A few images from a very cold day of shooting in the fog. I love men in orange.
Iskra Johnson | mixed media artist
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!
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...]
Awhile back I had a Flicker on the side of my house. By the wording of that sentence you may know that I mean attached as though with adhesive, firmly anchored, determined, and loud. A Flicker is a bird that thinks your house is either A) a piece of wood that he can bore into and coax ants into or B) a dead tree or soon to be dead tree that already has ants and other insects living in it rent free — insects which the Flicker plans to have for breakfast, between 4 and 5 AM.
On a fine spring morning you may find yourself barefoot in your bathrobe with a garden hose, screaming and spraying into the eaves as the protected and very handsome bird looks over his shoulder at you and says, “Huh.” If you are me, you start painting pictures to explain the situation — to the bird.
This went on for quite awhile. I tried a lot of different approaches to organizing the message. Some were direct, some were oblique.
I grew in a strange way quite fond of him. I assumed he was a him. When he attacked the gutters I nicknamed him Donald Rumsfeld, remember him?
I tried reversing him, and I gave him a very fine tree with lots of bark. And finally I did this painting, the last in the series, which may have been the one that finally got the message across, because he went away and I have never been bothered since:
I recently was approached by someone who also had a bird attached to her house, and she took possession of this painting to see what powers it might have. I requested that my patron sign an indemnification agreement, as I cannot guarantee that this kind of magic will work twice. And it occurs to me tonight as I look around the studio and into the eaves that I may have broken a rule of art and magic, as now my bird is gone, and perhaps along with it the protective spell. Tomorrow morning, if you see a woman in her bathrobe spraying a garden hose into the sky and shouting in some strangled and incomprehensible language, that will be me.
This time of year the pond is dizzy with dragonflies. They hover in a cloud of iridescent blue, migrating from the waterlilies to the yellow poppies, and I have even seen them in the house, poised over the threshold of the front door. When I found the body of a checkered dragonfly on a lily pad last July I started this piece, which is now in its 17th iteration. Maybe you call that a …..”series.”
Collage is the art of decision– and indecision. It is the ultimate practice of impermanence, as any element can be moved at any time to create a new shift in perception. If, in your own dragon-fly hovering, you begin to doubt and become anxious for resolution, you lose sight of the wonder that illuminates the process. I am influenced lately by a provocative book by Leonard Koren, Wabi-Sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets and Philosophers. I read this when it first came out in 1994, but had not consciously thought about it for years. The new edition includes black and white photographs that elucidate each premise with quiet and subversive elegance. This passage uses the garden as metaphor, but could as easily refer to making art or any other creative endeavor:
All things are incomplete. All things, including the universe itself, are in a constant, never-ending state of becoming or dissolving. Often we arbitrarily designate moments, points along the way, as “finished” or “complete.” But when does something’s destiny finally come to fruition? Is the plant complete when it flowers? When it goes to seed? When the seeds sprout? When everything turns into compost? The notion of completion has no basis in wabi-sabi.
Of course, Edna St. Vincent Millay also said, “To create one must decide.” And the challenge is to hold both truths and not go crazy. I find it helps to work until midnight, when things get very quiet, to a certain kind of music. The artist of the snuff bottle, on the other hand, had not the luxury of indecision. Bottles like this one were painted with tiny brushes from the inside of the bottle. Ponder that feat of execution next time you think you have a technical challenge.
One of the advantages of growing up on a farm is that you spend a lot of time being just a few feet tall and eye-level with the field. Later, but slowly, you grow a bit and look down, and all the tops of things come into view. Your sense of wonder at that age is matter-of-fact and practical, scaled for harvest. Everything fits in your fist or your back pocket or between your teeth. If you develop the habit of looking down, soon you find four-leaf clovers everywhere.
For years if I opened books from my shelf at random, in particular, books like Black Beauty, or The Wind in the Willows, clovers would scatter onto the floor. The knack of finding them stayed with me for years, and then one day I forgot about it. I gave books away, whole shelves full, without remembering to open them first. My luck, I would have to say, was not exceptional, and there were times I would look around me and feel that some intangible thing was missing. Who knows how the fourth leaf, of grace, comes into one’s life? Last week I visited Fernwoodsy, a magical place of dappled light and bees and meadow. And for just a moment I looked down…..
I have recently returned from ten incandescent days in New York City. Or rather, eight incandescent days and two with thunder and lightning and flash flood alarms. It’s that kind of world. Although I have been to New York many times it had been fifteen years since my last real visit of any length, and I had never committed that primal rite of passage, The Walk Across the Brooklyn Bridge. Over the years it had evolved in my mind into an epic solo journey with only myself, the wind, and ancestral vertigo as company.
Ahh, those 10,000 other people, what did I know? And all of them walking home from Manhattan against my little tide. I can’t say enough about the beauty of tarps, and tarps with boldly censored grafitti which, for a person who makes their livelihood decoding the alphabet, is very close to bliss. I traveled well-protected in this billowing crib, although several Brooklyn-bound bicycles nearly took out my camera arm.
I would like to thank my dear friend and talented photographer Teresa Morani for showing me the Wonders of DUMBO and in general guiding me through the circuit overload of this astonishing city. (“Why,” asked a new acquaintance on the tarmac at La Guardia, “do they keep re-naming parts of the city that we already know some other way? What the hell is Dumbo?” I feel her pain, but I can’t really resist an acronym that stands for “Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass.” It pretty much lets you know that you are entering a city where people live steeped in place. They notice things. (And of course, once noticed, things become very expensive……) Here are a few of the 1,734 moments glimpsed as I mostly walked Manhattan and Brooklyn, avoiding Google maps and asking someone new every few blocks where I was and where I was going. Many of these images will be available as prints at a later date and will be posted in the prints or photography section of my website. (Click each image to see larger.)
Last night I went for a walk to see if I was happy to be home, and I was. This city is so quiet people whisper in restaurants and you can hear the clouds scrape against the sky. There is the occasional disturbance, if you look for it. As I walked towards the bay I heard a raucous shrieking and looked up to see nine crows chasing a bald eagle. They kept going until I lost sight of them far beyond the edge of the park. Here at the frontier there is time to think and recollect. Every night I am dreaming of buildings, and then I wake up and plant peas and divide the baby lettuce. If you would like to know some of the places I went while in New York and the things I recommend here is a short list:
The Highline (Oh Seattle City Council, please please please, can we do this with five feet of the viaduct??)
The Met, Most especially the exhibit of Civil War photography, best viewed after getting lost for a few hours in the Cycladic art collection, just for historical perspective
MOMA, especially Dieter Roth’s “Later this will be nothing.” Also, I suggest having lunch there in the cafe for several hours while reading a novel, perhaps Jennifer Egan’s “A Visit from the Goon Squad”. People will be having very interesting conversations one eighth of an inch away from your elbow, mostly in “foreign” languages, but you may hear about the custom fireplace that very nice looking man is installing for those people with the third home on Fire Island. It’s taken him two years and it’s not yet done.
Gagosian Gallery, Anselm Kiefer’s new exhibit “The Morganthau Plan” And while you are there will you please pick up the book for me? It wasn’t in stock the first week. The other book, Next Year in Jerusalem, is crazy wonderful so I have to assume this one is too. If you see the stereoscopic displays of the Civil War scenes at the Met first it will make these paintings look very different. I think anybody planning to wage a war might want to stop in to these two exhibits before firing up the drones.
Rosanne Olson’s “Rapture” at Robin Rice Gallery. Sublime.
Central Park on a sunny day. There is no greater bliss. Blow a bubble for me.