Life in Progress: Studio Construction

I fell in love with the bones, the rafters, the beams and the sky in-between.

The Window To-Be

The Window To-Be

Morning in the Rafters

The Chair


Raise High the Roofbeam


My Favorite Nail

Mixed Waste: My Personal Dumpster

Mixed Waste: My Personal Dumpster

The Window Soon

The Window Soon

Then things got very dark, and after a long time they got light again. Many many beams and rafters in between…..

Sky light

Sky light

I know an artist studio without roof or walls is impractical. I’ll get used to this. Did I mention that although this is the most anxious summer of my life it’s also the most exciting???

Next I will post the faux barnwood-in-progress floors.

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In Neutral: The Gray Muse of Ebey’s Landing

Unarranged Arrangement

Unarranged Arrangement, Ebey’s Landing, © Iskra Johnson

“The point is, not to resist the flow. You go up when you’re supposed to go up and down when you’re supposed to go down. When you’re supposed to go up, find the highest tower and climb to the top. When you’re supposed to go down, find the deepest well and go down to the bottom. When there’s no flow, stay still. If you resist the flow, everything dries up. If everything dries up, the world is darkness.”
                      ― Haruki Murakami, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle

I think there is no better place for me to understand equanimity than the slender borderline between land and sea. To walk the shore on a gray day, with a warm wind in my hair and clouds low on the horizon, to become completely lost in the large rocks and the pebbles and the sand, finer and finer gradations of gray and brown and white and coral that the sea tosses up and time burnishes. It’s the middle path. No chasing after sunsets or epiphanies, no ecstatic longing or grasping at beauty that will fade, because all of this is already faded. I can walk for hours and hours looking down and finding the horizon line and the cloud in every stone.

Neutral. Muse of gray: Leo Adams. The brilliant Yakima artist is my mentor these days, a warm pebble always in my pocket and guiding me as I look to form the aesthetic of a new studio and living space. It seems to me lately that the design world is divided into those who know of Leo Adams and those who don’t. Once you do, you can’t go back: gray and brown will never be the same, and you will look at interior design and painting with completely new eyes. His work blends influences of Asia with the eastern Washington landscape and a Native American materiality and sense of place. It is part of the subtle and potent lineage of the Northwest School, of Mark Tobey, Morris GravesRichard Gilkey and others who embraced the tonality of this misty overcast latitude and found kinship with the artistic traditions of China, Korea and Japan.

I first saw Adams’ work at the home of a collector in Tieton.  Across from a window onto yellow grasses and rolling orchards hung a screen that looked Asian, but not, like sumi, but not, flat yet dimensional, and put together with the most subtle palette of grays I had ever seen. I spent a summer wondering how this work was made, who had made it, what kind of mind could see space the way this artist did. I then discovered that here and there friends of mine knew Adams, and that his way of seeing had influenced northwest design in every way, for decades. Recently he has received quite a bit of attention by way of an exquisite monograph published by Marquand books. It is now a prized possession (bible!). I hope someday to see his home and studio in person, but in the meantime this lovely documentary from KCTS takes me there, as well as through a retrospective of his paintings. If nothing else, becoming acquainted with Leo Adams will mean you never again apologize for dragging sticks and rocks into the house.

I returned home from my recent day along the shore with pockets full stones and a quiet(er) mind.  Perhaps this piece is a kind of cloud chart. I’ll need to come up with a new taxonomy to explain this version of the atmosphere. Cumulus Equanimous, that might be a start.

Equanimity Study 1

Equanimity Study 1, © Iskra Johnson

Muse for Max Ernst

Muse, for Max Ernst, © Iskra Johnson

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Art & Solitude



Group Therapy, Day One, Sketchbook, © Iskra Johnson

“Here in my isolation I can grow stronger. Poetry seems to come of itself, without effort, and I need only let myself dream a little while painting to suggest it.” ~ Paul Gauguin

“Because she favours solitude and indwelling, an artist can live a significantly more claustrophobic life that she had ever intended.” ~ Eric Maisel

“The ecstatic state of wholeness is bound to be transient because it has no part in the total pattern of ‘adaptation through maladaptation’ which is characteristic of our species… the hunger of imagination, the desire and pursuit of the whole, take origin from the realization that something is missing, from awareness of incompleteness.”

