Motorcycles and Mama

26 03 2019

I don’t know how all you mothers out there would react if your 21 yr. old son came home from university and announced that he has purchased a KTM motorcycle. Mine did. Something inside me flipped out. All kinds of alarm bells went off in my head.

Now, I’m old hat at these things. My daughter did the same thing to me 5 years ago when she drove home in a bright red Ninja 250. My neighbour sold his old KTM racing dirt bike (with a wickedly shrill engine) to my other son. But, I shut up about that, as I did with the others. I congratulated my son and said,  ”How exciting!” and that I would love to come with him and his dad to pick it up. We can all go out for lunch.

Talk about a motorcycle Mecca! There were rows and rows of sleek Ducatis, crouched Ninjas, hard-core Harleys, and KTM’s in road-crew orange. My head was bobbing all around taking in the winking sea of smarty-coloured motorcyles.

I didn’t see the concrete step at the front door. And just like that, I was sprawled out like a starfish right at the front door. My husband came running. My son had that “Why did I bring her?” look on his face. I jumped up, brushing my stinging palms against my jeans and, gathering up any scrap of dignity that remained, walked in the store.

“You okay, Ma’am?” the men at the front desk inquired. “You really flipped out there.”   “Yeah, I replied, “ And I wasn’t even on a motorcycle!” They didn’t laugh.

After the bike, there was the jacket, then the gloves, and, what about a helmet? It took such a long time. The store was filling up. I watched a beautiful Indian woman slip on a flashy white helmet and bat her eyes flirtatiously at her boyfriend through the upturned visor. They laughed. My son pointed out a neon green helmet designed to look like the head of a monster. The wearer’s face appears to be inside its jaws. “Shall I buy this one, Mom?” A short, stocky, tattooed man was waiting his turn with the sales clerk. He chose a helmet that looked like it was used in World War 1. It didn’t look very safe and I volunteered my opinion. He explained that the helmet had to go with his Harley. Beside him was a tiny feminine woman who also was also trying on dangerous-looking helmets. “Do you ride on the back of his Harley?” “No, she replied with disdain…. “I have my own motorcyle.”  I went up to the desk and asked the clerks just what percentage of women buy motorcyles. I bet it’s under 10%. No, Ma’am. It’s 30%!

In all that motorcycle candy, my two men just vanished. I couldn’t even find them in the Ducati section. In my search, I guess I went a step too close to something sacred, for the alarms and sirens started shrieking.   I darted back like a singed cat. The men at the desk looked up from their computers with as much emotion as a herd of cows along a fence line. “Oh, just you again?“ “Yes, I replied, “I seem to be making quite a sensation in your shop. So sorry.”

The bike’s in the shed now, waiting for the snow to melt. I know it was tough for him to leave it behind and return to school without even a test drive. So, I have a few worry-free weeks yet, so I thought.

As we were getting ready for bed, my husband confessed that he’d really like to buy a bike, too. “Let me guess, I said,  “A Ducati? In that case, I’ll take a Tesla.”

 

 

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The Wolf at the Door

7 02 2019

 

Next fall, it will be 30 years that Brad and I and our two infant and toddler daughters moved to a rough, un-insulated cabin in the Muskoka woods, outside Dorset. We had quit our professions in Guelph and were starting all over, cold turkey. Those first decades were really tough. We barely managed to keep the wolf from the door.

We have tried our hand at several business endeavours. Some failed, like the water-treatment business, but others have thrived.   Today, life is a lot easier.   Our years of very hard work paid off this week when we put down the final payment of our bank mortgage. We invited friends over for dinner to help us celebrate and we burned the mortgage in the fireplace with great joy and ceremony. Now the wolf (bank) cannot seize our assets.

For a special treat, I made nutty chocolate clusters and set the pan outside on the screened in porch to cool quickly. (They are absolutely delicious and usually we wolf them down within minutes of the chocolate being hardened.) I went about washing dishes.

Then Brad and I heard it – a cat-like yip and yap at first. Then, when I opened the door to the porch, it howled a wild sound that unzipped me from head to toe. The wolf was right there in the darkness, outside the porch door!   I snatched up my clusters and ran into the house and shut the door.

It’s kind of funny that the day we pay down the mortgage the wolf comes to our door.

