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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Object Lessons: The Patra Passage

The word patra refers to the name of alms bowls that monks carry in various cultures to receive their portion for the day, an act that creates an understanding of interdependence with community and openness to the cycle of receiving and giving. The word’s origin in Sanskrit translates as “the vessel that never goes empty”. Whatever is received in the bowl is enough for the day, a reminder of the offerings of the present moment.” –The Patra Passage

Patra, Imagined © Iskra Johnson, charcoal dust and pigment on paper

Patra, Imagined © Iskra Johnson, charcoal dust and pigment on paper

You don’t see a vessel here. You must imagine it, as I did, leaving it in its box for the first month it came into my possession as part of the Patra Passage. I was honored to be part of the project.  I thought the vessel was very beautiful.  And yet I wanted to leave it in the dark for awhile, parked almost casually by the door, as though poised between coming and going. In fact, inherent in the Patra Passage is the idea of impermanence: yes, you take “possession” of this beautiful object for four months, but then you let it go and pass it on, and at the end of the year it will be sold and the proceeds contributed to charity. As much as I am someone who loves objects, and devotional objects in particular, I found myself resistant. I didn’t want to fall in love, and I didn’t want to give up an object of love. I would rather close my eyes in the morning and imagine it.

I would sit and start my meditation thinking of gold light, and the gold leaf within the bowl. I would run my fingers along the torn clay edge, and marvel at the indecipherable language placed flawlessly on its burnt arc. And then I would exhale and think about my email and how many dolphins had washed up on the shore of the Huffington Post and the sweater that had pilled after one washing and the annoyance of whether I should join the Cloud and why the milk kept going bad.  The usual non sequitur burden of having a mind that has a mind of its own and never wants to be truly empty. When I took the bowl out of its box and placed it where I sit each morning it made no difference. My attention was not on the bowl. I tried. I thought about generosity and giving and monks and alms and having and not-having and I concluded that I am selfish. I lived with that thought like a very annoying fly. It is still there, and I cannot say that I have become in any noticeable way more sainted.

What I carried with me from the very first moment of the project was not the vessel, but a sentence, rather not even a sentence, just the phrase: “enough for the day.” In those four simple words is a [Read more...]

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Year End Reflections, “Keeping Safe the Love Affair”

Drive-By Viaduct In The Evening

Glimpse 3, The Viaduct in Evening © Iskra Johnson

I started this New Years’ Eve morning with an early visit to the Painters Keys, where Sara had posted an exceptionally lovely letter for the new year. If you don’t know about this site, do visit; it is an endless source of inspiration for painters and and artists in all media. Sara’s reminder via Corot to “never lose the first impression” stayed with me all morning as I returned to a series about the Alaska Way Viaduct after a long time away. The creative process (or at least my process) is one of continually losing the glimpse, and then looking for the way back. Sometimes getting lost is a necessary, if bracing, part of the journey.


It has been a wonderful year in art. I have been fortunate to be included in some terrific exhibits at Prographica, Bainbridge Arts & Crafts, Seattle Architecture Foundation and SAM Gallery (ongoing.) Studio visits with collectors and a recent purchase of one of the Duwamish prints by King county for their Portable Works Collection have rounded out the year. Ahead are two shows this spring, which I will be posting about soon. I feel very grateful for my artist groups that provide encouragement and critique, including my salon, Painters Under Pressure which is ending its first decade (!), and the unnamed but equally wonderful group of self-employed designers and artists I have met with each month for over a dozen years. We are a rare tribe, and I couldn’t persevere without them.

I’ll close with part of the letter from The Painters’ Keys, as I am completely smitten with it and I can’t put it any better:

When Claude Monet noticed the village of Giverny from a train window, he  made a decision to live out his days there. He later said that everything he ever earned went into his Giverny garden. “I love you because you are you,” he wrote to his work. Artists and their subjects are the star-crossed lovers of the world. They recognize each other on impact. Making the discovery on human steam, fueled by the spirit to get up and down the ladders, makes the most eventful love affair. “What your heart thinks great is great. The soul’s response is always right,” said Ralph Waldo Emerson.

As our year closes, we consider resolutions, or mark our moments of recognition……. As a community, we might just keep safe each other’s love affair.”


Three Days in Silence: This is Not a Haiku

The Road To Cloud Mountain Photocollage

The Road to Cloud Mountain

   “The essence of spiritual practice is remembrance, whether it is remembering to come back  to  the present moment or recalling the truths of impermanence.”
— Andrew Holecek, Tricycle Magazine, Winter 2013

   “Don’t talk, I can’t hear myself see.” –Jerry Saltz

I first visited Cloud Mountain 23 years ago for a seven day silent retreat. At that time a year of insomnia and grief in the wake of my father’s death had taken me to the brink of despair. My view of the world had become dangerously distorted, and if I wanted to come back to my life I needed to take my meditation practice to a different level and rewire my brain. This was before the idea of negativity bias had become commonly accepted in science and spiritual practice, and so in the first days of retreat I spent a lot of time beating myself up for my mind’s inexorable turning towards darkness. By the end of the seven days I had turned enough times to face the other direction that I could now see it existed. The searing images that appear in states of absorption may be only seconds in duration, yet they can powerfully and permanently alter the brain. As well, the steady accrual of mindfulness practice.

I will never forget the feeling of my hands on the steering wheel as I prepared to drive away at the end of the retreat. Did I still know how to drive? I tested the the brake pedal and fiddled with the key. I would start slowly. As I rolled down the hill at three miles per hour I realized that my father was still dead, that a particular sadness was permanent and immutable, and that I was okay. My breathing remained comfortable and calm, and my eyelids didn’t prickle. In that week nothing had changed in the facts of life, but my capacity to carry it had changed. I proceeded to drive directly onto a one-way road into a clear-cut. This is how it is: the world doesn’t stop being itself while I’m being quiet.

Over the several decades since, I have become steadily more happy. Terrible things happen, but without the added burden of taking them personally. When I feel grief I feel myself gathered in a very big net with others. I also increasingly live by this truth:  “Know that joy is rarer, more difficult and beautiful than sadness.” When I saw this quotation from Andre Gide in the description of Cloud Mountain’s December “Discovering Joy” retreat with Lila Kate Wheeler I signed on. Happiness and joy take vigilance, and continual practice. What follows are my notes from memory and a few photographs, taken after the formal retreat had ended.

Devotional Altar

Devotional Altar, Cloud Mountain

[Read more...]

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Men At Work: New Construction Site Photos

Welder 1

Welder 1, © Iskra Johnson


Man & Scaffold 1

Man & Scaffold 1, © Iskra Johnson


Man On Green Lift, © Iskra Johnson

Man On Green Lift, © Iskra Johnson


Composition With Boards & Scaffold

Composition With Boards & Scaffold, © Iskra Johnson


Man Pointing Left

Man Pointing Left, © Iskra Johnson

A few images from a very cold day of shooting in the fog. I love men in orange.


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