in silence, watching dirt where grass used to be. The swallows dive above a miss-matched collection of ducks, and distracted pet owners text-message while their dogs forlornly do their business without witness. This is a park only in the most grudging sense. Signs warn you not to swim. It takes effort to notice that the trees are trees just the same, and cast lush shadows just as langorous and gratuitously beautiful as those of an Olmstead preserve. It takes less effort not to look at all.
Three days ago my back went out, and I have had to completely stop. Sit. Suffer, get quiet. Here is the gift of contemplative time, handed to me by my body, with a grimace. I have taken several slow walks on Linden Street, as walking is one of the only forms of relief. At my new geriatric pace I fit right in with the retired gangsters in their wheelchairs and gold chains and the elderly folk taking a smoke or glacially wheeling grocery carts back and forth from the Safeway a mile up the road. Every walk brings a surprise. A perfect symmetry of ducks cutting an arc across the not-so-bitter lake. The scent of crushed lemon geranium in the parking strip. A woman sitting on a couch in the middle of the Interurban Trail eating a bowl of cereal in her pajamas. A truck:
Before I was living in this neighborhood and taking it for granted, when its dereliction seemed exotic, I used to wander around in the vacant lots in the afternoons and take pictures. I stumbled onto a mountain of abandoned belongings, among which I scavenged panels of old wallpaper. They were so absurdly happy, the yellow flowers peeling from the stained and stapled wood. They became the image at the beginning of this post, collaged with a chair from twenty years earlier glimpsed on a street at evening. There is nothing like a chair to inspire contemplation. To beg you to recollect, muse, dream, remember to forget. A chair without arms is humbling. It’s not a throne, and you have to put your hands in your lap. It’s an unanchored state, a kingdom without borders, and at the same time it is completely restful and civilized.
When people ask “where do you find time for contemplation?” I no longer say a word about having a regular meditation practice. I just say I keep my eyes out for a state of mind. Grab it where I can. Parking lots, edges, mistakes, miss-steps. The ugly, the random, the broken, the beautiful, the healed.
It’s a day when the news provokes long discussions of despair and bewilderment on my social media feeds. I find myself in a desperate ricochet between fear of plague, spreading wildfire and epic drought, and I can’t stop thinking of the numbers in Gaza, numbers attached to bodies, bodies attached to the fact of children and hospitals and schools and what can only look to me like slaughter of a trapped people. I hold up a dollar bill and consider what part of it to tear off to protest my taxes going to mortars and grenades.
As I sit in miles of hot stalled traffic I feel increasingly bludgeoned by things beyond my control. This traffic jam is brought to the Emerald City by the Blue Angels. Each summer the freeway closes to honor the Navy’s elite flight squad and the quaint ritual of military preening that carves the sky with white ribbons and shatters eardrums of those below. All I feel as I watch the jets dive between skyscrapers and lilt upward from my rear view mirror is dread. Gaza seems right here, right here in my lap.
I am on my way to see the Jim Dine exhibit at Wright Gallery. The Gallery will close forever in 48 hours, and my mission feels urgent. Jim Dine is one of my five muses, and I have only seen a handful of his drawings outside of books. Not only have I nearly missed the exhibit, but I didn’t even know this world class art space even existed, although it has been open since 1999. With limited hours of Thursday and Saturday, from 10 until 2, and a discreet location, one could be forgiven for missing it.
To get there I wend through a maze of orange traffic cones and barricades and mounds of rubble. Dexter Avenue is about to go. I began my eulogy of this unstoried but precious part of the city with a photo essay on Memorial Day in 2012. That was the beginning of the end, and today marks the final stages. Within a year there will be virtually no low rise industrial or embarrassingly ‘miscellaneous’ buildings left, and all will be re-purposed for the gleaming high tech village and the workers to come. We’ll walk entirely in shadow canyons of concrete and glass, and be pardoned for thinking the throngs of silent people with plugs in their ears and devices in their hands are not quite human.
My completely biased perspective on this situation of neighborhood erasure and gentrification makes Jim Dine’s work all the more poignant. His huge etchings and drypoints are made with powertools. His themes are the heart, the muse, the human hand at one with the tools of hand-work. Dine recently made a gift of over 200 prints to Washington State University’s Museum of Art, and it is from these that the Wright exhibit is composed. Below are two sections from the suite of prints telling the story of Pinocchio.
