I’m working on a new series of collages about industrial waterways. The muse is the Duwamish, but the real subject is perhaps the print itself, the paper-space of real and unreal. I’ve been immersing myself in study of the masters. from Nick Bantock and Man Ray, to Yoshitoshi and Max Ernst. Is there anything so divine as rising at five in the dark and drinking tea surrounded by books, then watching the sun rise? Happiness reigns in this little corner of universe.
(1) “Postcard from The Straights” (2) “Duwamish Water Tower 2: From the Municipal Manual for Water Management”
Limited edition archival pigment prints, size variable © Iskra Johnson
For as long as I can remember my father had a painting of a man hanging in his study. As a child it seemed huge to me, larger than life: a wall-sized man. Surrounded by books on every side the man was, appropriately enough, reading a book. As I grew older I got tall enough to reach eye-level with him, and my appreciation for the painting grew. His profile was a jumble of brushstrokes that distilled only at a distance into a face. Such gravity and focus, the page held down with his burnt orange thumb, the air vibrating with color and stillness: the man was thinking.
On several occasions I said to my father that at some point (a point delicately not specified) I would like the painting, and he said yes, of course, although being a man of vivid life force he would immediately turn then to the photograph of Tolstoy and begin talking about Anna Karenina or perhaps The Political Situation or his next piece in the paper, for he published a newspaper in a small conservative town and each week he chose some subject sure to cause another advertiser to abandon him—perhaps Indian fishing rights, or the railroads or the unions or the war in Vietnam. He would take a breath after one of his long sentences and invariably mutter, the bastards. Sometimes I would tiptoe into my father’s study when he wasn’t there and push the keys of his massive Underwood typewriter, or study the pencil drawing of the wooden mask by Indian carver Lawney Reyes. Framed by two walls of books, the eastern window looked out at the Cascades and the ridge in front of them where at night the coyotes gathered to howl, with or without a visible moon.
The painting, the mountains, the room, the floor to ceiling books, all became melded into who my father was to me. When he died, due to the inexplicable dynamics of his third marriage, his belongings and the contents of his last study were locked away and his children received nothing. I thought of the painting every day, visualized every brush stroke, lay through night after night of insomnia and sadness longing for this physical reminder of who he was. One night five or six years after his death I had a dream in which I hired a thief to break into the study and steal the painting. In short order the thief became me, as I put on long white gloves and picked the lock with a skeleton key and hurled the painting into the back of my car, pursued by a procession of former in-laws. When I got the painting home I discovered that it had been painted over: it was ruined. I woke up distraught, yet oddly relieved. I had been freed, and that was the point at which I began to forget and let go. Ten years later, through circumstances equally inexplicable, the painting, the real painting, was given to me. And in a moment eerily reminiscent of the dream, I looked at it without recognition, even with disgust—and I put it in the attic and thought nothing more of it.
An object is not a fixed thing. The more we look at it, or look away, or expose it to sunlight or pull the curtains the more it changes, as do we. Just as the most dazzling color is often fugitive, so is memory and the meaning we give it. In the years that the painting sat in my attic I began to collect art. The only faces I have permitted on my walls are wooden masks from Guatemala. The only body is not a body, but a coat with wings. Although I have painted hundreds of figures it has never occurred to me to hang one on the wall. Perhaps it’s that my mind is so peopled with the daily chatter of the mind that one more guest would be just too much. So in my home I am surrounded with animals and skies and temples and ambiguous surface that lets me dream my own dream.
All of this changed one night this week when I had the unexpected pleasure of visiting a collector of Northwest art. Although the house has been revised it remains mid-century, and the collection goes back in era to the greats: Callahan, early Cummings, Kirsten-Daiensai. I heard the amazing stories behind each piece, and studied the Callahan up close. As we sat in front of a fireplace of tumbled slate, I felt myself placed in another time. “What would you do to that slate wall?” the question came up. And the answer was “Nothing, it is perfect as it is.”
