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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“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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Taking Refuge: An Evening at the Seattle Asian Art Museum

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.

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“The Shipping Lanes,” or, The Longshoreman Strike Illustrated


“The Shipping Lanes” limited edition archival pigment print, 25″ x 25″ © Iskra Johnson

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.

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The Patra Passage Opens to the Public, Museum of Glass February 15

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:

Photograph copyrighted by Rosanne Olson.

She also took it down the Grand Canyon on a raft:

Photograph copyrighted by Rosanne Olson.

…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.)

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Facebook for Artists: Community and Currency


“Devotional,” archival pigment print, 1/3, © Iskra Johnson

This week I have been participating in the “art challenge” thrown down on Facebook. I don’t know where these things come from, (likewise memes, where are they born? who runs the meme factory?) but this one seems to have started in the illustrator community and crossed over into the artist world that is my social media life. Unlike the chain letter of old in which a tattered mimeograph threatened karmic harm and financial ruin if you didn’t pass it along with five dollars to the next person, this benign version simply asks that you post three images for five days in a row, each time tagging a new artist. In the currency of the chain letter, five dollars is worth approximately one ‘like’, as one ‘like’ can, if you are fortunate  accrue interest and become forty, and perhaps even lead to a comment. Which of course will not buy you a cup of coffee.

Putting aside for the moment the riddle of how Facebook can manufacture actual dollars for an artist, I’d like to focus on the other currency, what you could call the stocks and bonds, or perhaps more accurately the less tangible stock options of love and encouragement. This treasure can be rare in the cut-throat world in which the creative class competes to make an increasingly scarce living. Artists compete for grants, for galleries, for sales, and for awards. An artist can work alone in the studio for weeks or months – or even years – and hear absolutely nothing back. In this void, creative encouragement, community and inspiration are vital. Although the common perception is that Facebook encourages lifestyle competition, envy and general bitchery I have found the exact opposite to be true. My Facebook is a stream of extraordinary images and thoughts from my friends and the ever-widening circle of visual thinkers my friends expose me to.

The challenge week brought new eyes on my own work but also introduced me to a flood of brilliant work from artists I had not been aware of. Many artists posted mini retrospectives, with work going back decades and showing the evolution of their style, which gave me a huge appreciation of the depth of their work and their commitment to it. I chose the retrospective approach as well, and it was a powerful experience to line up the past and the present and see how it all makes sense, as well as to link to influences, that personal list of my favorite obscure dead people, (speaking of which, Ben Nicholson: go give his drawings some love.)

I find my online community to be an increasingly rich and inspirational environment, a kind of daily graduate school into which I can wade and learn and test out ideas. I don’t think this is what Mark Zuckerberg had in mind when he invented this thing to figure out if your roomate’s sister’s cousin was single without asking her. Facebook has also served to be a galvanizing and very effective political force when issues arise that challenge the arts community’s ethics. A situation arose with a non-profit last year that many artists saw as shockingly exploitative and damaging to the arts community. Within 48 hours the issue went viral and the situation was resolved. Yes a few comments were needlessly spicy, but for the most part it was a genuine public conversation resolved immediately and politely with satisfaction on all sides. Much as I favor face to face communication, I doubt that a town hall with microphones and people shouting would have led to such a harmonious resolution. Although some people will say vicious things online that they never would consider offering in person, the reverse it also true—shy people will push a button from the safety of their armchair, and the collective ‘likes’ of those shy people can be very effective. In this recent situation artists, who can be notoriously self-involved, got a glimpse of the effectiveness of collective action.

What I think of as a virtual art bar of has helped to create a sense of community that I have never felt before. Particularly in Seattle, known for its chill culture, the difference is noticeable. It could be my imagination, but it seems like First Thursdays gallery nights are far more social and friendly and less cliquish. I have made many aquaintances online who become offline associates and friends. As a daily practice, the online community allows us to see into each others’ creative lives, offer support, pass along show announcements, recommend each other for shows and yes —  I do know someone who sold a piece of work from the art challenge just this week….) All this, and I doubt any of my artist friends has ever voluntarily clicked on an ad for ****** shoe company. Sorry, Mark. So it’s ‘free’ although one’s time is expensive, and there is the rabbithole one can go down of never getting offline.

Speaking of which I have to get back to the studio. Stay tuned for a show coming up in April (!). Before I go, here are a few links to artists I became more acquainted with this week, all extraordinary and worth taking a look at:

Noni Boyle, painter, make of luscious charcoal drawings

Ian Macleod,  abstract seer into the nature of phenomena

Emily Gherard  All I can say is the Stranger Genius Award folks knew what they were doing

P.S. I hope if you are watching the “Game” today, even if you truly are the 12 Man/Woman eating organic black bean chips and swigging fine craft beer in font of the television that you take time during the ad breaks to read this and pass it on. I’ll be watching it all from the treadmill in my empty gym.

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Two New Haiku Without Words

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.




Duwamish Water Tower Digital Etching


(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

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