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


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


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…]

1 Comment

The Light of December

The Light Of December

The Light Of December, © Iskra Johnson

This is the time of year I begin to realize that my meditation practice has devolved into drinking coffee slowly, rather than quickly, and looking out the window at robins. This is fine — the robins love an audience — but it isn’t quite the same as a practice. In November you can’t drag me out of bed before dawn. Yet by the first week of December something changes. My eyes fly wide at six AM. I want to sit in the early hour and listen closely to this very particular and resonant silence that leads to the darkest day, the longest night, and the beginning of the light. I want to be awake for each moment of passage to the winter solstice, and the ceremony of a sitting practice once again takes hold.

This year I signed on to a three day retreat with Kate Lila Wheeler.  I have been a follower of Wheeler’s writing since 1997, when I read her first collection of stories, Not Where I Started From. She is the rare meditation teacher who also has a serious art practice, in this case as novelist and essayist, and I have been looking for a chance to sit with her for years. This retreat is well positioned after the official holiday of Thanksgiving. The focus will be on mudita, the appreciation of the good fortune and well being of others. I would usually much rather focus on “worry”, (from the German, wurgen: “to strangle,” with no Pali translation) which is my acknowledged default setting, so this will be a welcome shift of gears. I suffer in cold weather (they predict snow?), so the weekend could be less an experience of transcendence and more of an extended Lands End Catalog fantasy in which I visualize the entire world swaddled in down bathrobes, with extra specially thick snowpants for me. To get ready for the retreat I have been re-reading some of my favorite books on Buddhism and meditation.

From Philip Moffitt, a variation of loving kindness meditation that always speaks to me:

     May you be safe from internal and external harm.

     May you have a calm, clear mind and a peaceful loving heart.

     May you be physically strong, healthy, and vital.

    May you experience love, joy, wonder, and wisdom in this life, just as it is.


Leave a Comment

Impermanence Study No.17: The Dragonfly

Impermanence Study No.17 (Dragonfly)

Impermanence Study No.17 (Dragonfly), © Iskra Johnson, Archival Pigment print, 16″ x 16″

This time of year the pond is dizzy with dragonflies. They hover in a cloud of iridescent blue, migrating from the waterlilies to the yellow poppies, and I have even seen them in the house, poised over the threshold of the front door. When I found the body of a checkered dragonfly on a lily pad last July I started this piece, which is now in its 17th iteration. Maybe you call that a …..”series.”

Collage is the art of decision– and indecision. It is the ultimate practice of impermanence, as any element can be moved at any time to create a new shift in perception. If, in your own dragon-fly hovering, you begin to doubt and become anxious for resolution, you lose sight of the wonder that illuminates the process. I am influenced lately by a provocative book by Leonard Koren, Wabi-Sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets and Philosophers. I read this when it first came out in 1994, but had not consciously thought about it for years. The new edition includes black and white photographs that elucidate each premise with quiet and subversive elegance. This passage uses the garden as metaphor, but could as easily refer to making art or any other creative endeavor:

All things are incomplete. All things, including the universe itself, are in a constant, never-ending state of becoming or dissolving. Often we arbitrarily designate moments, points along the way, as “finished” or “complete.” But when does something’s destiny finally come to fruition? Is the plant complete when it flowers? When it goes to seed? When the seeds sprout? When everything turns into compost? The notion of completion has no basis in wabi-sabi.

Of course, Edna St. Vincent Millay also said, “To create one must decide.” And the challenge is to hold both truths and not go crazy. I find it helps to work until midnight, when things get very quiet, to a certain kind of music. The artist of the snuff bottle, on the other hand, had not the luxury of indecision. Bottles like this one were painted with tiny brushes from the inside of the bottle. Ponder that feat of execution next time you think you have a technical challenge.

Through A Glass Darkly Dragonfly Snuffbottle print

Through a Glass Darkly (Impermanence Study No. 12), ©Iskra Johnson, archival pigment print, 16″ x 16″

Soundtrack: Darshan Ambient, anything by Michael Allison. Or Catching Up to You. Or Sidney Ji’s meditative Water Sines.


Object Lessons: The Television Buddha


The Television Buddha © Iskra Johnson

The Black Buddha, otherwise known as the “television Buddha” sat for years on my step-grandmother’s TV, his head unironically posed between two silver antennae. Even as a child who had not yet been taught the niceties of good taste I could tell that this statue, although hollow like my milk chocolate Easter bunny, was a Prince among objects. Where the black paint had rubbed away copper glinted. His robes had the sharp cast and sheen only found in metal, and when I picked him up and set him down I could tell he belonged to a different family of dolls.

At some point in my late teens, after reading a book or two by Alan Watts and becoming instantly hip and knowing, which I eagerly confused with being enlightened, it occurred to me that this object belonged in my life. Did I steal it? Did I stand in front of the television as though mesmerized by the cheap print of VanGogh sunflowers and off-handedly tuck the Buddha into my coat? I have a vague memory of light on a dusty window, of the pine tree outside, of family noise and clatter and a moment of rationalization. I hope I asked.