“I remember sitting on the steps outside the garage….And taking pieces of galvanized pipe, and rolling them down the stairs, just letting them go, like a Slinky toy, but it was a pipe. I would just play with these objects of desire, like a hammer, or I’d grab a screwdriver and pretend to be an adult. I thought they were so beautiful. It was a nonverbal meeting.” –Jim Dine
Stepping into the Gallery is revelatory. The door is massive, silent and soft-closing. The air inside is perfectly chilled. The space: simplicity itself. The architects got out of the way and the art vibrates. This is hallowed ground. All the more so for the heat and the dust, dirt, noise and general calamity outside. We need these places. And we need to pass on the gift of appreciating them, and make new ones to take the place of those that end.
In times of duress art is all the more important, because it matches darkness with light, despair with vision, calamity with imagination. Art like Jim Dine’s dives deep into the heart of what it is to be human. His marks are his unmistakeably. Fragile, arrogant, desperate, joyful — masterful.
Outside the door the world continues. But it looks different.
Site photos © Iskra Johnson, prints © Jim Dine
I fell in love with the bones, the rafters, the beams and the sky in-between.
Then things got very dark, and after a long time they got light again. Many many beams and rafters in between…..
I know an artist studio without roof or walls is impractical. I’ll get used to this. Did I mention that although this is the most anxious summer of my life it’s also the most exciting???
Next I will post the faux barnwood-in-progress floors.
“The point is, not to resist the flow. You go up when you’re supposed to go up and down when you’re supposed to go down. When you’re supposed to go up, find the highest tower and climb to the top. When you’re supposed to go down, find the deepest well and go down to the bottom. When there’s no flow, stay still. If you resist the flow, everything dries up. If everything dries up, the world is darkness.”
― Haruki Murakami, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle
I think there is no better place for me to understand equanimity than the slender borderline between land and sea. To walk the shore on a gray day, with a warm wind in my hair and clouds low on the horizon, to become completely lost in the large rocks and the pebbles and the sand, finer and finer gradations of gray and brown and white and coral that the sea tosses up and time burnishes. It’s the middle path. No chasing after sunsets or epiphanies, no ecstatic longing or grasping at beauty that will fade, because all of this is already faded. I can walk for hours and hours looking down and finding the horizon line and the cloud in every stone.
Neutral. Muse of gray: Leo Adams. The brilliant Yakima artist is my mentor these days, a warm pebble always in my pocket and guiding me as I look to form the aesthetic of a new studio and living space. It seems to me lately that the design world is divided into those who know of Leo Adams and those who don’t. Once you do, you can’t go back: gray and brown will never be the same, and you will look at interior design and painting with completely new eyes. His work blends influences of Asia with the eastern Washington landscape and a Native American materiality and sense of place. It is part of the subtle and potent lineage of the Northwest School, of Mark Tobey, Morris Graves, Richard Gilkey and others who embraced the tonality of this misty overcast latitude and found kinship with the artistic traditions of China, Korea and Japan.
I first saw Adams’ work at the home of a collector in Tieton. Across from a window onto yellow grasses and rolling orchards hung a screen that looked Asian, but not, like sumi, but not, flat yet dimensional, and put together with the most subtle palette of grays I had ever seen. I spent a summer wondering how this work was made, who had made it, what kind of mind could see space the way this artist did. I then discovered that here and there friends of mine knew Adams, and that his way of seeing had influenced northwest design in every way, for decades. Recently he has received quite a bit of attention by way of an exquisite monograph published by Marquand books. It is now a prized possession (bible!). I hope someday to see his home and studio in person, but in the meantime this lovely documentary from KCTS takes me there, as well as through a retrospective of his paintings. If nothing else, becoming acquainted with Leo Adams will mean you never again apologize for dragging sticks and rocks into the house.
I returned home from my recent day along the shore with pockets full stones and a quiet(er) mind. Perhaps this piece is a kind of cloud chart. I’ll need to come up with a new taxonomy to explain this version of the atmosphere. Cumulus Equanimous, that might be a start.
