Iskra with Painters Under Pressure at Seattle Sampling December 4-6

When my print arts salon, Painters Under Pressure, suggested we do the Seattle Sampling December studio tour it was. . . . July. No sweat, plenty of time! Now we are all in that wonderful pre-show manic state of trying to make art round the clock while life in its inconvenient way interferes. Laundry? Bookkeeping? The Gym? Huh. I have never made so much work in such a compressed period of time. I think the happiest state, the state of mind I treasure most, may be just pure focus, and I’m there, even if I am wearing last week’s socks.

You can find the map to all 12 Seattle Sampling studios here.  Jon Taylor, Ruth Hesse, Steve MacFarlane and I will be in studio 4 at 4000 Aurora Avenue North. The building is on the northeast corner of 40th and Aurora, on the east side of Aurora. It is easiest to come up Stone Way and turn west on 40th, and you will find parking available on the surrounding streets or in the building lot. Here is the specific street map for our studio.

On Friday evening between 4-9 we will have wine and cheese and first choice of artwork. Studios will be open Saturday and Sunday from 10AM-5PM. Come keep us company and celebrate the beginning of the holiday season! I will post details and reminders a few more times as the date grows closer. Follow our collective work for the show on the PUPS Facebook page or see my daily progress on Instagram.

The Pear Apple Tree, Early November, mixed media on plaster © Iskra Johnson
The Pear Apple Tree, Early November, mixed media on plaster © Iskra Johnson


Tuesday I went into the garden and was transfixed by the Japanese pear-apple tree. It had lost an exact number of random leaves. An offering of golden shards against the gray sky, one branch stood out. Transient beauty evokes equal measures of pleasure and longing.  The camera can stop time, yet the capture is almost incidental, and does not really close the distance. It is only when I go back into time and consider it from ten directions and remake the instant slowly that longing is truly met with something I can touch and hold in my hand. Although there will be some prints on paper, most of the new work for the studio show is mixed media on plaster. The scale is intimate, between four and eight inches square.

Every day I reflect on the meaning of the title for this series: “The Gardener’s Almanac of Irreproducible Phenomena.” I think all of my work, whether it is about architecture, the street or the garden is at heart about impermanence. Printmaking is a way to mediate the tension between the irreproducible, the fleeting, and the desire to capture and hold, through the consciously editioned movements of the hand.


Predictions, November 12, 2015

In this year of fluctuating drought and deluge the Pear Apple, also known as Sand Pear or pyrus pyrifolia, will achieve a perfect asymmetry only rivaled by the six persimmons of Mu-qui. The presence of pale blue lichen will indicate that the tree is old but blessed and lucky to be still bearing fruit after three transplantings. The fruit! It will be plentiful and globed like many suns after a confetti of white blossoms. Harvest before the gray squirrel sinks his teeth into the flesh. Preferably before the moon gets too far beyond itself. Slice in a blackened pan, drizzle with brandy and clove. Wait until ripeness, serve to a stranger you would like to kiss.

Between January 12th and 16th of the following year a great snow will fall and this very branch that seems so beautiful now will crack under the weight. Consider emptiness. How the blue-sky lichen covers more and more of the tree until the branches look like currents in the lake. How hot it is! In June’s drought the tree feverishly blooms and blooms, but offers only one fruit in late August. People will say it is grieving. That it is shoring up. That it is tired and old. You will miss the bees, drunk and flirtatious on fallen fruit. But you can walk barefoot now without fear, and one day you will stand in front of the tree and reach up and eat the sun.

                      —The Gardener’s Almanac of Irreproducible Phenomena, Chapter 6


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Surface Queries and Technical Notes on Wax and Vanished Colors

Attempting to mix a true match to the vanished quinacridone gold.

Attempting to mix a true match to the vanished Quinacridone Gold.

