This is the time of year I begin to realize that my meditation practice has devolved into drinking coffee slowly, rather than quickly, and looking out the window at robins. This is fine — the robins love an audience — but it isn’t quite the same as a practice. In November you can’t drag me out of bed before dawn. Yet by the first week of December something changes. My eyes fly wide at six AM. I want to sit in the early hour and listen closely to this very particular and resonant silence that leads to the darkest day, the longest night, and the beginning of the light. I want to be awake for each moment of passage to the winter solstice, and the ceremony of a sitting practice once again takes hold.
This year I signed on to a three day retreat with Kate Lila Wheeler. I have been a follower of Wheeler’s writing since 1997, when I read her first collection of stories, Not Where I Started From. She is the rare meditation teacher who also has a serious art practice, in this case as novelist and essayist, and I have been looking for a chance to sit with her for years. This retreat is well positioned after the official holiday of Thanksgiving. The focus will be on mudita, the appreciation of the good fortune and well being of others. I would usually much rather focus on “worry”, (from the German, wurgen: “to strangle,” with no Pali translation) which is my acknowledged default setting, so this will be a welcome shift of gears. I suffer in cold weather (they predict snow?), so the weekend could be less an experience of transcendence and more of an extended Lands End Catalog fantasy in which I visualize the entire world swaddled in down bathrobes, with extra specially thick snowpants for me. To get ready for the retreat I have been re-reading some of my favorite books on Buddhism and meditation.
From Philip Moffitt, a variation of loving kindness meditation that always speaks to me:
May you be safe from internal and external harm.
May you have a calm, clear mind and a peaceful loving heart.
May you be physically strong, healthy, and vital.
May you experience love, joy, wonder, and wisdom in this life, just as it is.
I could say that the reason I like Rachel Maxi’s work is that she paints objects that I love too. But the truth is that whatever Maxi paints becomes one of my favorite things, even if I wasn’t planning on it. Plastic toy horses? Or for that matter, horses of any kind? Ever since The Red Pony broke my heart at age 11 I have been immune. Yet here I am, smitten.
Or, to take another hard sell, the dahlia? The word has always offended me: like “dhaling.” Overblown, old-lady-ish, the kind of flower you can only love when you are part of the Dahlia Society and enjoy tying plants up on sticks and telling people not to pick them. Except now not only am I in love with a dhalia, I want it in that very ordinary jar, because it’s just plain beautiful. The word is covet:
Check out Maxi’s work at Sugarpill on Capitol Hill, and do it fast, because this show is only up until November 19th. While you are there revel in the sensory magic of this one-of-a-kind shop: apothecary, culinary, mercantile…….mystery. Cures for whatever ails you and pleasures to keep you well.
(900 E. Pine St. Seattle, WA 98122 • T 206.322.7455 • MON + TUES 11AM – 5PM / WED + THU 11AM-7PM / FRI + SAT 11AM-6PM / SUN 11AM-4PM)
I am neither a musician nor a music reviewer. For which I am quite grateful as I sit down to recall and review Bill Frisell’s Earshot Jazz debut of “Big Sur.” Free of musical expertise I can write this as a wine review, and try my best to convey the evening’s intoxication.