I have been experimenting today with color. Lurid wild-child Aurora color, for an image that captured me as I was wandered the bleaker spaces of this territory last week. Hot midday sun, a lot of dirt, and the glory of green. Aurora, AKA Highway 99 is a riot of color theory once you get over bad taste, disregard, and what I used to think of as ugliness. Now it’s all just material, and life on the edge is looking good.
I am thinking of a new approach to digital printmaking. Instead of focusing on editions of 20 in which every print is identical, I am returning to the ancient analog idea of the “variant edition” in which the plate (the basic “file” or photo/image composite) is the same, but one makes subtle shifts to each print. The editions will be very small, perhaps 3 or 5. Here are some takes on the newest piece done in this mode. I am still proofing, so I am not sure yet what scale will suit these best.
Of course if you do any image processing on a computer you can guess that some of these colors are wildly out of gamut and will print quite differently than what is seen here. I do love that phrase, “out of gamut.” It is technical, yet speaks in some way to the freedom of the spirit of making art. Sally forth! Run with your hair streaming in the wind until you reach out of gamut. And then keep going.
All images © Iskra Johnson
Once a month I meet with a very special group of creative entrepreneurs to critique art in progress, celebrate completed projects and share spectacular food. Over the 14 years we have been meeting two of our members have moved out of Seattle to the Kitsap Peninsula, and so twice a year we caravan on a ferry to meet at their studios.
Last month we met in Bremerton, at the tile studio of Paula Gill. Paula works surrounded by a rambling country garden exploding with vegetables and bouquets. Everywhere you look there is something to make you smile. It was a beautiful day in an environment designed to nourish the spirit.
I have known Paula for many years and have been continually impressed by the breadth of her skills as a painter, printmaker and graphic designer. It has been a privilege to observe the process of her work as it has unfolded and moved in new directions. Here are some excerpts of our conversations about her work and her development as an artist:
How has your work changed in the last few years?
The primary focus of my artisan tile business for the past 15 years has been the design and production of colorful glazed decorative tiles with garden and nature themes that I sell at juried Art and trade shows, selected galleries and retail shops. Each tile is carved by hand; each is a one of a kind original, no molds are used. In the past several years, my focus has shifted toward exploring and experimenting with new techniques and imagery.
What is the connection for you between tile and printmaking?
My background is in both relief printmaking and ceramics. Since I started making tiles 15 years ago, my “holy grail” has been to find ways of combining printmaking techniques with tilemaking. I began by using “v” and “u” gouges to create the linear elements in the tiles with a technique known as sgrafitto. I progressed to embossing carved linoleum blocks into tile forms, a technique called mishima- a process that involves inlaying a color into an indentation in the clay and then scraping off the surface color which reveals the pattern in the color left in the shallow part of the image.
Your early tiles were highly reflective, with a glossy glaze and poster-like primary colors. What has inspired your new work with the matte more painterly surface?
My next foray into the fusion of print making and tile was to create my own underglaze formula that I could apply like printer’s ink onto the surface of tiles with brayers; I can lay down multiple layers of color which creates richly textured surfaces. This led to a whole new body of work that I chose to leave unglazed. This formula has a lovely matte finish that when fired has the appearance of having been painted on with acrylic or oils. The first solo show using this technique was titled “Seeds: Meditations on Hope” in which I explored the metaphor of the Persephone myth.
You have been doing a lot of work about the coast recently. Why has Canon Beach become your muse?
I spent 3 years of my childhood in Astoria, where I played for hours on the nearby coastal beaches. I reconnected with those happy childhood memories on repeated trips to the Oregon Coast as an adult. I am especially drawn to Cannon Beach and Haystack Rock. In the current Seascape series I explore the tension that human intrusion imposes on the pristine natural landscape by introducing mechanically manufactured textures into the composition, either as a separate tile to create a diptych, or as an integral element of the main image.
In the past few years you have done several 1% for art commissions and a massive hospital commission. Tell me about the hospital project and why tile is so suited to public art.