 

 

 

 

 





Musings at Breakfast

15 01 2019

This morning at breakfast, my husband put on a Santana CD that we discovered in a box. With a whoosh, the music from the 60’s carried me back to my primary grade school and to the sleep-overs at my best friend’s house. Her name was Cotton.

Now there was an artsy family! Mrs. S and Cotton and her 2 sisters were all artists. They were always making stuff: drawings, paintings, jewelry, paper mache, macramé. They wore fashionable mini skirts, and big earrings, bikinis and low-slung blue jeans.  Mrs. S always had a book and a sketchbook by her side.   She would sit for hours at the table, smoking, sipping wine, talking about colour and travel and dreaming out the window. Rock and roll music throbbed out of the stereo. (Was it Santana?) More than once, I caught Mrs. S dancing with her boyfriend J in the smoky haze that hung in the air. The house was shabby chic, and so were their friends who dropped in. On weekends, they’d go to the drive-in movies. I admired them and their worldly life deeply. When I was 10, Cotton moved away and I lost contact with her and her family.

Nobody in my family smoked and my parents didn’t dance. My two sisters and I wore long, handmade dresses that partially covered the knee, and no jewelry. Sure, we made stuff, too. We learned to sew, garden, and cook. Our meager record collection consisted of hymns by George Beverly Shay and Schumann’s piano concerto in A-major (a favourite to this day.) My mother rarely sat down to rest. We didn’t own a TV and on weekends, we went to church. My family hung out with hard-working, practical, (still very fun and loving) Mennonites. There just was no hope for me as a visual artist.

At first, I missed Cotton. Drawing helped me to feel a connection with her and her family, but I thought less and less about them as time passed.

Forty years later, I visited a relative in Florida. One small painting on her wall was signed Carol S. That was Cotton’s oldest sister!   My hostess had taken a painting course from her in a neighbouring town in Florida. She taught on Thursday mornings.

That Thursday, I was there early and watched Carol set up her class (Was that middle-aged woman really Carol?) before I had the nerve to interrupt her and introduce myself. There was a pause as I watched her reach far back into her memory. “Yes! You were Cotton’s friend. Of course, I remember you!”   We arranged to meet at a café the next day to talk. Cotton and her family had moved to Florida in the early 70’s. Cotton married young, but, soon after her marriage, she was coming home from working late at a restaurant and was hit by a truck and was instantly killed.  Mrs S. was also dead.

We forgot to talk about art.

It’s ironic that I end up being the artist and Cotton of the talented, stereotypically artsy family never got the chance. The injustice and mystery of it hit me anew as I listened to Santana. (What the heck does Santana have to do with reopening these memories?) To what degree did Cotton and her family nudge me into an art career? I will never know. I can just bow my head in reverence to those who cross our paths in life and silently and mysteriously change the direction of our lives or maybe they don’t.

Despite our UNartsy upbringing, three of us four siblings ended up in a career in the fine arts. Who’s to say what the artistic temperament is?

I really must get back to work in the studio.

 

 

 

 





Paintings or Pizza?

10 01 2019

Earlier this week, I popped into Partner’s Hall in Huntsville just to check on my solo art show Windows on the World and, fingers crossed, to see if, just maybe, there was another sale.

When I slipped into the exhibition hall, there was an elderly couple on the far side of room, carefully examining my large oil painting of Rooftops in St. John’s, NFLD.   As all the lighting is turned on the paintings, it’s hard to see anything or anyone else clearly. The two silhouettes were deep in a low-voiced discussion that I longed to overhear, but couldn’t.   I banged around self-consciously at the display table that holds my business cards and bio,  trying to look important.

It worked. The couple stopped talking, and said hello, then remarked that I looked like someone who was in charge of the show. Perfect! “Well, actually, (I hesitated modestly for a second to increase the drama), I am the artist. “


 

The effect it produced was very heady stuff: much praise, many compliments, lots of superlatives.  “Where are you from?” they enquired.   “Dorset,” I replied. “Do you know Dorset?” Yes, they had visited Dorset several years ago.   “There was a wonderful wood-fired pizzeria on highway #35 that we went to. Is it still there?” “Yes!”, I answered,  “In fact (dramatic pause again), I own that pizzeria.”