I have never been a fan of painting from the fifties. And having grown up with it, I have always detested mid-century modern: the blonde Danish tables, the molded fiberglass aqua chairs, the top-heavy lampshades on contorted ceramic bodies, the fabrics with tv-shaped lozenges and the flowers drawn to match the antennas and the aggressively angular couches and the beige. I never could bring myself to hate the slate. Perhaps it was the slate, and studying its random-but-not mosaic above the fire that turned my mind sideways. Or seeing an original Kenneth Callahan hanging in a house and not a museum, with Christmas lights tugging at me and a wild storm raging outside. I came home and went directly to the attic and pawed through the insulation until I could find The Painting.
I pulled it out into the light and gasped: it was beautiful! I wiped the cobwebs off and the layers of dust. The frame had splintered here and there, but still sheltered him in his moment of thinking, the orange and blue and black reading man.
I knew the name of the painter, Al Friedman, but that was all I knew, and I had no idea who the portrait was of. I reached out to touch his suspenders — suspenders! And that shirt, so white-blue, slightly rumpled, so surely a shirt meant to be worn just that way. He was still, and actually, larger than life.
I sat down to google Al Friedman. He doesn’t exist. Many many Friedman’s exist who are doctors and lawyers and even well-known cartoonists, but not my Al. I tried spelling his name every known way. I called my mother, and she said he was a cabdriver, that’s all she knew. He had driven cab with my father and his best friend. She and my aunt had tried to find him in the sixties in San Francisco and he had disappeared, though it was rumored he was married, and the last anyone heard he gave up painting except he did paint paper bags for a paper bag company. I called my cousin, and she said she had one of his paintings too, and she had also tried for hours to find some mention of him on the web but found nothing. All we could do was squint together and remember back to a dim sense of the rooms, the long dinners over spaghetti, the wine and unfiltered Camel smoke and the feel of our baby cheeks pressed against stretchpants with seams and stirrups and the adults, always shouting to be heard on the subject of The Political Situation. My cousin’s painting is of men at a bar. “I don’t like bars,” she said, “Why would I want a painting of men drinking at a bar? But I love it. It’s beautiful. It has a whole wall and it’s the only thing on it.”
Last night we hung the painting on the big wall in the dining room that had been waiting for something just right. I went into the kitchen to do the dishes and I couldn’t stop looking out into the dining room to catch sight of the Reading Man. I think I was checking to see if he would change back again, into the painting I dreamed, and hid in the attic and never wanted to see again. But each time he was there, beautiful, thoughtful, and steady: I had a guest.
Coda: Al Friedman, painter, apparently exists offline only, in what they call real life, in the memories of the people who knew him. I would like to know more, and if you were a friend of his, or collected his work, please let me know, and send me photos of his work. I would love to post his paintings here.
And here is one of them– thank you cousins!
I am excited to be part of the December show at Linda Hodges Gallery, curated by Dale Cotton. The artists gathered for this exhibition share my fascination with the aesthetics of the urban industrial landscape and its emotional undertow, the demolition of place and sense of home.
“Making and Breaking”
Dec 4, 2014 – Jan 3, 2015
1st Thursday Artist Reception, Dec 4, 6-8 pm
316 First Ave. S. Seattle, WA 98104
Gallery Hours: Tues. – Sat. 10:30-5:00
“Making and Breaking” is a group exhibition of paintings, sculpture, and photography devoted to things that are built and then erode, are altered, or destroyed over time. We are very much aware of this in the rapidly growing city of Seattle. Change is the operative factor, and technology, economic decision-making, and time are the implements that guide it. From Kevin Wilson’s steam shovels and Dan Webb’s wooden tools, to the weathered and abandoned barns of Daphne Minkoff and the proliferating housing developments depicted by Ryan Molenkamp, to Dara Solliday’s Regrade images, each artwork tells a story of growth, destruction, and change.”
Other artists in the show include: Patti Bowman, Laura Hamje, Daniel Hawkins, Jeff Mihalyo, Michael Paul Miller, Daphne Minkoff, Ryan Molenkamp, Jeff Scott, Dara Solliday, Timea Tihanyi, Sylwia Tur, Thuy-van vu, Dan Webb, Kevin Wilson, Dane Youngren
Below, one of the prints I will be showing. This piece is part of a series looking at the construction projects at the University of Washington. I stood for many hours on the University Bridge studying this dormitory as it went up. The complex is now finished, but I dearly loved the tarps and scaffolds: the “making” phase revealed, and here frozen in time.
“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 lemon scent of crushed geranium. 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– a place where the mind can sit. 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.