There are certain colors that just made life so much easier. Not to mention more luminous and radiant with saturated contentment and possibility, as if one were looking through a glass of lillet from a cafe in Firenze, just before dinner. Or surveying the vineyard from the ramparts, in a good year. And this color was not a cheap trick, although it could be used that way.

I am speaking, of course, about the dearly departed Quinacridone Gold, taken from us by unknown and sudden circumstance when I wasn’t looking. What you see above is my vain attempt to spin magic from earth colors, to replace a color originally used as dust on angel wings. Ochres, siennas, Azos, — pfft. Sorry Golden, I know you tried, but Azo is orange. I discovered after a panicked search that I have one nearly dried up jar of the original paint from 2007 (??) that I shall reconstitute and try to make last until the end times. Or I will just squint more and imagine that things looks as I should like them to. This new piece is underpainted with the beloved color and some other blends of earth and mica. Italy is but a dim memory here, muted by soot, but I wanted  Quin Gold here to give a hint of radiance to the industrial scene glimpsed from the bridge above Harbor Island.

Vie from the River, © Iskra Johnson, industrial landscape on plaster

View From the River, © Iskra Johnson, mixed media on plaster

Image transfer onto rough and textured surfaces is not for the faint of heart. There is a lot of trial and error and holding one’s breath to move an image from photographic shimmer to an embedded life as an object. I think it is starting to work reliably, and I can begin to know how closely my imagery will translate. Now I am exploring the final finishes, and the technical issues of waxing over mixed media. Many of the craft solutions I have found online have no track record for longevity, so the scrapbooking community with its decoupage and furniture polishes has not been a lot of help on this.

When an acrylic resin is poured or painted over a surface it feels plastic and shiny, and for work with a textured field I want something more tactile. So far a satin wax from Stucco Italiano seems promising. I have also tried Renaissance Wax, Dorland’s Wax, and various of the Golden acrylic products, which never have the feeling I am looking for. Acrylic also tends to remain tacky forever, which makes shipping and wrapping complicated. On some of the Golden Acrylic resins I have used, like the tar and self-leveling gels, the Renaissance wax has seemed to help “cure” them so they are less fragile. But first the surface has to be scuffed with steel wool or another scrubber, and it tends to dull the colors. Both the Dorlands and Rennaisance don’t seem to “like” acrylic; they are finnicky, and sometimes come right off in burnishing. I welcome any suggestions from the surface fanatics out there. What can you put on acrylic to make it less shiny and more resilient, while keeping the brilliance of the color? What are your favorite final varnishes for mixed media (that won’t eat through paper or yellow over time?)

To unwind at the end of a day in the studio I have become a passionate fan of the Beautiful Italian Men Putting Plaster on Walls channel on YouTube. My new favorite form of “time-based art”: Italian men troweling plaster on walls with immaculate authority. To wordless soundtracks of lugubrious largos and antic allegrettos. Vivaldi never looked so good —I recommend it.

Man putting plaster on a wall, video still

A screenshot of a Man Making Art not War. Click here to see the video.


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Capturing Incandescence with Digital Printmaking: An Homage to Dürer

Although I am a avid gardener, the kind of gardener who intentionally plants things with an eye to color and texture and contrast and who pulls out weeds, I have to confess that my very favorite flower in the world is the dandelion. I have been trying to capture dandelions since I was about three, when I was first photographed eating them, which I will say was much less satisfying than blowing them and watching the seeds fly up into the air.

In July I took some photographs of a particularly expressive weed against the crumbling wall of a parking lot, and the image has been murmuring to me ever since. It was an exquisite morning spent in the company of my mother and old books. Somehow the grainy pages of her 1930’s Latin primer and a distant memory of a print by Albrecht Dürer came together in this image.