With my innocent ear I would say:
notes of Americana (the fiddler in his soft hat under the eaves in an Appalachian rain, the hop-skip polka and waltz, hints of hay);
minerality (chalk cliffs and blue swallows in morning light, brine of licked seashells first tasted and then put in your pocket);
bouquet (goldenrod and sunflowers nodding to an off-stage wind and saved from sentiment by a high cloud in a minor key that rescues yellow from banal happiness moving to joy and a state just shy of unapologetic rapture);
complexity (yes, the calico of polka and waltz but also sufis in white tennure whirling on the edge of a cliff, the generous embrace of dissonant drone and snake charmer smoke or is it a surfer’s campfire on the beach, Oh, Surfer Girl!);
And as I listen I think: this is a rare irreplaceable experience. So often when I go to live music I stand at the end, I clap and I leave, and as I walk out of the theater I cannot recall one note, just a vague blur of feeling. As I listened to Bill Frisell and his Big Sur Sextet something else happened. Even as my mind ran into the high meadows, the soaring skies and the surf of this very particular place I could hear with a second ear the jazzness of it, which has its own narrative that lives in no place at all except this exact moment. I could see each note as a shape and a color colliding and riding with the others. Tone shapes and weavings and world-weary minor bending to reliable blue. The sudden shock of melody, but unsure of what that would look like, so very viola it was. My vision tripped and refused to picture: perhaps melody, the one singable memory, is incense after all, or smoke. But snare and drum and brush and repeated incantation, I could see this.
Jazz of course can only be so sweet. Then they have to tear it all apart in the middle and that is when I want to get up and take a walk or go have a glass of lillet in a quiet room. The “break?”, the “bridge?” is this what they call it? Such anxiety it provokes. I always dread that they will never figure out how to put the pieces back together, and I move quickly from that to doubt in whatever “music” they were playing after all. Which as I opened my eyes to watch the violist tap her red shoe I realized is exactly the way collage works. It is music. And I decided to come back home and remember everything and try to see what I saw. I played “Big Sur” all day and constructed and reconstructed this image from an original black and white charcoal drawing, five variant files and over a hundred layers moving in (sound) space.
The original drawing on which these color collages are based.
Watercolor Journal, Boca de Tomate © Iskra Johnson 2013
If you are interested in doing an artist retreat in Mexico, visit one of my favorite places in the world, Casa de los Artistas. The boat above was moored below my balcony every every night. Sleep, eat and make art just a few feet from the river. Heaven! See the post about my Christmas retreat in Boca de Tomate here.
Jill Enfield’s Guide to Photographic Alternative Processes: A Brilliant Addition for the Photographer’s Library.
I just received my eagerly anticipated copy of Jill Enfield’s new Guide to Alternative Photographic Processes. This book is an exhilarating ride through some of the most challenging and ancient ways of making photographic images. A lot of these processes are not for the faint of heart. You will learn about wet plate collodion, salt and albumen, argyrotype, kallitype and Van Dyke prints, just to name a few. Step by step instructions make all things possible. Enfield is a renowned photographer as well as instructor. She has taught handcoloring and non-silver techniques at Parsons The New School for Design, Fashion Institute of Technology, New York University, Long Island University and the International Center of Photography in New York, as well as in workshops throughout the United States and Europe. Her website will keep you exploring for hours.
Throughout the book Enfield illustrates the techniques with images from nearly a hundred artists and photographers. Many of these photographs take my breath away with their sense of surface and mystery. Honestly, what am I doing in front of a computer? I want to go into a darkroom and never come out. I am very happy to be included in the book with an experimental cyanotype.
To see more on my own experiences with this technique visit my blog entry “Three Days in the Sun…..”
Thank you Seattle Vine for this wonderful interview and survey of my work. The Vine is a new platform for showcasing the arts in Seattle. With all the noise of the internet and simultaneous diminution of newspapers, it’s good to see an online venue step up to create a new curated showcase for Seattle artists. Take a look!
This morning I went for a bracing walk in the fog along the edge of The Big Dig. I love wandering in that thick industrial hum where no one can listen into your thoughts, not even yourself. All you can do is look, and try not to get run over by a truck.
I’m getting back in Architecture mode for the opening of World/City, the Seattle Architecture Foundation exhibit opening on September 19th. I am excited to have three pieces on display. There will be a reminder posted here next week, but here is the basic information:
World/City: Exploring the Architecture of Global Relationships
September 19 – October 13, 2013 1201 2nd Avenue at Seneca Street
11AM – 2PM, Tues – Sun. Special extended hours till 3PM during the Seattle Design Festival
Experience architecture models, 2D renderings, digital imagery and visual art which represents how local design and architecture are linked to global issues and contexts.
