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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“Making and Breaking” at Linda Hodges

I am excited to be part of the December show at Linda Hodges Gallery, curated by Dale Cotton. The artists gathered for this exhibition share my fascination with the aesthetics of the urban industrial landscape and its emotional undertow, the demolition of place and sense of home.

“Making and Breaking”

Dec 4, 2014 – Jan 3, 2015
1st Thursday Artist Reception, Dec 4, 6-8 pm

316 First Ave. S. Seattle, WA 98104
Gallery Hours: Tues. – Sat. 10:30-5:00
Tel: 206-624-3034

“Making and Breaking” is a group exhibition of paintings, sculpture, and photography devoted to things that are built and then erode, are altered, or destroyed over time. We are very much aware of this in the rapidly growing city of Seattle. Change is the operative factor, and technology, economic decision-making, and time are the implements that guide it. From Kevin Wilson’s steam shovels and Dan Webb’s wooden tools, to the weathered and abandoned barns of Daphne Minkoff and the proliferating housing developments depicted by Ryan Molenkamp, to Dara Solliday’s Regrade images, each artwork tells a story of growth, destruction, and change.”

Other artists in the show include: Patti Bowman, Laura Hamje, Daniel Hawkins, Jeff Mihalyo, Michael Paul Miller, Daphne Minkoff, Ryan Molenkamp, Jeff Scott, Dara Solliday, Timea Tihanyi, Sylwia Tur, Thuy-van vu, Dan Webb, Kevin Wilson, Dane Youngren

Below, one of the prints I will be showing. This piece is part of a series looking at the construction projects at the University of Washington. I stood for many hours on the University Bridge studying this dormitory as it went up. The complex is now finished, but I dearly loved the tarps and scaffolds: the “making” phase revealed, and here frozen in time.

Invisible Children, Archival Pigment Print

Invisible Children, Archival Pigment Print, © Iskra Johnson

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A Change of Season

I’ve been settling into my new studio. Wordless for now…..

Clown and Saint

Morning at the Table

The Ferns

The Grove in Fog

The Grove 2

The Cone

From “Coming to My Senses.”  All Photographs © Iskra Johnson

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“Any Day: Artists on Death” | August Exhibit at Gage Academy

Gage Academy hosts an unusual exhibit this month guest-curated by talented artist Elana Winsberg:

Any Day is dedicated to the sensitive exploration by artists who are compelled to make work illuminating the many facets of death, life before death and life after death.” The exhibit runs through September 19th, and the opening is Thursday August 14, from 6-8 PM.

Gage Academy of Art

1501 10th Avenue E.
Seattle, WA 98102
(206) 323-4243

When I was asked to be part of the exhibit I initially told Elana I had nothing to offer on the subject. Ha. This must be denial at a pretty strong level, since I have done several bodies of work on the theme, both from a personal and political perspective. With a little bit of coaxing I submitted a piece from “What Does Heaven Look Like” and two others of a more personal nature from “Drawings in Dust.” This is a great opportunity to show among artists I admire greatly. Participants include Mitch Albala, Josie Furchgott Sourdiffe, Sam Hamrick, Emma Jane Levitt, Kathy Liao, Greg Lundgren, Memuco, Pamela Durga Robinson, Kurt Vance, Margaret Swanson Vance and Elana Winsberg. Greg Lundgren will present a lecture on ritual, legacy, memorial and the role of the contemporary artist Thursday, September 18 at 7:00PM. Greg is an innovator in the field of contemporary memorials and monuments and this will be a lecture not to be missed.

You will have to attend the show to see my three drawings, (suspense….) but here are some additional ones from the series I did on mourning and loss, using the vehicle of the decoy as a resonant object.


Cygnet, charcoal dust and powdered pigment, 13″ x 21″


Target, charcoal dust and powdered pigment, 8 1/2″ x 10 1/2″


Decoy 1, charcoal dust and powdered pigment, 8″ x 11″

Drawings © Iskra Johnson


Jim Dine at Wright Gallery | The Last Days of Dexter Avenue (As We Knew It)

It’s a day when the news provokes long discussions of despair and bewilderment on my social media feeds. I find myself in a desperate ricochet between fear of plague, spreading wildfire and epic drought, and I can’t stop thinking of the numbers in Gaza, numbers attached to bodies, bodies attached to the fact of children and hospitals and schools and what can only look to me like slaughter of a trapped people. I hold up a dollar bill and consider what part of it to tear off to protest my taxes going to mortars and grenades.

