I am hard at work on my series of prints about the Alaska Way Viaduct. Big Bertha, our sensitive and emotionally overwrought digging machine is helping me out by quitting on the job. We may have several extra years to contemplate incipient ruin, the subtleties of patina and the beauty of going nowhere.
This morning I started on a new collage with Pandora in the background set to my favorite station, which I am guilty, guilty, guilty of listening to instead of finding each song individually or listening to mixtapes made by friends 30+ years ago. The station, wouldn’t you know, is named for the father of music for airports Brian Eno. I do like this phrase from the Rolling Stone review of 1979, “...there’s a good deal of high craftsmanship here, but to find it, you’ve got to thwart the music’s intent by concentrating.” The trick of collage is often to concentrate while not concentrating, a sleight of hand through which something interesting may appear. Mr. Eno and his friends are the perfect soundtrack to encourage this state of mind.
As I was working, shifting layers back and forth and on and off and testing all the ways two simple images can converse and transform each other, I thought about driving and the visual emotional space of the car, which is so entirely married to music. I got my first and only car, a gray Toyota Corolla, in 1989. I will never take it for granted. The first time I sat on a lookout at sunset and turned on the radio I had a kind of American Satori experience: so this is what they were talking about! I get to sit here in my room on the street and just turn the dial and look out at the view?
The view of course is what the lovers of the viaduct will miss the most when it comes down. It is the last populist vista, where you don’t have to pay big dollars to see The Mountains and the Sound which make us want to live here. When it is gone we will have to buy a multi-million dollar penthouse condo or use binoculars to peer across the six to eight lanes of traffic they propose to go on top of the tunnel, which by then will cost 10 dollars per trip and which no one will use because who wants to drive in the dark?? Hmmm.
The music of this situation is both requiem and anthem, weaving its modal intervals in and out in lane changes and near-misses and ultimately onto the great offramp of what-it-is. Requiem for what is to be lost, anthem for what we can still see if we ditch our worries about gas and earthquakes and just go for a drive. I checked Pandora to see what lovely song was transporting me: “Ballad of Distances” from The Tired Sounds of Stars of the Lid, and “Requiem for a Dream” by the Kronos Quartet. Gotta love this many-splendored synchronistic modern life.
Stay tuned for details on my upcoming show, “Excavations,” at Zeitgeist, opening the first week of April.
“The cradle rocks above an abyss, and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between the eternities of darkness.”
“Come with us by all means, but do not chase butterflies, child, it spoils the rhythm of the walk.” — Speak Memory, by Vladimir Nabokov
When I was invited to participate in the exhibit “Ex Libris: 100 Artists, 100 Books” I had no question about which book I would choose to interpret. Vladimir Nabokov’s Speak Memory: An Autobiography Revisited has murmured in the back of my mind for twenty years as an unsolved koan. In my work as a book title designer I have designed a dozen hypothetical covers as portfolio exercises, and always I felt I could do another hundred without exhausting the timeless incantation of the words. I knew that this time I wanted to focus on shadow and light, the beauty of sensory experience and tactile surface. Not only did Nabokov write some of the most evocative and sensual literature of the 20th century, but he made his mark in lepidoptery as a passionate and obsessive collector of butterflies, with an entire genus, Nabokovia named after him. It seemed to me any homage to the book must also include a butterfly, and more than that, a re-enactment of the chase.
We can no longer blithely step out into a field of wild flowers and find a butterfly at whim; I have only seen three in my garden in the past year. In lieu of this science offers us the Tropical Butterfly House at the Seattle Center, where I could wander in the middle of December and collect specimens with my camera. Similarly, for years I have been collecting shadows, and with chlorophyll and pins and camera in hand I set about to capture from new days and old archives the perfect juxtaposition of light and dark. I have always loved the indirect but powerful effect of shadows as characters off stage. They shift and blur without our control and change in an instant, and they invite a compositional element that reflects the fleeting certainty of memory.
