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?
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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 ––?
“One must learn to float as words do, without roots and without watering cans. One must know how to navigate without longitude and without motor. Without drugs and without burdens. One must learn to breath like a wind instrument. The chord must be made of sand, the anchor of aurora borealis.” –– Anais Nin
“The term ukiyo-e, meaning “pictures of the floating world,” is a pun on a Buddhist phrase meaning “suffering world,” also pronounced ukiyo. Asai Ryoi defined the attitudes of the irresponsible but delicious floating world as “living just for the moment, focusing on the pleasure given by the moon, the snow, cherry blossoms, maple leaves, singing songs, drinking wine, diverting ourselves by just floating, floating, ignoring the pauperism that stares us in the face, refusing to be disheartened, floating like a gourd that drifts along with the river –– this is what we call ukiyo.” –– Yoshitoshi’s One Hundred Aspects of the Moon, by John Stevenson
The inspiration for my latest series comes from studying ukiyo-e and particularly the life and work of 19th century artist Yoshitoshi. Outside of comic book historians and collectors of Japanese prints, this renowned Japanese woodblock master is no longer familiar to most North Americans. His career spanned a period in Japanese history of violent political and social upheaval, the Meiji Restoration, in which Japan began its transition from a feudal society to a modern one increasingly influenced by the West.
In his exquisite and elegiac woodcuts Yoshitoshi drew upon the drama and exactitude of Noh, and a wide vocabulary of historical Chinese and Japanese art styles. His subjects ranged from hyper-violent scenes of massacre, suicide and war, to serenely composed tableaus of domestic life in the pleasure quarters of early Tokyo. What captures me throughout his work is the sense of attention he brought to what is lost in the face of change. Whether depicting courtesans or samurai or the rising moon, his art honored the heritage of Japan’s past. Many of Yoshitoshi’s best images are a complex mix of brutality and meditative reflection. Visually his prints resonate both as theater and as elegant abstraction, in which every mark and shape fits like a puzzle with the whole. Today, as we face new waves of violence, displacement and relentless “progress” the essence of his work remains as relevant as when it first hit the streets of Edo over a century ago.
As a contemporary print maker working with digital media I always ask myself: Why this media for this subject? What can I do digitally that I can’t in some other way? And how can I provoke a sense of surface and tactile reality equal to work printed ‘by hand?’ I am in love with silk and with the pale translucence of woodblock skies. In all of these new pieces I imagine that I am working with fabric or fine rice paper, and that even as I may use a digital method I am holding a fine hake brush as I make the sky. Just as Yoshitoshi’s work existed as prints I want these to exist in the same way, as works on paper telling a story. The subject of my story is how we navigate, how we learn to float, when the known world is slipping away, when industry is becoming antique, when human reality is challenged on every front as the camera and the computer mediate our sensory experience. I was fortunate to have a friend who took me down the Duwamish River in a canoe, and many of the photographs embedded in the prints were taken on that trip, eye-level with the river and the great ships and barges that make the river their floating home.
Here is a selection of some of the prints on display. All of them are in limited editions of three, 24″ by 24″, printed in archival pigment ink on Hahnemuhle German Etching. The exhibit will be up through August 4th at the Alexis Hotel in Seattle Washington, 1007 First Avenue, 98104.
Except for the Yoshitoshi prints, all images © Iskra Johnson and may not be reproduced without permission. To see all the work in this series visit the new print portfolio The Floating World.
“Thus we live in a world that first existed inside the heads of others, a world built up through innumerable sustained acts of intentionality, a world where everything speaks not of nature and her processes but of its makers in their resistance to those processes. In a very real sense we can be described as living inside the heads of others, in an excess of interiority that obliterates our own relation to material origins, to biologies, to our bodies. In some way, making was intended to override the givens of nature, to create a world; that world has itself become a given whose terms are more limited in their scope for imagination and act. The world is so thoroughly made it calls for no more making, but for breaching its walls and tracing its processes to their origins. “Taking apart” has become the primary metaphor and “backward” the most significant direction: the creative act becomes an unraveling, recouping the old rather than augmenting the new. ” –Rebecca Solnit
Seattle’s Asian Art Museum sits in a stately Art Deco building nestled among trees in Volunteer Park. Known for its an extensive collection of Asian art, SAAM also hosts visiting scholars and exhibits of contemporary Asian artists. The park and the building create an exquisite setting for contemplation. Although as a long-time student of Asian calligraphy I used to go there often, over the years the habit has left me. I think I tell myself everything in the museum is just too old, the artists are dead, and I already know it all. If I’ve seen one brush stroke I’ve seen them all. And if I want a review of Asian art there is Google…..