― Anthony Storr, Solitude: A Return to the Self

Sometimes I look back on all of my relationships and am tempted to conclude that the longest and most powerful one, my “primary relationship” has been with solitude itself. It is in the accumulated years of a life alone in a room with work, or in the fields or the streets, wandering, that I have always felt most “my self.” Alone, there is no one to entertain or impress –– only impressions themselves and the gathering of them. If I am lucky there is not even a gatherer, just the verb itself, and some editing hand does the work without my being aware of paying attention, resulting in a collected sense of “coming to my self” ie. experiencing “meaning.”

For an artist the product of this inner process often lives intangibly for a long time. It’s a glimmer, a felt-sense of possibility. Hammering it out into a Real Thing and accepting the distance between promise and actuality can mean a long-distance swim through the slough of doubt, with no wetsuit and no cage to ward off sharks. This is where the fabled suffering of the artist comes in, and it seems to be what most fascinates therapists, analysts, and the people who pay them. The tension I feel between public and private, inner state and outer product, has lately been exacerbated by social media, and the paradox that while one is completely alone in a room there is a potential audience of millions sitting just on the other side of the Device. Others are there, yet not-there. Silence takes on new shapes, as does doubt.

Group Encounter, mixed media drawing

Group Encounter, 10″ x 10″, mixed media on paper © Iskra Johnson

One can always use back-up on irresolvable dilemmas, so I immediately said yes when recently invited to a lecture on “Solitude and Creativity.” The lecture kicked off a weekend sponsored by the Seattle Psychoanalytic Society on “Solitude and Relatedness in Art and Life.” It seemed they had custom made this lecture for me! I conveniently forgot, as I often do when buying tickets to such things, the phenomenon of cultural narcolepsy. It’s the four-foot rule: if a cultural authority is more than four feet away from me and speaking in a darkened room, I fall asleep. Which I promptly did on this occasion, soothed by the comfortable seats and the hush of academic politeness in the auditorium of the Frye Museum.

The hush was abruptly shattered by what will always in the future be spoken of as The Outburst. Lights up, question and answer period murmuring and slow….. references to the speaker’s previous books…. the cost of isolation….. the danger of delusion, and anecdotes of famous artists. Out of nowhere comes the wild man, shouting, half-leaping from his seat with the power of each exclamation point. “I don’t see your face!” he began, jabbing his finger in the air in the direction of the woman on stage. (We can all agree on this first sentence, and this only.) From here unspooled a passionately escalating rant of about three minutes, during which the audience collectively clenched the armrests, and security hovered in the wings. Did the man have a gun? How to deal? Will he take over the entire discussion, like a Trotskyite at a PTA meeting? Does he have cohorts? The speaker on stage did not acknowledge one word of his commentary, and turned crisply to the next questioner. Everyone exhaled, and I started taking notes. Because what he said, or what I thought he said was worth the price of a two hour nap.

But first, what various companions in the audience said he said:

I don’t know, I have no idea what he said, he was so angry, it seemed like years of anger, and it seemed very personal. I was afraid.

He was just crazy. He seemed to think she was his mother.

He kept saying he couldn’t see her face, and he meant that in daily life, in modern life, we don’t see each other. He was talking about the alienation and loneliness of modern life.

Whatever he was talking about, it was completely off-topic.