With the “Seeds” body of work I was accepted into Art in the High Desert, an outdoor juried art show in Bend, Oregon. I spent the entire extremely hot summer weekend sweating profusely, being mostly incredibly uncomfortable and to add insult to injury, I did not sell a single piece of the new work. An hour before the show was over on Sunday, when I was tired, hot, discouraged and ready to break down the show, a woman asked if the work was colorfast. Heat crazed, I offhandedly said, “Sure, they’ll be colorfast for about 10,000 years.” She then asked if I would be able to create hundreds of unique tiles for a hospital within 12 weeks. I quickly calculated that it would be absolutely impossible, but blurted out “No problem!” Within a month I had a contract to complete 176 one-of-a-kind 9″ x 9″ tiles for the patient rooms in a Southern California hospital. The theme of the hospital was “Healing with Nature.”
All the commissioned art in the lobbies, hallways, public spaces and patient rooms was focused on images of nature. I was given paint chips and fabric swatches. I created compositions with a focus on botanicals and symbols of life, energy, healing and wholeness. In order to meet the deadline, I worked around the clock, set up 2 new drying racks and used a friend’s kiln in addition to mine to speed up the firing process. I made the deadline and as the hospital expanded the following year, I was asked to create 60 more tiles for the additional wing. The beauty of the tile medium for public spaces is that unlike many painting mediums it is colorfast and can be displayed in even the brightest light without fading. This gives great flexibility for positioning the art in the environment.
Here are a few more pieces from the river series. If you are a print maker I think you will especially appreciate the paper-like texture in these glazes:
All images © Paula Gill or Iskra Johnson
“As a photographer, I seem to desire an awful lot. Or at least, I want to photograph an awful lot. I don’t desire the object of my intention but the very act of photographing. It’s been said that photographic depiction is a way of having a kind of proxy experience of reality, a way of hiding behind a safe, powerful and voyeuristic stance—making photographs in lieu of direct involvement in the real. But what if the act of photographing is the experience I’m after?
What am I really desiring in my photographic work? Do I really want to experience … to possess every rock in the desert I’m photographing? Every structure, vista, street theatre, woman or man, known or unknown to me? Maybe I want a little of that … maybe. But I certainly desire the photograph. Even more, I desire the act of photographing. The rush of the moment of split-second recognition, valuation and response embedded in an overarching awareness of thousands of photographs I and hundreds of others have made within the history of the medium; the differences between me and all those others who have made pictures before me and, all importantly, the tone of the image—that subtle and persuasive resonance with the instant, the light, framing, meaning and configuration. To sidestep the obvious, to see what others could not have prepared themselves to see, in that very particular way.”
Having read that, I think maybe I don’t have anything more ever to say about Why Take Pictures.
I called Michael up to ask if I could use an excerpt of the essay and an image or two and we had a great conversation. If you go to his website you will find perhaps the most minimalist and discreet presentation of a photographer’s work you have ever witnessed in this age of Lots of Stuff. Keep clicking, and more will appear, but at a small hand-sized scale. No bio, no artist statement, no client list, and who cares? The work calls you out to see more and more and you know you will trust his eye. “Sure in this digital age you can enlarge anything to any size, but with all that detail, you lose the picture, the sense of where you are and what you are seeing.” (Loosely paraphrased from our conversation, correct me Michael if it’s not quite right.)
Another artist who is a muse for my own seeing is Danish photographer Kim Holtermand. I first discovered him on Behance, which is an extraordinary interface for showing art and design. Kim’s work is moody and atmospheric, and yet completely stripped down, the zen of zen when it comes to capturing the built environment. Here is one of his images from the Arken series: “The recurrent narrative of the museum is the ship. Outside as well as inside, fragments of parts and elements of a ship create a maritime atmosphere. Like on a real ship all constructions are visible. Even the few recurring ornaments – the bolt and the nut – have been copied from maritime architecture.”
From the Prism project:
And his view of nature is sublime:
A rock, a wall. A window. The plainest things, each vision unique and transforming. Thank you Michael and Kim.