I can tell myself all kinds of things about museums and deadness and irrelevance. And then one day real death comes to the museum and jolts me out of complacency. Antiquities I took for granted, knowing they would be forever in the cultural vault, are blasted in a few hours into rubble. Human beings are mowed down by zealots who have captured eternal instant replay on television while the art itself, and the sacrificed human beings, vanish. This must be in the back of my mind when I make a turn into the park one evening with no forethought or planning or any special reason at all. I am on my way somewhere, I have something important to do, but instead I stand in the twilight above the reservoir in front of the museum and breathe deeply the air of the day before spring. Plum blossoms fall into the little pond that had two swans when I was a child. The door to the museum is open and the graceful Art Deco windows fill with amber light.
Inside I can turn right to see Mr.’s Japanese hyper-now pink and neon Neo-Pop or go left and backward in time. I turn left and realize immediately that I know nothing, that I have never seen anything here before and that every brush stroke is a new event. It is a Thursday evening, and only a handful people are in the museum. The quiet is luxurious. I can take as long as I want to to stare at small things. Like how the paper on this long scroll of plum blossoms by Qi Baishi is done in pieces and glued together, in a set of ascending stutters and near-misses as the brush stroke continues from one sheet to the next:
Rice paper shrinks and expands on contact with ink. It is a formidable challenge to push and pull a brush to the sky, stopping and starting at the edge of each branch in just the way a tree grows so that the plum itself is not offended by the effort.
This piece alone changes my heart rate. I have stepped one layer back in time.
The exhibit is called “Conceal Reveal: Making Meaning in Chinese Art, ” and old is mixed with new. I stop in front of this painting by contemporary Chinese artist Wang Huaiqing:
“Here the artist plays with layers of symbolic meanings by setting a meiping vase upside down on a red table, alluding to the overturning of the past as well as expressing the auspicious message that peace has arrived. In Chinese, the word “vase” (ping) is a homophone with the word for “peace,” and the word for “table” (an) is a word that means stability and harmony.By turning the vase on its head, Wang alludes to the Chines word for upside-down, (dao), a homophone for “ to arrive.”
In other words a reminder that the past was not a bowl of cherries and people have been beheading and invading and cultural revolutionizing since the beginning of time. If we upend the vase and start over is it more or less peaceful? Ask the man who wrote The Better Angels of Our Nature. He seems to think we are on an upswing and that human beings are becoming less violent with the passage of time. We are conversing more and peaceably exchanging world views.
And standing up for our better natures. Or at least trying.
I would like to dress in a nine dragon summer robe, and sleep on a pillow made of white earth, where the dreams arrive carrying love notes on trays and the lotus always rises from the mud by noon. I would like to be an Arhat and inspire the sculptor who built this face of hemp and lacquer, layer after layer laid over wood or clay.
I emerge from history to more history, the skylit central courtyard ringed with Indian statuary, the space making me dizzy with its height and purely secular, graceful beauty. Through the doorway I can glimpse Mr’s nightmarish vision of adolescent school girls and Fukishima, tiny televisions and random detritus spilled into a towering installation in the south wing. Another time, for that. I am full and at peace, and grateful. Maybe contemporary art is supposed to disturb me, unravel my paradigm and make me fret even more than I usually do, but for now I’ll take refuge in what remains of tradition, and in institutions devoted to preserving culture and civilization. For an hour or so I will turn my face up and live in museum light.