Dandelion for Dürer, By Iskra Johnson, archival digital print

“Innocence,” archival digital print, © Iskra Johnson

My scale with the current Almanac series of botanical work is intimate. This print is 8″ square. My intention is to make a second image in which the photographic elements are directly transferred into the plaster which forms the background. It has been a very challenging piece, composed of at least a dozen “plates” ie. Photoshop layers, on which I have drawn and erased and shaded with my digital tools. It is slightly crazy to try to convey incandescence with low contrast, but everything about the original moment when I saw this beloved weed was about innocence and light and the uncapturable haze of memory—which is a quiet place. Perhaps I should let Robert Creeley explain, from his poem “The Immoral Proposition”:

If quietly and like another time there

is the passage of an unexpected thing.

To look at it is more

than it was.

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New Directions with Italian Plaster

After my inspirational time with Jennifer Carrasco I am diving into the new/old technique of Italian plaster and reveling in what happens when you let surface speak. In the past I’ve tended to get nervous when I spend a lot of time making a surface to paint or draw on. The calligrapher in me wants to have a stack of a hundred sheets of paper and nothing to lose by drowning in ink, again and again, and throwing whatever happens on the floor for later reflection. The word “precious” comes up when I think of sanding and painting and sanding again and then glazing and . . . then trying to put something down on such a huge investment of time.

If you are a recovering calligrapher or watercolorist you know this tyranny of the perfect sheet of rag paper. With a pristine sheet of BFK or $20 rice paper there is really nowhere to go but “down.” The difference with the plaster technique is that the surface is full of imperfection and invites more of the same – and I’m calling that beautiful. Every disaster can be resurrected and made into something new, with the added beauty of the previous layers coming through.  As someone once said to me as they observed my highly evolved forms of procrastination and avoidance, “We are all more human than otherwise.” So why not just get busy with being human.

That said, a few of these distressed surfaces are so compelling they give me pause, and it seems I will need to make a whole lot of them before I feel truly free to improvise.

Plaster etching by Iskra

Italian plaster with etching and glazes

When I prepare a surface I feel just like I do when I am wiping a traditional zinc plate for the printing press, the difference being that I can avoid the follies that happen when it gets transferred to paper. There are times when I love printing and can go with the flow of the transformations of the press, but more and more I am just plain in love with the plate itself. I think it’s the architecture element: it’s a real, solid thing. Speaking of architecture, I am continuing the theme of structures in some of this new work:


This is a miniature, all of 4 inches square, a test for something I plan to do large, but it’s pretty cute tiny.  On a road trip with my friend, the talented painter Patty Haller ,we passed a completely amazing construction site, and she said, we have to stop, right? Who could say no to this?? The best friendships come with a detour clause.

This one is an experiment with material from my trip down the Duwamish:

Duwamish Plaster Study Mixed media Iskra

All of this new work is a combination of image transfer, plaster and paint. The glazing materials I purchased from Stucco Italiano have a lovely two hour open time and for once I am not cursing acrylic – it can actually flow, and smear, and be rubbed off and layered again without those awful streaks that come from quick-drying mediums.

My other muse is nature. From the tangled garden at the end of summer:


Seed and shadow

Seeds and Shadow, mixed media on panel, © Iskra Johnson


Anemone, from The Gardener’s Almanac of Irreproducible Phenomena, mixed media on panel © Iskra Johnson

The word “Almanac” has been on my mind, and it may be the framework of this new work. It was a brutal summer for anyone who has invested time and love and water in a garden. I am thinking of the old guides that could tell us the future with some flour-sack certainty, of a simpler world ruled by the moon and the occasional volcano, when the only news came from a neighbor, and when we would be spending these September days putting up fruit and tomatoes and burying our future in the root cellar for later celebration. These are my pages from the Almanac, that edition you can’t find in the Library of Congress; fragments found after the fire at the conservatory a long time ago.


The Burnt Angel, Volunteer Park Conservatory

The Burnt Angel, Capitol Hill Conservatory Fire, Seattle Washington


Stay tuned for news of the upcoming Seattle Sampling studio tour, where I will be offering a selection of this new work. All images © Iskra Johnson

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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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