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

Surface Queries and Technical Notes on Wax and Vanished Colors

Attempting to mix a true match to the vanished quinacridone gold.

Attempting to mix a true match to the vanished Quinacridone Gold.

There are certain colors that just made life so much easier. Not to mention more luminous and radiant with saturated contentment and possibility, as if one were looking through a glass of lillet from a cafe in Firenze, just before dinner. Or surveying the vineyard from the ramparts, in a good year. And this color was not a cheap trick, although it could be used that way.

I am speaking, of course, about the dearly departed Quinacridone Gold, taken from us by unknown and sudden circumstance when I wasn’t looking. What you see above is my vain attempt to spin magic from earth colors, to replace a color originally used as dust on angel wings. Ochres, siennas, Azos, — pfft. Sorry Golden, I know you tried, but Azo is orange. I discovered after a panicked search that I have one nearly dried up jar of the original paint from 2007 (??) that I shall reconstitute and try to make last until the end times. Or I will just squint more and imagine that things looks as I should like them to. This new piece is underpainted with the beloved color and some other blends of earth and mica. Italy is but a dim memory here, muted by soot, but I wanted  Quin Gold here to give a hint of radiance to the industrial scene glimpsed from the bridge above Harbor Island.

Vie from the River, © Iskra Johnson, industrial landscape on plaster

View From the River, © Iskra Johnson, mixed media on plaster

Image transfer onto rough and textured surfaces is not for the faint of heart. There is a lot of trial and error and holding one’s breath to move an image from photographic shimmer to an embedded life as an object. I think it is starting to work reliably, and I can begin to know how closely my imagery will translate. Now I am exploring the final finishes, and the technical issues of waxing over mixed media. Many of the craft solutions I have found online have no track record for longevity, so the scrapbooking community with its decoupage and furniture polishes has not been a lot of help on this.

When an acrylic resin is poured or painted over a surface it feels plastic and shiny, and for work with a textured field I want something more tactile. So far a satin wax from Stucco Italiano seems promising. I have also tried Renaissance Wax, Dorland’s Wax, and various of the Golden acrylic products, which never have the feeling I am looking for. Acrylic also tends to remain tacky forever, which makes shipping and wrapping complicated. On some of the Golden Acrylic resins I have used, like the tar and self-leveling gels, the Renaissance wax has seemed to help “cure” them so they are less fragile. But first the surface has to be scuffed with steel wool or another scrubber, and it tends to dull the colors. Both the Dorlands and Rennaisance don’t seem to “like” acrylic; they are finnicky, and sometimes come right off in burnishing. I welcome any suggestions from the surface fanatics out there. What can you put on acrylic to make it less shiny and more resilient, while keeping the brilliance of the color? What are your favorite final varnishes for mixed media (that won’t eat through paper or yellow over time?)

To unwind at the end of a day in the studio I have become a passionate fan of the Beautiful Italian Men Putting Plaster on Walls channel on YouTube. My new favorite form of “time-based art”: Italian men troweling plaster on walls with immaculate authority. To wordless soundtracks of lugubrious largos and antic allegrettos. Vivaldi never looked so good —I recommend it.

Man putting plaster on a wall, video still

A screenshot of a Man Making Art not War. Click here to see the video.


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Capturing Incandescence with Digital Printmaking: An Homage to Dürer

Although I am a avid gardener, the kind of gardener who intentionally plants things with an eye to color and texture and contrast and who pulls out weeds, I have to confess that my very favorite flower in the world is the dandelion. I have been trying to capture dandelions since I was about three, when I was first photographed eating them, which I will say was much less satisfying than blowing them and watching the seeds fly up into the air.

In July I took some photographs of a particularly expressive weed against the crumbling wall of a parking lot, and the image has been murmuring to me ever since. It was an exquisite morning spent in the company of my mother and old books. Somehow the grainy pages of her 1930’s Latin primer and a distant memory of a print by Albrecht Dürer came together in this image.

Dandelion for Dürer, By Iskra Johnson, archival digital print

“Innocence,” archival digital print, © Iskra Johnson

My scale with the current Almanac series of botanical work is intimate. This print is 8″ square. My intention is to make a second image in which the photographic elements are directly transferred into the plaster which forms the background. It has been a very challenging piece, composed of at least a dozen “plates” ie. Photoshop layers, on which I have drawn and erased and shaded with my digital tools. It is slightly crazy to try to convey incandescence with low contrast, but everything about the original moment when I saw this beloved weed was about innocence and light and the uncapturable haze of memory—which is a quiet place. Perhaps I should let Robert Creeley explain, from his poem “The Immoral Proposition”:

If quietly and like another time there

is the passage of an unexpected thing.

To look at it is more

than it was.