This being a psycholanalytic gathering we must accept that projection happens, and is perhaps the only currency of “reality.” I’ll accept that my own memory and notes were complete projection. But I heard the man say, “I don’t see your face, I see the color and the shape. But I do not know who you are…” and from there the increasingly adamant tirade addressed the fallacy of her entire premise, that there was a person alone in a studio “being alone” and that there was some kind of suffering. To him there was no alone, there was no person being alone, there was in fact just the unconditional and unidentified: the shape, the color, the abstraction. And this resulted in products (called “art”) that reflected this state, a valuable and irreplaceable state that can only be accessed in solitude. His perspective was not unlike that of a spiritual teacher who chides the student asking about how they will know when they have achieved enlightenment. The answer is likely to blow up the idea of a ‘self’ even being aware of achieving a ‘thing’ called enlightenment, and the student will feel both shamed and annoyed at how off-topic the answer was.

Truly, I don’t go into my studio hoping to brood or do heroic battle with loneliness. I would like to keep my equanimity and both of my ears nicely attached to my head. I go, however, hoping to step into the unconditional, in some unexpected form. Some artwork is the scaffold, the steps to getting to that state, and other work is a report back from direct experience. If we are lucky, the report gives the viewer a glimpse. No face, no name, no limits, just being there. When I see that kind of work I am very hopeful, and transfixed.

It is quite possible the man was off-topic, that he was delusional, ‘mad’ in both senses, yet what he said seemed to me quite wonderful. If anybody was there that night who would like to share their memory of The Outburst, what was said, and what it meant to you, I will be very curious. I am happy to trade projections with you any time.


Ladder & Wall, mixed media transfer print © Iskra Johnson

A few of my favorite writers on solitude, meaning and art:

Anthony Storr, Solitude, a Return to the Self

James Hillman, The Soul’s Code

 Eric Maisel, Coaching the Artist Within

And a video interview with the inimitable Agnes Martin


Beauty at the Edge: Highway 99 Revisited

I am living for awhile in temporary quarters between the Collision Center and the Aurora St. Vincent de Paul’s. My white box in the sky is surrounded by several hundred other white boxes neatly stacked and facing each other’s allotted squares of white venetian blinds. This is called an “apartment complex,” and after documenting the construction of dozens of such projects all over the city it is curious to actually live in one. I looked for several months for a place to stay while my house and studio are under renovation. All politics is personal, and all art is in some way political, in that creative obsessions inevitably run into the economic realities and constructs of power behind them.

For instance, take the economic fact that the smallest of those new boxes in the sky, the ones called “studios” start at $1,300 per month and go up as high as $2,800. And some of them are far smaller than 400 square feet, (even, in the case of apodments, as small as 150 square feet) and may have neither kitchen or bath, because what is a coffee shop for anyway? Just plug in your laptop and stay awhile, wash your hair in the sink at Starbucks if the communal bathroom at Green Bamboo Eco-Pod No. 6 is busy. Scaling down from these heights to something within the range of a temporarily displaced artist, it was hugely challenging to find an apartment that did not have mold, ants, a feral manager, reviews that mentioned hypodermic needles behind the dishwasher, or doors so warped that they wouldn’t shut, much less lock. Then there was the bedroom door with the boot-hole still in it. “Will this be on the pre-existing damage list?” I asked. “Yes, thank goodness that anger-management problem is gone,” the manager said, not suggesting that the door would be replaced. As I banged my head on the eye-level chandelier I kept going, and landed in the benign set of cubes where I currently reside, in what is turning out to be an unsettling experiment in identity.

If you work as an artist long enough you will accumulate oceans of stuff. You can drown. It is good sometimes to step away and reconsider. Perhaps one’s ideas of beauty are at fault. Perhaps there is no need for color or iconography or beloved objects. The walls are not yours, and they shall remain without a single nail. Forget about your known circle. Perhaps you need to meet a different person in the elevator three times a day. “Do you hear my refrigerator?” the young man asks. “People always tell me they can hear my refrigerator.” “No,” you say, pressing the button to go four floors down and two blocks over to the trash compactor, “I don’t think I hear yours but I hear three others and I unplug mine to meditate in the morning.”