 

The leap from professional painter to owner of a pizza joint was too big a stretch to believe. I could see it in their eyes.   Had I lied to them about being the artist or about owning a pizzeria, or maybe both?  While they were sizing me up, I launched in to defend my outrageous claims. “No, really, I do own Pizza on Earth and run it with my children in the summer. It’s just a seasonal business. I paint the rest of the year. ”    Of course, I added many more details to authenticate myself as both.

That, too, worked and they promised to come to Dorset in the summer to visit the pizzeria. Or, was it a gallery?  It’s both   – your one-stop shopping!  Food for your soul and food for your body.  Is it really that strange a connection?

https://www.forbes.com/sites/ruchikatulshyan/2016/03/31/how-to-have-two-successful-careers-at-the-same-time/#b6d9225382d6

 

 





Why I Sell Only Original Paintings

31 12 2018
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Roses in My Studio, oil, 8″ x 11″, unframed, $160 + taxes

Some clients who come through my studio or the small gallery at Pizza on Earth ask if I sell reproductions of my paintings.  The answer is a resounding “NO!”

Why do I do this when I could make so much more money, reach so many more people with my art and save time by selling cheaper reproductions of my paintings?   The new capabilities of advanced scanners can even reproduce accurately the texture of smears, globs and splats of paint so it looks exactly like the original.  But I, or any serious collector, know it is not the real thing.  However amazing the technology, in the end, a reproduction is still made by a machine and not by me.

What worries me is what making reproductions can undo; what it takes away.  I can just imagine what it would be like to have a stack of prints of a painting that I loved in previous years, but, this year, I have moved on to something new and they are still hanging around. For we painters are constantly reevaluating our world and our culture, reinventing ourselves, manipulating old symbols in a new way, every day.    We don’t want to be constrained or demotivated by an old style or a subject that we have mass-produced  through popular demand.  What we sell must be fresh, meaningful and true to where we are intellectually and creatively at the time.

In my previous blog called Wall Art vs.Walmart I have already written about the delightful relationship that develops between the artist and the client when the latter visits a studio to buy an original..  For, when you buy an original painting, you are buying a little piece of the artist’s soul, too.  You are influenced by her personality, by her lifestyle, by her vision which comes through in all those little notes of colour that were placed on the canvas by her very own hands.  And that costs you about as much as a cart of groceries from Fresh Co.  Owning an original piece or art is not the exclusive privilege of the rich that most people assume it is.

Let’s face it.  Original painters like me are fighting for their lives because of cheap reproductions.  I am not about to join the very practice that is destroying my own ancient craft.   Neither am I willing to substitute that which is true and genuine with a machine-made copy in order to make a buck.

I remain resolute.  I still write hand-written Christmas cards.  I cook my meals from scratch. Every Elizabeth Johnson painting that you buy is an original, carefully and lovingly painted by these small, nervous, paint-encrusted, vein-embossed hands, especially for you.

 





Windows on the World

22 12 2018

IMG_E1182A solo exhibition of my work, called “Windows on the World”, now hangs in Partners Hall in Algonquin Theatre in Huntsville, Ontario.  The grand opening was Saturda, Dec. 15, 2018,  and this is the speech that I gave at that  The oil painting called “Windows” is  St. John’s NFLD and is in the show.

Welcome to the opening of Windows on the World. Thank you for coming to celebrate original art.  While painting is generally a solitary occupation, the presentation of art is indeed a very exciting, social function. It is wonderful to be with you this afternoon to celebrate creativity and our beautiful country.

I am grateful to Mary Rashleigh, former curator of the Grimsby Art Gallery, who curated Windows on the World. She selected the 22 paintings, arranged them, and did the lighting. Right now, Mary is singing her heart out in the Huntsville community choir so she cannot be here.

As Mary and I were hanging the show together on Monday, I was musing about what I would talk about at the Saturday opening. Our conversation went something like this:

“Mary, what do you think of me talking about what a painting is? Paintings have a subject, but there is so much more: value, shape, colour, line, texture.” There was a pause. Then Mary walked right up to me and under her very steady gaze said. “Elizabeth, I think people would like to hear about you, about your paintings,   After all, this show is about you, Elizabeth Johnson.

It was Picasso who said, “Painting is just another way of keeping a diary”. Well, then, here it is, a chunk of my diary displayed on these walls.