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New Directions with Italian Plaster

After my inspirational time with Jennifer Carrasco I am diving into the new/old technique of Italian plaster and reveling in what happens when you let surface speak. In the past I’ve tended to get nervous when I spend a lot of time making a surface to paint or draw on. The calligrapher in me wants to have a stack of a hundred sheets of paper and nothing to lose by drowning in ink, again and again, and throwing whatever happens on the floor for later reflection. The word “precious” comes up when I think of sanding and painting and sanding again and then glazing and . . . then trying to put something down on such a huge investment of time.

If you are a recovering calligrapher or watercolorist you know this tyranny of the perfect sheet of rag paper. With a pristine sheet of BFK or $20 rice paper there is really nowhere to go but “down.” The difference with the plaster technique is that the surface is full of imperfection and invites more of the same – and I’m calling that beautiful. Every disaster can be resurrected and made into something new, with the added beauty of the previous layers coming through.  As someone once said to me as they observed my highly evolved forms of procrastination and avoidance, “We are all more human than otherwise.” So why not just get busy with being human.

That said, a few of these distressed surfaces are so compelling they give me pause, and it seems I will need to make a whole lot of them before I feel truly free to improvise.

Plaster etching by Iskra

Italian plaster with etching and glazes

When I prepare a surface I feel just like I do when I am wiping a traditional zinc plate for the printing press, the difference being that I can avoid the follies that happen when it gets transferred to paper. There are times when I love printing and can go with the flow of the transformations of the press, but more and more I am just plain in love with the plate itself. I think it’s the architecture element: it’s a real, solid thing. Speaking of architecture, I am continuing the theme of structures in some of this new work:


This is a miniature, all of 4 inches square, a test for something I plan to do large, but it’s pretty cute tiny.  On a road trip with my friend, the talented painter Patty Haller ,we passed a completely amazing construction site, and she said, we have to stop, right? Who could say no to this?? The best friendships come with a detour clause.

This one is an experiment with material from my trip down the Duwamish:

Duwamish Plaster Study Mixed media Iskra

All of this new work is a combination of image transfer, plaster and paint. The glazing materials I purchased from Stucco Italiano have a lovely two hour open time and for once I am not cursing acrylic – it can actually flow, and smear, and be rubbed off and layered again without those awful streaks that come from quick-drying mediums.

My other muse is nature. From the tangled garden at the end of summer:


Seed and shadow

Seeds and Shadow, mixed media on panel, © Iskra Johnson


Anemone, from The Gardener’s Almanac of Irreproducible Phenomena, mixed media on panel © Iskra Johnson

The word “Almanac” has been on my mind, and it may be the framework of this new work. It was a brutal summer for anyone who has invested time and love and water in a garden. I am thinking of the old guides that could tell us the future with some flour-sack certainty, of a simpler world ruled by the moon and the occasional volcano, when the only news came from a neighbor, and when we would be spending these September days putting up fruit and tomatoes and burying our future in the root cellar for later celebration. These are my pages from the Almanac, that edition you can’t find in the Library of Congress; fragments found after the fire at the conservatory a long time ago.


The Burnt Angel, Volunteer Park Conservatory

The Burnt Angel, Capitol Hill Conservatory Fire, Seattle Washington


Stay tuned for news of the upcoming Seattle Sampling studio tour, where I will be offering a selection of this new work. All images © Iskra Johnson

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Studio Visit with Muralist and Teacher Jennifer Carrasco

The Ruins mural, cougar painting, by Jennifer Carrasco

The great cougar, with shy otter and kingfisher. The Ruins. © Jennifer Carrasco

If you have ever attended a soiree at The Ruins, Seattle’s most exclusive and mysterious supper club, you may have looked up for a moment across the gilt rim of your absinthe and locked eyes with The Cougar. As your gaze moved from the patterning of leaves to the shy otter and then to the majestic drape of the big cat’s paws you may have found yourself wondering about the artist, and the style, which is an uncanny blend of ornament and botanical exactitude. The Cougar is but one panel in an epic mural that goes from ceiling to floor, creating an atmosphere of timeless excess and contemplation. Hearing the artist’s name was “Carrasco,” you might have assumed the work was done by some Italian guy imported from The Old Country to put a polish on the Northwest.

You would be right that the artist was imported, but he is a she, and she comes from the Inland Empire town of Pomeroy, next door to the Palouse. Jennifer Carrasco got her start in the dry scree and lazy rivers of the American west. There she fell in love with landscape and learned the stillness that comes of wandering quiet empty places. The oldest of four daughters, she was raised going to mass every Sunday and singing Gregorian chants. A close-knit town with deep roots, Pomeroy embodies the best of family, connection and continuity, but it’s also the kind of place an imaginative person might yearn to leave, just to see what’s beyond the hills. After getting her BA degree in art and education at WSU Jennifer took off for the big world.