“… my Swallowtail, with a mighty rustle, flew into her face, then made for the open window, and presently was but a golden fleck dipping and dodging and soaring eastward, over timber and tundra, to Vologda, Viatka and Perm, and beyond the Ural range to Yakutsk and Verkhne Kolymsk, where it lost a tail, to the fair Island of St. Lawrence, and across Alaska to Dawson, and southward along the Rocky Mountains — to be finally overtaken and captured, after a fourty-year race, on an immigrant dandelion under an endemic aspen near Boulder.” –Speak Memory
I knew that I wanted to create an image of evanescence, but also something that had physical presence and some aspect of dimensionality. I experimented with image transfer, physical collage, and plaster. I arrived in the end at a very different approach to physicality. The images are collaged in Photoshop with the transparent immateriality of thought, but are mounted as specimens might be, on panels, and glazed with layers of acrylic resin as though encased in a vitrine. The quiet typography and shape of the panels reference both a tombstone and the original division, the abyss, of the opening lines of the book.
For readers with interest in the technical aspects of this, I will say it wasn’t easy. Although I made dozens of tests on small panels with adhesives and with acrylic resins, when it came to the final full scale piece all kinds of problems appeared. Who knew gluing a piece of paper onto a piece of wood could be so tricky? Piece of cake if it is 8 inches, but at 16 inches it was hair-raisingly difficult to center the image with just the right amount of border to later trim and sand off. I learned the hard way that it is a good idea to place a thick towel between the paper and a hard surface while drying with weights. If there is a slight warp in the panel the towel will help to fill in the indentation and ensure that all of the paper makes contact with the glued board.
If you have a concern as I do with the archival treatment of digital collage, I pass along here my mistakes and discoveries. I tried Golden’s UV sprays first, and they left a pebble pattern that no amount of subsequent resin could hide. I then tried brushing on a thick coat of Golden UV Topcoat, and the brush strokes caught light and got in the way of a seamless surface. I discovered that if I diluted the Gel with about 30% water and used a sumi brush with a feather-light touch I could do two coats of sufficient depth to protect from UV rays, and still have a lovely surface that bonded well with the next layer. I use only archival pigment printers, (the Epson 3880 or a Canon) which do not bleed with water, so diluting the Gel is not a problem.
For my final coats I used two layers of Golden GAC 800. I have seen the application demonstrated with brush, but I found that if I poured it far fewer bubbles appeared–and contrary to the specs that say it won’t craze, it will if it is poured too heavily. One or two light coats work best. They will look milky, but if you stand on one foot and watch for five hours you will be pleasantly surprised. This beats watching the space bar fill on your computer, and adds some drama to life. To deal with bubbles, do tests using isopropyl alcohol: spray-mist immediately after the pour is done. I have tried several formulations of alcohol, and unfortunately, they are all different, and some will leave pits in the surface. You have about two minutes to lift random butterfly dust or eyelashes out of the surface, but after that you will find indentations form and appear about 24 hours later. Do not wear a black fuzzy sweater.
The Ex Libris exhibit is the brainchild of artist, curator and entrepreneur Siolo Thompson. It is being held in conjunction with the Association of Writers & Writing Programs being held in Seattle this February 26 through March 1. A selection of works from Ex Libris may be seen on exhibit at the Seattle Convention Center during the exhibit. See the entire exhibit opening First Thursday March 6 at Axis Gallery at 308 1st Avenue Seattle, 98102. And for previews of the work if you are interested in purchase, contact Siolo at siolo.thompson at gmail.com.
A last word from Mr. Nabokov:
“‘Natural Selection’ in the Darwinian sense, could not explain the miraculous coincidence of imitative aspect and imitative behavior, nor could one appeal to the theory of “the struggle for life” when a protective device was carried to a point of mimetic subtlety, exuberance, and luxury far in excess of a predator’s power of appreciation. I discovered in nature the non-utilitarian delights that I sought in art. Both were a form of magic, both were a game of intricate enchantment and deception.”