I live in a house that Brad, my beloved husband of 38 years, and I built on the shores of Shoe Lake in one of the furthest eastern reaches of Muskoka, just outside of Dorset. There we raised our four children. Most of the landscape paintings come from the backyard of my home or of my cabin on Livingstone Lake in Algonquin Highlands.

My second daughter Sarah Jane often lives in St. John’s, NFLD. She has made bagels and croissants at the Georgetown Bakery in the old residential section of the city. That is why there are paintings of the wonderful jellybean houses of St’ John’s. My children love to travel and, of course, I must visit them wherever they are. David my youngest son, lived in Austria for a year as a Rotary Exchange student, so Innsbruck has found its way into a Canadian painter’s art show.

I could never stay very long in a room without a window. I suffer from claustrophobia if I cannot have a glimpse of the wide world out there. A window is oxygen for me. I paint them whenever I see a curious arrangement of them.   They are more often a symbol of open-mindedness, of freedom, of escape into new worlds.

During our university days, Brad and I lived in basements and attics with tiny windows that offered views of pedestrians’ feet or smoke-puffing chimneys.   I liked to imagine who belonged to those boots and where they were going in such a hurry.

One apartment really worried us. We had rented the attic of an old, musty-smelling, stone house in the Ward in Guelph. There were two tiny windows in that one-room, at the top of a sheer drop of stone wall for three stories. There was no escape if the stairs were blocked – until Brad came home with very long rope that he knotted at intervals. He made me practice at my parents’ barn, shinnying down that rope from the highest window in the haymow. “Now,” he said, you can literally escape out this window if necessary, and we can both breathe easy at night.”

Where there are no windows, I make them. I have filled this windowless room with 22 framed worlds out there. May they pull you in, fill your lungs with the fragrance of the places. Maybe they will evoke memories from your life. That’s the magic of art.

All it takes is a handful of earth or pigment crushed into a bit of oil and smeared onto a piece of cloth to recreate such beautiful compositions and places that move the viewer. But isn’t that what it is to be a human: to be capable of creating things of great beauty out of the most ordinary and unexpected ingredients and tools? Who would have known that horse hair drawn across catgut could produce Beethoven’s Kreutzer Sonata? (Can’t remember who said that.)

It was a grey summer Thursday years ago. I had driven all the way down to the Gull River in Minden to paint the rapids. I had splurged and got babysitting for the day. My easel I set up in a remote crevice in the rock beside the roaring rapids far from the parking lot and picnic tables and any on-lookers.   I joyously squeezed out the blobs of oil paint on my palette and reached for my brushes to rough in the powerful scene before me.

No brushes! I spread everything out on the ground. I emptied every pocket. I ransacked the car. Not a single brush or palette knife. I even asked another artist in the parking lot if she might happen to have an extra brush. She looked at me as if I had asked to borrow her toothbrush. I went back to sit in the car and have a good cry. Then I saw the kitchen spatula on the floor of the car. (Not sure why it was there.) And that is how I discovered one of my favourite painting tools. It has helped me to loosen up more than anything.   It created wonderful textures that day, mimicking the rough surface of rocks and churning water. The tool unexpectedly matched the subject perfectly.

Each morning as I pick my way down the icy path to my boathouse studio, an old rectangular relic of the 40’s, I am thinking of all the decisions that have to be made: the subject, the palette, the composition, the application of paint. At other times, I am just wondering what I will make for supper that night.   I set down my pot of chai tea, crank up the little electric heater and turn on CBC radio. On the north facing side of the studio where there is a bank of three windows. I inhale the mood of the day. The scene before me is a large, quiet expanse of snow, sometimes striped with golden ribbons of sunlight, at other times dancing in little eddies. Last week, my clomping footsteps on the studio floor flushed out a mink that scurried along the shore. Last month the whole boat house rocked and cracked as the lake boomed and snapped during freeze-up. In the deep of winter, snowmobiles buzz by 100 yards away, and otters crawl out of a hole to sun on the ice, completely unaware of being watched. One late winter morning, four cross-country skiers were peering right back at me.

I usually have something in mind to paint for the day. Often, I warm up by doing small abstracts. It’s like doing my piano scales before I settle into something larger. It loosens me up and cures me of a reoccurring tendency to tighten up and get too detailed – deadly for painters. The brush strokes then lose personality and verve.

