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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In Honor of the Solstice, a New Limited Edition Print: “Poppies Remembered”

I love the subtle grays of this time of year, and I love waiting for the light in the darkness of early morning. In honor of the coming Solstice I have made a new image from the pond series. This is a very limited edition in two sizes, three each in 15 x 15 and 20 x 20 inches.

Poppies Remembered Archival Print

Poppies Remembered, Limited Edition Archival Pigment Print, © Iskra Johnson

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The Painting in the Attic: A Mid Century Mystery

For as long as I can remember my father had a painting of a man hanging in his study. As a child it seemed huge to me, larger than life: a wall-sized man. Surrounded by books on every side the man was, appropriately enough, reading a book. As I grew older I got tall enough to reach eye-level with him, and my appreciation for the painting grew. His profile was a jumble of brushstrokes that distilled only at a distance into a face. Such gravity and focus, the page held down with his burnt orange thumb, the air vibrating with color and stillness: the man was thinking.

On several occasions I said to my father that at some point (a point delicately not specified) I would like the painting, and he said yes, of course, although being a man of vivid life force he would immediately turn then to the photograph of Tolstoy and begin talking about Anna Karenina or perhaps The Political Situation or his next piece in the paper, for he published a newspaper in a small conservative town and each week he chose some subject sure to cause another advertiser to abandon him—perhaps Indian fishing rights, or the railroads or the unions or the war in Vietnam. He would take a breath after one of his long sentences and invariably mutter, the bastards. Sometimes I would tiptoe into my father’s study when he wasn’t there and push the keys of his massive Underwood typewriter, or study the pencil drawing of the wooden mask by Indian carver Lawney Reyes. Framed by two walls of books, the eastern window looked out at the Cascades and the ridge in front of them where at night the coyotes gathered to howl, with or without a visible moon.

The painting, the mountains, the room, the floor to ceiling books, all became melded into who my father was to me. When he died, due to the inexplicable dynamics of his third marriage, his belongings and the contents of his last study were locked away and his children received nothing. I thought of the painting every day, visualized every brush stroke, lay through night after night of insomnia and sadness longing for this physical reminder of who he was. One night five or six years after his death I had a dream in which I hired a thief to break into the study and steal the painting. In short order the thief became me, as I put on long white gloves and picked the lock with a skeleton key and hurled the painting into the back of my car, pursued by a procession of former in-laws. When I got the painting home I discovered that it had been painted over: it was ruined. I woke up distraught, yet oddly relieved. I had been freed, and that was the point at which I began to forget and let go. Ten years later, through circumstances equally inexplicable, the painting, the real painting, was given to me. And in a moment eerily reminiscent of the dream, I looked at it without recognition, even with disgust—and I put it in the attic and thought nothing more of it.


An object is not a fixed thing. The more we look at it, or look away, or expose it to sunlight or pull the curtains the more it changes, as do we. Just as the most dazzling color is often fugitive, so is memory and the meaning we give it. In the years that the painting sat in my attic I began to collect art. The only faces I have permitted on my walls are wooden masks from Guatemala. The only body is not a body, but a coat with wings. Although I have painted hundreds of figures it has never occurred to me to hang one on the wall. Perhaps it’s that my mind is so peopled with the daily chatter of the mind that one more guest would be just too much. So in my home I am surrounded with animals and skies and temples and ambiguous surface that lets me dream my own dream.

All of this changed one night this week when I had the unexpected pleasure of visiting a collector of Northwest art. Although the house has been revised it remains mid-century, and the collection goes back in era to the greats: Callahan, early Cummings, Kirsten-Daiensai. I heard the amazing stories behind each piece, and studied the Callahan up close. As we sat in front of a fireplace of tumbled slate, I felt myself placed in another time. “What would you do to that slate wall?” the question came up. And the answer was “Nothing, it is perfect as it is.”

I have never been a fan of painting from the fifties. And having grown up with it, I have always detested mid-century modern: the blonde Danish tables, the molded fiberglass aqua chairs, the top-heavy lampshades on contorted ceramic bodies, the fabrics with tv-shaped lozenges and the flowers drawn to match the antennas and the aggressively angular couches and the beige. I never could bring myself to hate the slate. Perhaps it was the slate, and studying its random-but-not mosaic above the fire that turned my mind sideways. Or seeing an original Kenneth Callahan hanging in a house and not a museum, with Christmas lights tugging at me and a wild storm raging outside. I came home and went directly to the attic and pawed through the insulation until I could find The Painting.

I pulled it out into the light and gasped: it was beautiful! I wiped the cobwebs off and the layers of dust. The frame had splintered here and there, but still sheltered him in his moment of thinking, the orange and blue and black reading man.


The Reading Man, painting by Al Friedman

I knew the name of the painter, Al Friedman, but that was all I knew, and I had no idea who the portrait was of. I reached out to touch his suspenders — suspenders! And that shirt, so white-blue, slightly rumpled, so surely a shirt meant to be worn just that way. He was still, and actually, larger than life.

I sat down to google Al Friedman. He doesn’t exist. Many many Friedman’s exist who are doctors and lawyers and even well-known cartoonists, but not my Al. I tried spelling his name every known way. I called my mother, and she said he was a cabdriver, that’s all she knew. He had driven cab with my father and his best friend. She and my aunt had tried to find him in the sixties in San Francisco and he had disappeared, though it was rumored he was married, and the last anyone heard he gave up painting except he did paint paper bags for a paper bag company. I called my cousin, and she said she had one of his paintings too, and she had also tried for hours to find some mention of him on the web but found nothing. All we could do was squint together and remember back to a dim sense of the rooms, the long dinners over spaghetti, the wine and unfiltered Camel smoke and the feel of our baby cheeks pressed against stretchpants with seams and stirrups and the adults, always shouting to be heard on the subject of The Political Situation. My cousin’s painting is of men at a bar. “I don’t like bars,” she said, “Why would I want a painting of men drinking at a bar? But I love it. It’s beautiful. It has a whole wall and it’s the only thing on it.”

Last night we hung the painting on the big wall in the dining room that had been waiting for something just right. I went into the kitchen to do the dishes and I couldn’t stop looking out into the dining room to catch sight of the Reading Man. I think I was checking to see if he would change back again, into the painting I dreamed, and hid in the attic and never wanted to see again. But each time he was there, beautiful, thoughtful, and steady: I had a guest.


Mid-Century painting in interior: The Reading Man

Coda: Al Friedman, painter, apparently exists offline only, in what they call real life, in the memories of the people who knew him. I would like to know more, and if you were a friend of his, or collected his work, please let me know, and send me photos of his work. I would love to post his paintings here.


Al Friedman Painting of Boats

And here is one of them– thank you cousins!

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