“I desire to show, with very little intervention, aspects of life that can be seen, and that’s its own reward. I don’t want to go home with my subject, but I do want to go home with a photographic experience, maybe even a photograph. You might say I’m addicted to depiction or, as the Jesuit definition of “vice” goes, to a sin that’s become a habit. Find yourself by losing yourself. Trust the process, hope for the blossom. “– Michael Burns
I am living for awhile in temporary quarters between the Collision Center and the Aurora St. Vincent de Paul’s. My white box in the sky is surrounded by several hundred other white boxes neatly stacked and facing each other’s allotted squares of white venetian blinds. This is called an “apartment complex,” and after documenting the construction of dozens of such projects all over the city it is curious to actually live in one. I looked for several months for a place to stay while my house and studio are under renovation. All politics is personal, and all art is in some way political, in that creative obsessions inevitably run into the economic realities and constructs of power behind them.
For instance, take the economic fact that the smallest of those new boxes in the sky, the ones called “studios” start at $1,300 per month and go up as high as $2,800. And some of them are far smaller than 400 square feet, (even, in the case of apodments, as small as 150 square feet) and may have neither kitchen or bath, because what is a coffee shop for anyway? Just plug in your laptop and stay awhile, wash your hair in the sink at Starbucks if the communal bathroom at Green Bamboo Eco-Pod No. 6 is busy. Scaling down from these heights to something within the range of a temporarily displaced artist, it was hugely challenging to find an apartment that did not have mold, ants, a feral manager, reviews that mentioned hypodermic needles behind the dishwasher, or doors so warped that they wouldn’t shut, much less lock. Then there was the bedroom door with the boot-hole still in it. “Will this be on the pre-existing damage list?” I asked. “Yes, thank goodness that anger-management problem is gone,” the manager said, not suggesting that the door would be replaced. As I banged my head on the eye-level chandelier I kept going, and landed in the benign set of cubes where I currently reside, in what is turning out to be an unsettling experiment in identity.
If you work as an artist long enough you will accumulate oceans of stuff. You can drown. It is good sometimes to step away and reconsider. Perhaps one’s ideas of beauty are at fault. Perhaps there is no need for color or iconography or beloved objects. The walls are not yours, and they shall remain without a single nail. Forget about your known circle. Perhaps you need to meet a different person in the elevator three times a day. “Do you hear my refrigerator?” the young man asks. “People always tell me they can hear my refrigerator.” “No,” you say, pressing the button to go four floors down and two blocks over to the trash compactor, “I don’t think I hear yours but I hear three others and I unplug mine to meditate in the morning.”
You had never considered the power of refrigerator generators to create community, but this opens a new door. All things bleak become interesting. Take the large pit beneath the window that may or may not become a swimming pool. Its gray buckets are like persimmons, perfectly placed against a gray background (if you imagine them orange,) and the blue tarp roped across it makes the sounds of the sea as it billows and ripples in every kind of weather. On waking you can imagine steamer ships passing on the far windowsill, and maybe a European boy in knickers scuffs the sand and holds his hat against the wind, with ribbons blowing gaily behind him.
Also, there are always astonishing walls, blank or not, and light writes its poems there, throughout the day and night.
On the second week I went for a run along the new interurban trial. Underneath, plum blossoms smudged pink on tar. Trucks without wheels, fences without posts, everywhere rust, and every spare surface signed by a stranger late at night. Along the backside of the cemetery coiled wire followed the top of Olmstead wrought iron, and a man bicycled slowly towards me, pulling a wagon. His eyebrows had been so perpetually raised in surprise that they had stayed there, like a mountain range, and his face below was impenetrable, mapped by roads with no name. He looked at me long, appraising, and I shivered, and ran faster, towards the young women in pink walking their dogs. An inflatable clown smiled at me from a window in the spare parts warehouse, the anvil clouds of morning flattened into dirty cotton, and I was for a long time the only person on the trail.
In this state I came back and ran into the elevator and up three flights and when I raised the blinds of my new windows I realized just how comforting and powerful it is to have a triangle on a square. This complex was built with a flat roof, but triangles have been attached here and there, to give an impression of “house.” The sun rises there, just between the flat and the angle. I just kept looking at it, the miracle of structure and shape.
The next day I gave in and put tulips in a vase. Each day, only what is necessary. Start with nothing, start with empty, and begin again. I may become a believer after all.