You had never considered the power of refrigerator generators to create community, but this opens a new door. All things bleak become interesting. Take the large pit beneath the window that may or may not become a swimming pool. Its gray buckets are like persimmons, perfectly placed against a gray background (if you imagine them orange,) and the blue tarp roped across it makes the sounds of the sea as it billows and ripples in every kind of weather. On waking you can imagine steamer ships passing on the far windowsill, and maybe a European boy in knickers scuffs the sand and holds his hat against the wind, with ribbons blowing gaily behind him.

Also, there are always astonishing walls, blank or not, and light writes its poems there, throughout the day and night.

Hokusai At St. Vincent de Paul

Hokusai at St. Vincent de Paul, Midnight © Iskra Johnson

Hokusai On Highway 99 Morning

Hokusai, 6 AM © Deloss Webber

Hummingbird On The Wall, light in the studio

The Hummingbird, © Iskra Johnson

On the second week I went for a run along the new interurban trial. Underneath, plum blossoms smudged pink on tar. Trucks without wheels, fences without posts, everywhere rust, and every spare surface signed by a stranger late at night. Along the backside of the cemetery coiled wire followed the top of Olmstead wrought iron, and a man bicycled slowly towards me, pulling a wagon. His eyebrows had been so perpetually raised in surprise that they had stayed there, like a mountain range, and his face below was impenetrable, mapped by roads with no name. He looked at me long, appraising, and I shivered, and ran faster, towards the young women in pink walking their dogs. An inflatable clown smiled at me from a window in the spare parts warehouse, the anvil clouds of morning flattened into dirty cotton, and I was for a long time the only person on the trail.

The Triangle & The Square

The Triangle & The Square

In this state I came back and ran into the elevator and up three flights and when I raised the blinds of my new windows I realized just how comforting and powerful it is to have a triangle on a square. This complex was built with a flat roof, but triangles have been attached here and there, to give an impression of “house.” The sun rises there, just between the flat and the angle. I just kept looking at it, the miracle of structure and shape.

The next day I gave in and put tulips in a vase. Each day, only what is necessary. Start with nothing, start with empty, and begin again. I may become a believer after all.

Flowers In White

Flowers In White, © Iskra Johnson


Banksy Was Not Here: The Buddha Deconstructed, with Help from Keats

I am thinking today about Banksy and about Keats. Why those two in one thought you might wonder, the romantic English poet and the bandanaed vandal? The answer lies in the idea of “negative capability,” first expressed by Keats in a letter about Shakespeare:

… Negative Capability, that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties. Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.’ (And elaborated later in another letter):  “What shocks the virtuous philosopher delights the camelion Poet… A Poet is the most unpoetical of anything in existence, because he has no identity, he is continually filling some other body.’

I walk the waterfront in a cold spring rain, the water scuffed and gray, the Wheel paused mid turn and the roar of the viaduct behind me. The grind of traffic, the wind, the absent sun, the intense quiet within the noise. I look up, and there in the distance is the pale poet walking the daffodils and Lakes of England, and Banksy, spray painting a dark silhouette with a bright bouquet, or something darker with no flowers at all. A sly Rat, or a girl in windy skirt, holding the string of a balloon. Perhaps the beginning of a vine growing out of the sidewalk cracks. The poet disappears into symbol and reverie; the vandal tags walls with stenciled archetypes which look like “anybody could do it.” What Banksy has given us is a new appreciation of the wall as poet’s page writ large. We get to hold the irreconcilable opposites of fame and anonymity, of violation and communion, of alienation and mediation — offerings placed in front of the walker in the city, if we are prepared to see them.