The quotation from Rebecca Solnit it courtesy of a wonderful talk given by artist Michael Cherney at the Seattle Asian Art Museum the following weekend as part of Asia Week. Do take a look at his work, it is phenomenal. All images above were photographed at the current exhibit at the Seattle Asian Art Museum.
Last weekend I took a sun-blown walk along the waterfront, down to the Chittenden Locks and back up along Golden Gardens. I returned with over a hundred new photographs of the northern bay and renewed excitement about seascapes as a subject. Along the way I passed through the living rooms of those who sleep without doors. There is no bookcase, no lamp, but sometimes a bright red sleeping bag, some boots and a pillow. Perhaps the painted walls are the memories of dreams in a restless night with second thoughts the next morning. Make an intention, transgress, give and forgive, mark and remark, then erase. That is very close to what I do in the process of collage. Art is my process of transcribing dreams, which change in the telling, and may not be entirely true.
The ships have been very still lately during the long dockworkers’ strike. Filled with cargo with no place to come home, eerily paused. The Clipper was captured awhile back, heading out to sea after emptying her cargo. It seemed shamanistic to make this image, like praying for rain. Even in this era of cyber-ether where sometimes you can’t believe that anything physically exists, everything depends on ships. Nintendo, for instance, or oranges.
Friday the strike broke. I won’t claim credit, I’m sure they had this all figured out before I finished the sky and the clouds. I’m just a member of the randomly employed artist union, standing on shore with my eyes open and dreaming outloud.
It’s hard for me to believe, but it has been a full year since I attended the launching of the Patra Project and received the gift of the patra, the exquisite bowl gifted to me and 108 other people on condition that within three months we pass it along to someone else. The past year been a time of big changes for me, and the energy of this extraordinary project by artist Lynda Lowe has permeated my life in many ways. (You can read about my experience of the patra here.) I passed my patra on to photographer Rosanne Olson, and this is what she did with it:
She also took it down the Grand Canyon on a raft:
…and it did not break. Other bowls did break, and all along Lynda has seen that possibility, and prepared herself for the repairs, which will be as beautiful as the original objects. The art of Golden Repair is a form of spiritual practice in its own rite, beautifully written about by Michael Meade in a recent piece in the Huffington Post , excerpted here:
“While anguishing over reports of both cultural and natural tragedies I keep thinking of the old Japanese practice of kintsugi or “golden repair.” The idea behind this ancient ceramic art includes the sense that when something valuable cracks or breaks it should be repaired carefully and lovingly in a way that adds to its value. Thus, the cracks and fault lines in a valuable bowl would be filled with a lacquer made of resin containing powdered gold. Such a golden repair does not try to cover up the cracks in the vessel or deny the facts of the matter. Rather, the cracks and splits and broken places become filled with gold. Beauty appears exactly where the worst faults previously existed and the golden scars add to the living story and to the value of the container.
As a piece of “living philosophy,” golden repair suggests redemptive practices through which the damages of history and the tragic mistakes we make with the fragile vessels of both nature and culture might be repaired. Like any genuine process of healing and making whole again, golden repair requires that we first acknowledge and carefully study the exact faults and divisions that damage the shared vessels of our lives. If we see the globe of the earth as a living, sacred vessel that needs artful repairs we might imagine ways of helping it heal. If we could admit more readily to the tragic injuries that divide one group from another we could replace the bloody damages with golden lines that serve to remind us of the fragility of life as well as the possibilities of repairing shattered dreams and redeeming broken lives.”
This Valentines Day the bowls will be returned to the Tacoma Museum of Glass, where they were first introduced into the Patra community. The Patra Passage exhibit opens to the public on Sunday and continue through May 10. In conjunction with the exhibit there will be a talk, “The Mythologies of Beauty: from Aphrodite to the Patra Project” and book signing with author Phil Cousineau, Sunday February 15th from 3-4 PM.
I am looking forward to seeing what should be a truly beautiful exhibit. All vessels are for sale, and the proceeds go to support not-for-profit organizations and charity.
(Apologies to subscribers of this blog, I made a mistake in the first version of this post and the permalink was not good so I had to repost–you may get this twice.)
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!