As I sit in miles of hot stalled traffic I feel increasingly bludgeoned by things beyond my control. This traffic jam is brought to the Emerald City by the Blue Angels. Each summer the freeway closes to honor the Navy’s elite flight squad and the quaint ritual of military preening that carves the sky with white ribbons and shatters eardrums of those below. All I feel as I watch the jets dive between skyscrapers and lilt upward from my rear view mirror is dread. Gaza seems right here, right here in my lap.

I am on my way to see the Jim Dine exhibit at Wright Gallery. The Gallery will close forever in 48 hours, and my mission feels urgent. Jim Dine is one of my five muses, and I have only seen a handful of his drawings outside of books. Not only have I nearly missed the exhibit, but I didn’t even know this world class art space even existed, although it has been open since 1999. With limited hours of Thursday and Saturday, from 10 until 2, and a discreet location, one could be forgiven for missing it.

Wright Gallery Entry

Wright Gallery entry — yes, the address covered in ivy, in an alley. Who would know???

To get there I wend through a maze of orange traffic cones and barricades and mounds of rubble. Dexter Avenue is about to go. I began my eulogy of this unstoried but precious part of the city with a photo essay on Memorial Day in 2012. That was the beginning of the end, and today marks the final stages. Within a year there will be virtually no low rise industrial or embarrassingly ‘miscellaneous’ buildings left, and all will be re-purposed for the gleaming high tech village and the workers to come. We’ll walk entirely in shadow canyons of concrete and glass, and be pardoned for thinking the throngs of silent people with plugs in their ears and devices in their hands are not quite human.

Agent of Progress


Hostess On Dexter

The former home of Hostess Cupcakes, across from the Wright Gallery. Soon to be another apartment skyscraper, zoned for up to 24 stories. Adios, Art Deco beauty, time we upgraded you to granite counter tops and walk-in closets.

Close up, Hostess Building

Close up, Hostess Cupcake Building. I don’t know what that odd shape is on the wall. It might be Banksy’s tie.

Arrow Of Progress

Arrow Of Progress

In Case Of Spills

“In Case Of Spills…” last view of the bakery wall.  You have to wonder just how hazardous was Hostess marshmallow creme?

My completely biased perspective on this situation of neighborhood erasure and gentrification makes Jim Dine’s work all the more poignant. His huge etchings and drypoints are made with powertools. His themes are the heart, the muse, the human hand at one with the tools of hand-work. Dine recently made a gift of over 200 prints to Washington State University’s Museum of Art, and it is from these that the Wright exhibit is composed. Below are two sections from the suite of prints telling the story of Pinocchio.

Jim Dine etching, Pinochio

Jim Dine etching, Pinocchio


Close-up, Pinocchio’s feet.

“I remember sitting on the steps outside the garage….And taking pieces of galvanized pipe, and rolling them down the stairs, just letting them go, like a Slinky toy, but it was a pipe. I would just play with these objects of desire, like a hammer, or I’d grab a screwdriver and pretend to be an adult. I thought they were so beautiful. It was a nonverbal meeting.” –Jim Dine


The Man, himself. (Section, Jim Dine self portrait)

Stepping into the Gallery is revelatory. The door is massive, silent and soft-closing. The air inside is perfectly chilled. The space: simplicity itself. The architects got out of the way and the art vibrates. This is hallowed ground. All the more so for the heat and the dust, dirt, noise and general calamity outside. We need these places. And we need to pass on the gift of appreciating them, and make new ones to take the place of those that end.

In times of duress art is all the more important, because it matches darkness with light, despair with vision, calamity with imagination. Art like Jim Dine’s dives deep into the heart of what it is to be human. His marks are his unmistakeably. Fragile, arrogant, desperate, joyful — masterful.

Outside the door the world continues. But it looks different.

Traffic Cone, interrupted

Traffic Cone, interrupted

Site photos © Iskra Johnson, prints © Jim Dine


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.