I look back at the viaduct pillars and the empty parking lot. I look for the train tunnel, but it is gone, hidden behind a noise barrier put up for new condominiums. It is easy to become mesmerized by tracings in the concrete, the scribbles that seem like words but are not, the peeling banners, the errant sticker placed there for no reason other than that it was at hand height and the light was fading and someone had to move fast. I am distracted by a shifting memory of the afternoon when I last saw the tunnel, and the writing there spilling into the dark. Where is that photograph, taken with the Canon, was it 1998?


Pre-gentrification, the viaduct train tunnel.

When I get home I find this among dozens of new pictures on my phone:


And then I walk out into my garden and look at my standard concrete garden Buddha and remember some other photos.



Buddha-Princess Evolution: is this what they mean when they say the camera lies? Digital collage, deconstructed…..


And then I paint some paintings for a day or so, thinking about rust and dirt and the city and the Seattle sky.


And look at a lot of graffiti and start moving things around on 44 layers in three different files:Banksy-Was-Not-Here-Sreet-Buddha-ManifestationWhich is how the print above, “Banksy Was Not Here: Street Buddha Manifestation” manifested. (In answer to the person who asked me “Where is that wall?”)

This and ten other transfer prints in a series about the Alaska Way Viaduct are available at Zeitgeist for the Month of April.



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Iskra at Zeitgeist: “Excavations”


Here is the official cyber-invitation to my show at Zeitgeist opening First Thursday, April 3 from 6-8. Hardhats optional. No host bar (Zeitgeist serves beer and wine). Feel free to print and share!

Blending traditional media with digital photography, the exhibit offers a personal homage to sense of place in the wake of Seattle’s relentless building boom. Ranging from depictions of the Alaska Way Viaduct to construction sites and iconic ruins, these prints explore the paradoxical beauty of disruption. Many of the images are composed from walls that have been painted over or destroyed in the past year. Others incorporate the ragged surfaces found on construction projects and in the streets, in a collage of photographic, drawn and painted surfaces. Read more about the evolution of this body of work and preview pieces here.


Man Pushing to the RIghtSee you there!


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New Images About the Alaska Way Viaduct: Understory & Overstory

I have just completed several of the final new images for the upcoming “Excavations” show at Zeitgeist. One portion of the show will be a series of 10″ x 10″ transfer prints devoted to the ongoing saga of the Alaska Way viaduct. The images are created from my photographs of the viaduct layered with painted and drawn surfaces made in response. This is a place filled with industrial strength beauty: loud, dirty, sometimes hazardous but always provoking.

I have been photographing the viaduct for at least 25 years, and this iconic structure is an enduring object of affliction. Many of the collages are based on recent cellphone photos taken from a moving car. This is the glimpse, the rapture of the vista, the overstory. But this one, the most recent piece, uses as its backdrop an analog photograph I took over 20 years ago when the train tunnel could still be seen. I stood for hours one long gilded afternoon waiting for trains, and documented the graffiti as it changed color in the refracted sunlight of the bay. Now that tunnel is invisible, walled in behind condominiums. This is the understory. As with all of the images in this series reality has been subtly collaged and reconstructed.

Banksy Was Not Here: Street Buddha Manifestation

Banksy Was Not Here: Street Buddha Manifestation, Transfer print, © Iskra Johnson

Understory 1

Understory 1, Saturday 1 PM, Transferprint, © Iskra Johnson

Meanwhile, although the cracks are getting larger we still drive. Best view of the sky anywhere:

Drive-By In Orange: The Viaduct

Drive-By In Orange, Transferprint, © Iskra Johnson

Each transfer print originates from the same image, but the transfer process creates a unique monoprint each time, with different surface qualities and subtle variations in color. I often make only one print of an image, but in some cases the variations possible are too interesting to pass up. This particular print has several variants, as I experimented with the grain of the ink and application of the transfer medium. In this version I “wiped” the paper as I would a zinc plate, to get the organic washed quality of the sky.

Mark your calendar for the opening, First Thursday April 3rd, 6-8 at Zeitgeist. A reminder will come closer to the date.

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