Stay tuned for more information next week.
I have been possessed by my camera for the past few years, and in spite of public avowals that I was going to “get back to painting” evidence of new paintings has been scarce. So when I saw an opportunity to take a weeklong intensive in gouache through Gage Academy with realist painter Karen Hackenberg I leapt. What better antidote to procrastinating impulses than a retreat at Fort Worden, where I could incarcerate myself in a creative compound with fellow artists?
The fort, a former military battery designed to protect the entrance to Puget Sound, sits high on bluffs above the Straits of Juan de Fuca. The landscape ranges from saltwater shore to open meadow and forest, and the vistas are breathtaking. Centrum, which partners with Fort Worden, provides multi-media programming and coordinates facilities. Its mission is focused on creativity, connection and renewal, and as you move about the grounds you meet fascinating people radiating exactly these qualities. In Centrum’s own words: “It’s a place where the land stops, the sea begins, and the mind keeps going.”
I started my stay with a walk on the beach in search of objects for a still life, and to get my mind into the abstract state required to see in paint.
Visitors do not seem to need a book deal or an NEA grant to go about rearranging the beach. These are just a fraction of the useless battlements and airy fortifications I came across– far better than a museum for a lover of sticks.
As I wandered the beach I was reminded of one of my favorite passages from Leonard Koren’s book on Wabi-Sabi:
Definition of “aesthetic”…. refers to a set of informing values and principles — guidelines — for making artistic descriminations and decisions. The hallmarks of an “aesthetic” are 1) distinctiveness (distinct from the mass of ordinary, chaotic non-differentiated perceptions), 2) clarity (the aesthetic point has to be definite — clear — even if the aesthetic is about unclearness, and 3) repetition (continuity.)
The fort environment itself pulls you into the heart of paradox. You look up from reverie on golden yarrow, snowberry and roses to the harsh silhouettes of concrete battlements. Fort Worden was built in the early 1900′s, and the parade grounds rang with the boots of storied generals like August Quarles and Aronson Randol for whom the ruins are named. Among these purposeful ghosts now ramble barefoot banjo players and writers gazing into the distance and painters studying the shapes of clouds.
At any hour, and with much appreciated leavening, you will encounter Bambi, who’s benign gaze seems to bless all forms of artistic experimentation and failure. Sometimes there are berries left for a human breakfast.
Fortified by the muse I began my painting days, starting with still life painting and moving into more adventurous explorations of the medium. We each set up our own objects with a single light source. I worked on 300 pound hotpress Lanaquarelle, which I discovered does not like frisket. It does however adore the paint, and I have fallen madly in love with its velvet surface. On the first study I left the paper white as in traditional watercolor and in the second I masked out the objects and did an opaque wash, returning later to fill in the central subjects.
When painting from life, still or otherwise, one can be assailed by competing impulses: awe and devotion, an almost painful form of supplication to “the real” — and another wilder desire to create in the same way as “life,” with its exuberant dance of omniscience and intuition. I found the quote that Karen keeps on her drawing board the perfect motto for this practice: “Beauty is the love that we devote to an object.”– Paul Serusier.
However, it is important to honor the lessons of restlessness as much as devotion. [Read more...]
Sometime in the last week August remembered itself and began changing. This is not a month obvious with new beginnings. It doesn’t announce itself with bright resolutions or an accounting of all that has been figured out. It writes itself in twigs and sprinkler water. It explodes from its own fullness: the split pod, the swollen tomato, the echinacea’s violet paper bent back like wings from a gilded heart.
It’s all too much.
I stand barefoot in my nightgown, yellow grass harsh against my toes and watch the sky grow pink in early morning. The house, unused to sun-colored earth, seems to float. Are there things to do? Did I have ambition? It melts into one impulse: to walk through the garden with my arms full of poppies, to shake them until their dry rattle is all I can hear.
Photography and text © Iskra Johnson