My second studio is a little wooden box, not unlike the kind Tom Thomson hauled around Algonquin Park, only mine has legs that snap out so I can stand to paint. It goes everywhere in the good weather. Last fall, I was painting down a dirt road. I was jolted out of my concentration when a train of hunters with ATVs whipped by me. I froze until they passed. They stopped and then roared backwards. Out came their phones. “May we take pictures, they asked?” I half expect to show up in one of those mud-sloshing, back country ATV tour magazines as an example of some the strange wildlife you see in the Canadian wilderness.

Increasingly, as I get older and I am conscious about reducing my stuff, I am also getting rid of excess brush strokes and colours, and complexity in my artwork, too. By simplifying composition my work is becoming more and more abstract. This is where the abstract paintings in the show come from.

I dedicate Windows on the World to a lively, young woman who has had a huge influence on my life and whom I deeply admire.

Katherine Martinko was raised in a little cabin in the back woods of Muskoka. Today, she is a prolific writer and assistant editor of Tree Hugger.com. An amazing cook, athlete, violinist, activist, wife, and mother of 3 little boys, Katherine lives with passion, creativity and great respect for the environment.

More than anyone in my life, Katherine has challenged me to assess and, if necessary, change and expand my viewpoints and to listen more than talk. She has dragged me around the world from the favelas of Brazil, to the wild interior of Sardinia, and has opened worlds through the many books, articles and discussions she has shared.   While she can be brutally frank about my shortcomings, she is intensely supportive, loyal and loving, Thank you, dear Katherine, my eldest daughter, for opening so many windows on the world for me.

Thank you, Huntsville Arts Society, for inviting me to exhibit here and thanks to the kind and helpful people that I have met from HAS and the theatre who helped me to put this show together.

I’d like to end with a Zen view, a short description from Christopher Alexander’s A Pattern Language .

“A Buddhist monk lived high in the mountains, in a small stone house. Far, far in the distance was the ocean, visible and beautiful from the mountains. But it was not visible from the monks house itself, nor from the approach road to the house. However, in front of the house there stood a courtyard surrounded by a thick stone wall. On the far side of the courtyard there was a slit in the wall, narrow and diagonal, cut though the thickness of the wall. As a person walked across the court, at one spot, for an instant, he could see the ocean. And then he was past it once again and went into the house. What is it that happens in this courtyard? The view of the distant sea is so restrained that it stays alive forever.”

I like that last sentence. In the same way I have tried to capture and condense in small frames, the wonderful scenes of my life and of my country for you to see   May they stay alive for you.

Elizabeth Johnson

 





The Ruth Upjohn Memorial Award

26 03 2017

Thank you, Muskoka Arts and Crafts for giving me the generous $300 Ruth Upjohn Memorial Award on Friday night.  It is a great honour to receive a gift from Ruth’s estate.  Ruth may be dead, but she is still part of my life.

I first met Ruth Upjohn and Dot Seixus in their simple, old-world cottage in Muskoka.  Their good friend, Anne Schwartz-Buenneman, had hired my young daughters to play classical and fiddling music for Ruth’s birthday.  I was the chauffeur for the event.  What a warm and gracious reception Ruth and Dot gave us!

Then, at the birth of my first son, Anne age me  a book of songs for young children that Ruth’s mother had collected.  Ruth and Dot had compiled these delightful and humorous songs into a book called Sneezepickle’s Songbook.   The hours and hours spent at the piano with Sneezepickle, singing with my young sons, could never be tallied.  We sang and sang –Big Black Cats, the Bus, The Train, The Three LIttle Pigs, the Poly Poly Polar Bears-until our throats were hoarse.

Now I have grandsons.  When they visit, we slide onto the piano bench and sing from Sneezepickle and I am sure to tuck the now tattered songbook into my bag when I visit them in their home.

This winter, my 20 yr. old son came home from university for a visit.  As I was preparing supper, I heard him slowly picking out the simple, catchy Sneezepickle tunes on the piano keys.  Thanks to Ruth for the gift of song and music that three generations of my family are still enjoying, at all ages.

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Me with my painting entitled, A ride on the Segwun

Receiving the Ruth Upjohn Memorial Award is a great delight to me and a wonderful honour.  I can’t wait to tell my children what I just received from Sneezepickle!