“The word patra refers to the name of alms bowls that monks carry in various cultures to receive their portion for the day, an act that creates an understanding of interdependence with community and openness to the cycle of receiving and giving. The word’s origin in Sanskrit translates as “the vessel that never goes empty”. Whatever is received in the bowl is enough for the day, a reminder of the offerings of the present moment.” –The Patra Passage
You don’t see a vessel here. You must imagine it, as I did, leaving it in its box for the first month it came into my possession as part of the Patra Passage. I was honored to be part of the project. I thought the vessel was very beautiful. And yet I wanted to leave it in the dark for awhile, parked almost casually by the door, as though poised between coming and going. In fact, inherent in the Patra Passage is the idea of impermanence: yes, you take “possession” of this beautiful object for four months, but then you let it go and pass it on, and at the end of the year it will be sold and the proceeds contributed to charity. As much as I am someone who loves objects, and devotional objects in particular, I found myself resistant. I didn’t want to fall in love, and I didn’t want to give up an object of love. I would rather close my eyes in the morning and imagine it.
I would sit and start my meditation thinking of gold light, and the gold leaf within the bowl. I would run my fingers along the torn clay edge, and marvel at the indecipherable language placed flawlessly on its burnt arc. And then I would exhale and think about my email and how many dolphins had washed up on the shore of the Huffington Post and the sweater that had pilled after one washing and the annoyance of whether I should join the Cloud and why the milk kept going bad. The usual non sequitur burden of having a mind that has a mind of its own and never wants to be truly empty. When I took the bowl out of its box and placed it where I sit each morning it made no difference. My attention was not on the bowl. I tried. I thought about generosity and giving and monks and alms and having and not-having and I concluded that I am selfish. I lived with that thought like a very annoying fly. It is still there, and I cannot say that I have become in any noticeable way more sainted.
What I carried with me from the very first moment of the project was not the vessel, but a sentence, rather not even a sentence, just the phrase: “enough for the day.” In those four simple words is a [Read more...]
“Maybe stories are just data with a soul.” –Brené Brown
This Friday I went out to my neighborhood bar to celebrate the first week of the new year. I took my journal and my favorite pen and my phone, and sat next to another person dining solo. She had her phone propped up on her martini glass and never raised her eyes from it, even as she consumed her dinner and dessert and a second martini. I thought about how if she had a book at hand it would be the most natural thing in the world to ask her what she was reading, or to say, I’ve read that, it was great, even if I had no idea what the book was. And yet for a long time, though our elbows were four inches apart, I felt compelled to observe the mores of Seattle social etiquette: the closer you are to a stranger, the less you say.
Finally I could not resist my curiosity, and I asked if she was reading the news. This compelled her to raise her eyes and to list off her news feed, which included all the mainstream media plus “Mumbai, for some reason. My favorite is the BBC, I trust them.” I asked her if she ever read the indie news sources like Truthout or Common Dreams and she pursed her lips and shook her head.”I would never read something like that.” Conversation over. A few minutes later she raised her head again and reported, “Arkansas Lieutenant Governor accused of misconduct,” and went back to chewing her fries with aioli.
As the daughter of a newspaper publisher and a political activist, I will be the first to acknowledge an abject obsession with news, the worse the better. Trying to reconcile the big world and the little world, to parse the truth and find some meaning in making art in the middle of the apocalyptic mediafeed is a constant daily activity around here, which if you follow this blog you have read about before (sorry!). As part of my New Years resolutions I had vowed to be more mindful of what it does to my brain to allow the news in unfiltered, and to have perhaps a little more choice (hah!). On Friday as I browsed my phone in chastened silence and waited for dinner I came across a link on Facebook to Brené Brown’s brilliant Ted Talk about Vulnerability. Which of course made me think immediately about the NSA and the comment from our President after the first set of leaks to the effect that “perhaps some way would be found to work on encryption to make data safe.” Which was followed shortly by a new set of leaks about how yes, in fact the NSA was developing backdoor ways to un-encrypt private data to make it safe for the NSA to read our private mail at its leisure.
In other words, we are now all vulnerable all the time. According to Brené “Vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity and change,” but I am not quite sure this is what she had in mind.
A few hops and skips led me to a truly outlier independent news source that mentioned casually that soon drones the size of fleas will be able to see into our homes and hear what we are saying. Sigh, there goes pillow talk. Pick the strangest science fiction you find, and soon we will be living in it. Really, I just want to go back to “normal.” I so wish we could shut the box of hysteria unleashed after 9.11 and confine eavesdropping to the secret lives of plants.