She has led many lives, far beyond her small-town roots, as part of the Peace Corps in the Phillipines, as a mother, a poet, and as a painter and teacher in Japan, Alaska, and the deep South. By the time she landed back on the West Coast she had a wealth of artistic influences to draw from. Her assignment for the Ruins was to create a style of “Northwest Rococo,” and every detail of fauna and flora is researched and authentic, drawing on a year of research into painting styles, ornament, and museum artifacts and diaries from the early days of the Northwest Territories.

The RUins Mural by Jennifer Carrasco

The Ruins mural, Northwest Rococo style, © Jennifer Carrasco

This level of immersion is not unusual for Jennifer. She is a passionate artist’s artist. With each project she dives into history and genre with avid curiosity and fearless energy, bringing disparate influences together in new forms of visual language. As her friend for the past fifteen years I have marveled many times at her mastery of style. Paint a horse in French chinoiserie? Sure, why not.

Jennifer Carrasco painting carousel hourse

Horses, flowers, and lots of gold © Jennifer Carrasco

A trompe ’oeil bookcase (with x-rated titles?)

Jennifer, gathering reading material.© Jennifer Carrasco

A 17th century bacchanal ala Chardin and Velasquez for Seattle’s premier restauranteur?

Palace Kitchen Mural, Jennifer Carrasco

Palace Kitchen Mural, Jennifer Carrasco

But although Jennifer is a shapeshifter and style virtuoso I think she always returns to a place uniquely her own. My favorite paintings come from her relationship with the land. You can condense that in the standard phrase “landscape painting” but that does not do it justice. In her paintings of rivers and trees I can hear the wind blow and the river snails inch along stones in the shallows. Although her skill is daunting, it does not obscure an almost mystical sense of “being there,” reminiscent of The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, my favorite passage in Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows.


The Creek, © Jennifer Carrasco

I visited Jennifer this August to see her latest landscapes and to shake myself out of an artistic funk. I needed an immersion in craft, and who better to go to for that than a master muralist? I asked her if she would give me a primer on plaster, and remind me how to become absorbed in work, in a zone with no internet distraction. Forget Pandora, checking the news feed, Facebook or Instagram every ten minutes – this is a woman who works from 8 at night until 4 in the morning listening to books on tape. Instead of spouting trivia on the latest political scandals from the Huffington Post she can chat about actual literature and quote poetry at the drop of a hat. Whenever we visit I leave inspired and determined to live with more intention and depth.

Jennifer’s studio is tucked into the backyard of her lovely garden home in West Seattle. Each summer the front yard glows with peonies and poppies and tumbling roses. This time of year the echinacea has taken center stage.

Jennifer's garden


Nature is everywhere, demonstrating the principles of Darwinian survival and providing anatomical reference for the details in Jennifer’s paintings. Her studio is an organized disorder of paints, tools, and work in progress.





We started my tutorial with basics, the tools, the techniques, the patience. She showed me a few examples that made me wonder if I might want to go lie down for awhile, and dream of Pompeii instead of trying to actually do this.


Pompeiian bird © Jennifer Carrasco

Nightingale with Fresco, © Jennifer Carrasco

She got me set up, and I began at the beginning, always a good place. I think the trowel is the most beautiful tool I have ever seen.



Paster process workshop

While we waited for things to dry we ran down to Stucco Italiano, in Georgetown, where Jennifer teaches workshops. This place is an absolute gem of a resource, where you can learn how to do traditional fresco and wall treatments and buy Venetian plaster, the real thing. This is such an intoxicating environment. I can’t wait to go back and take some of their classes.


Jennifer is a gifted teacher. She gave me just enough technical advice and encouragement to get me involved, locked my cellphone, and then left me to my own devices. Surface! I am smitten with marbledust.

Fresco experiment

Fresco experiment 2

As the afternoon light drifted in I took a look around and fell in love with this painting, a new direction of Jennifer’s in which she is capturing her memories of the land in acrylic, on canvas. This piece speaks to me so much. It takes me back to my own childhood growing up on a farm, wandering with dogs, waiting for Pan to step into the meadow.


More from the new canvas series:


And from her watercolor series on rivers:



Carraxco "Reflected Light" watercolor of a river

Jennifer is a much-loved teacher in the decorative arts community. Her popular watercolor classes are held at C&P Coffee, where she teaches evening sessions and workshops. If you haven’t been to C&P in West Seattle do visit. It is a remarkable center of community, art and music.

Jennifer Carrasco watercolor classes

You can contact Jennifer through her website, to purchase paintings or to take private instruction. If you would like to find out more about her sources of inspiration and see her most recent work follow her wonderful blog. You can read about our epic road trip to Pomeroy and the Eternal West here.


Jennifer in the garden, having lunch with hummingbirds.



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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