This Buddha has gone with me to every room I have lived in, presided over my inkstone and rice paper and the copying of sutras and 4 AM yoga sessions and detours into Gurdjieff, Guru Mai, and Yogananda. He has never gained or lost weight, or criticized me for being delusional, or asked for water, or offered a word of advice. For years at a time I have not actually looked at him; I’ve even lost him on occasion– buried in a box under the bed. Then I will find him and the fact of him starts all over again. The Buddha is a resonant object, and my mind changes when I look at him.

I puzzle over this quite a bit. What is this alchemy of the object? The historical and real person of Siddhartha, who became the Buddha, never asked to be made into a figurine. In fact the Buddha himself discouraged this as dangerous close-cousin to the worship of idols. Only the image of his footsteps was allowed or perhaps the trace of a wave on the shore, or a hand.  Yet today I doubt that any Buddhist anywhere meditates without some image in their mind of –not the breathing, sweating actual human being — but the statue.  Leave it to the Greeks to ruin a good thing, the void and the imagination, and to supplant it with idealized form. And now you can buy a guy in a robe with snails on his head anywhere, online next to blinking ads for a flat belly, or in an import store or from a catalogue full of clocks that wake you up with the sound of the ocean.

Through hundreds of years and thousands of places of manufacture, the significant details of the sitting Buddha rarely change. The graceful sloping of the shoulders, the relaxed ease and the simultaneous sense of absolute focus, the circuit of small spheres along the head. And form is important. The shape of the saints is common, but it is not ordinary. The power of shape is a mystery, devotional practice equally so.


The Standard Concrete Garden Buddha

I have a second Buddha, a pale gray version mass produced and bought at a nursery twenty years ago. He has sat long enough in my garden to acquire the iridescent sheen of actual snails across his knees. Together both statues, indoor and outdoor, do a fine job of gentle reproach as I plunder time and waste it in mindless daily orbit. You would think two would be enough. However, I was seized this spring with a sudden overwhelming desire for a new Buddha, something life-size. I became completely obsessed with the idea that a statue was waiting for me and I had to find it right now. So abandoning my other obligations for a day I scoured every Asian import store in the city. The closest I came to my imagined find was a graceful, stupefyingly beautiful Thai god (god of what, I’m not sure) made of fragile wood and $15,000.87 out of my price range. As I started to leave the shop, my obsession defeated, I noticed the chairs. Simple, magnetically so, projecting a deadpan stoic humor and covered with the patina of decades in an outdoor cinema. If one wanted a reminder to “sit” what could be more potent than a chair, after all? I sat. In spite of the barracks-style severity the chair was surprisingly comfortable. And you can bargain for chairs, although you would never bargain for a Buddha.


The Sitting Chair © Iskra Johnson

This is my new garden statue, for now. It lives in the bamboo reminding me to be still, to just sit.


This is the first in an upcoming series of essays on Buddhist iconography in art and daily life. I will be featuring interviews with artists who work in a variety of contemplative paths, ranging from traditional devotional art to contemporary improvisations, in media ranging from painting and drawing to sculpture, music and video. If you are interested in the subject of the object as a source of contemplation you may want to visit the section of my blog that focuses on response to the book “A History of the World in 100 Objects.”

Leave a Comment

“100 Objects” Part Two: Art as Devotional Practice

I have slowly been working my way through “A History of the World in 100 Objects” (see previous post.) I have given up the idea of dutiful chronological study and instead I choose chapters at random. Last night I landed on “Gold Coins of Kumaragupta” and found a passage on Hindu worship that struck me on multiple levels:

Hindus will see a deity, on the whole, as God present. God can manifest anywhere, so the physical manifestation of the image is considered to be a great aid in gaining the presence of God. By going to the temple, you see this image that is the presence. Or you can have the image in your own home — Hindus will invite God to come into this deity-form, they will wake god up in the morning with an offering of sweets. The deity wil have been put to bed in a bed the night before, raised up, it will be bathed in warm water, ghee, honey, yoghurt, and then dressed in handmade dresses — usually made of silk — and garlanded with beautiful flowers and then set up for worship for the day. It’s a very interesting process of practicing the presence of God.

–Shaunaka Rishi Das, Hindu cleric and Director of the Oxford Centre for Hindu Studies

There is a wonderful poignance to this image of bathing the deity, of feeding it sweets, of dressing it — such tenderness. It made me think, where do I practice this in my own life? And do I practice this in my work?

In the process of designing the new and revised version of my website I have been going through my archives and deciding what to add in, keep or delete. After sleeping on the passage above, I remembered a series I had done a long time ago which reflects this same devotional impulse, although not in a Hindu frame of reference. For about a year I painted hundreds of small studies of African fetish figures. I used books on African sculpture as my reference, and did my studies the way I would practice kanji, repeating them over and over again, on different papers and with different paints and inks, trying to allow the “figure” to become part of me. The practice became a mobius of energy between myself and the ritual object. The koan was “what is the self?”


Devotional Figures, watercolor on paper, Iskra johnson

The figures fell into fifteen or twenty different tribal archetypes including a woman holding her head, her body or her baby, a figure holding a mirror, a figure holding a drum, and a recurring double figure, two conjoined in various ways. The paintings’ very smallness helped me to keep the practice devotional. I wasn’t creating anything for a “wall.” But I was inviting the gods into my house. It is good to remember to open that door.


Statue Studies, gouache on paper, © Iskra Johnson


Muse, watercolor on paper, ©Iskra Johnson


Leave a Comment