There is always a flower in Pandora’s box, and the key to smelling its scent is, yes, vulnerability. It is raining here in Seattle, and spring is soon to come. There are good things. And if anybody is listening in, that’s all you’re going to hear today. “There are good things, there are good things……..”
I started this New Years’ Eve morning with an early visit to the Painters Keys, where Sara had posted an exceptionally lovely letter for the new year. If you don’t know about this site, do visit; it is an endless source of inspiration for painters and and artists in all media. Sara’s reminder via Corot to “never lose the first impression” stayed with me all morning as I returned to a series about the Alaska Way Viaduct after a long time away. The creative process (or at least my process) is one of continually losing the glimpse, and then looking for the way back. Sometimes getting lost is a necessary, if bracing, part of the journey.
It has been a wonderful year in art. I have been fortunate to be included in some terrific exhibits at Prographica, Bainbridge Arts & Crafts, Seattle Architecture Foundation and SAM Gallery (ongoing.) Studio visits with collectors and a recent purchase of one of the Duwamish prints by King county for their Portable Works Collection have rounded out the year. Ahead are two shows this spring, which I will be posting about soon. I feel very grateful for my artist groups that provide encouragement and critique, including my salon, Painters Under Pressure which is ending its first decade (!), and the unnamed but equally wonderful group of self-employed designers and artists I have met with each month for over a dozen years. We are a rare tribe, and I couldn’t persevere without them.
I’ll close with part of the letter from The Painters’ Keys, as I am completely smitten with it and I can’t put it any better:
When Claude Monet noticed the village of Giverny from a train window, he made a decision to live out his days there. He later said that everything he ever earned went into his Giverny garden. “I love you because you are you,” he wrote to his work. Artists and their subjects are the star-crossed lovers of the world. They recognize each other on impact. Making the discovery on human steam, fueled by the spirit to get up and down the ladders, makes the most eventful love affair. “What your heart thinks great is great. The soul’s response is always right,” said Ralph Waldo Emerson.
As our year closes, we consider resolutions, or mark our moments of recognition……. As a community, we might just keep safe each other’s love affair.”
“The essence of spiritual practice is remembrance, whether it is remembering to come back to the present moment or recalling the truths of impermanence.”
— Andrew Holecek, Tricycle Magazine, Winter 2013
“Don’t talk, I can’t hear myself see.” –Jerry Saltz
I first visited Cloud Mountain 23 years ago for a seven day silent retreat. At that time a year of insomnia and grief in the wake of my father’s death had taken me to the brink of despair. My view of the world had become dangerously distorted, and if I wanted to come back to my life I needed to take my meditation practice to a different level and rewire my brain. This was before the idea of negativity bias had become commonly accepted in science and spiritual practice, and so in the first days of retreat I spent a lot of time beating myself up for my mind’s inexorable turning towards darkness. By the end of the seven days I had turned enough times to face the other direction that I could now see it existed. The searing images that appear in states of absorption may be only seconds in duration, yet they can powerfully and permanently alter the brain. As well, the steady accrual of mindfulness practice.
I will never forget the feeling of my hands on the steering wheel as I prepared to drive away at the end of the retreat. Did I still know how to drive? I tested the the brake pedal and fiddled with the key. I would start slowly. As I rolled down the hill at three miles per hour I realized that my father was still dead, that a particular sadness was permanent and immutable, and that I was okay. My breathing remained comfortable and calm, and my eyelids didn’t prickle. In that week nothing had changed in the facts of life, but my capacity to carry it had changed. I proceeded to drive directly onto a one-way road into a clear-cut. This is how it is: the world doesn’t stop being itself while I’m being quiet.
Over the several decades since, I have become steadily more happy. Terrible things happen, but without the added burden of taking them personally. When I feel grief I feel myself gathered in a very big net with others. I also increasingly live by this truth: “Know that joy is rarer, more difficult and beautiful than sadness.” When I saw this quotation from Andre Gide in the description of Cloud Mountain’s December “Discovering Joy” retreat with Lila Kate Wheeler I signed on. Happiness and joy take vigilance, and continual practice. What follows are my notes from memory and a few photographs, taken after the formal retreat had ended.
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.