Sparks and Spirit

20 03 2017
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My daughter, Katherine Martinko with her baby, me and my mother, Mildred Nigh at the opening to Sparks and Spirit.

Here is the speech I gave on Saturday, March 18, 2017 at the opening to Sparks and Spirit, my watercolour exhibition at the Chapel Gallery, Bracebridge, Ontario.  Please also check out my Facebook page: Elizabeth Johnson studio/gallery and my website, http://www.elizabethjohnson.ca, to see more about my work and exhibitions.                                           C

 

Thank you to Muskoka Arts and Crafts for hosting my exhibition of watercolours . Thank you for coming this afternoon to celebrate with me. I love it when art brings people together.

 

You see on the wall an awful lot of small watercolours with funny titles, and an old book of poetry in a display case, along with some pictures. What’s this show all about? I have painted my way through an old book of outdated poetry, poem by poem. And why would I do that?

 

  • Poetry is rarely read or memorized today and I love poetry. It surely has enriched my life.

 

  • I wanted to find a special way to honour my mother, Mildred Nigh who is 90 this year. I dedicate this exhibition to her. Mom gave 101 Famous Poems to my father in 1950 when she became engaged to him. My sisters and brother and I grew up with these poems. Later, when I became engaged to Brad, my mother gave me my own copy, the revised, 1958 edition. My kids also grew up with these poems. To truly understand them, I need to paint them.

 

  • I had admired the fresh, and elegant watercolours of Pat Fairhead, another nonagenarian, so I signed up for a private painting session with her, hoping that some of her freedom would rub off on me. When she told me to – just play with the paint , see what you come up with– I froze. I was terrified. I never forgot her words that challenged me and launched me on a new course. I decided to set myself a project to explore watercolour.

 

  • I had a drawer full of 90 year old Shri Ashram watercolour paper that I had inherited from an old artist from Siberia 25 years ago. The man who gave me that special paper would approve of my project.

 

  • This is the first winter in 29 years that I haven’t had children at home full time. I needed an absorbing project to carry me though the change.

 

So, I reread each poem. Made me realize how much they had become part of my thinking, formed my philosophy of life. So many of them sounded like me:

 

.

‘Tain’t no use to sit and whine

When the fish ain’t on yer line.

Bait your hook, and keep on tryin’,

Keep a goin.”

Or

“ You are beaten to earth? Well, well, what’s that?

Come up with a smiling face.

It’s nothing against you to fall down flat,

But to lie there – that’s disgrace.”

 

Well, over my childhood, that poetry book always seemed to by lying around, begging to be read, whenever there was nothing else to do. We must have had a fair amount of leisure time, because my sister and I got a lot of them memorized.

 

We memorized Oh Captain, My Captain, driving through Bulgaria and Romania- a difficult journey. They were communist and very unfriendly to tourists in the 70’s.   As we crossed successfully into Austria, we chimed out to our father, Oh Captain, my captain, our fearful trip is done. The VWvan has weathered every wrack, the prize we sought is won! After Oh Captain, we raced each other to be the first to recite the entire Highwayman. And on and on.

 

I remember getting in trouble with my grade five teacher for using Joyce Kilmer’s poem, “Trees” in my public speech on the Redwood trees. I ended the speech with a few small changes to the poem. “Speeches are made by fools like me, but only God can make a Redwood tree.” “You can’t say that!” Mrs. Weppler was indignant. “You are going off to the legion tomorrow to represent our school and you are going to tell them that speeches are made by fools?”

 

Those poems have come in handy over the years, especially raising a family. I recall more than once shouting out to a child going out the door “If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs…then you’ll be a man, my son”, or “ a woman, my daughter.” Or reminding them, when it was cleaning day, that “Nothing useless is or low. Each thing in its place is Best.

 

Many years ago, the Huntsville Suzuki school of music, which my children attended, was performing in schools and churches. As the children were filing on stage, the director suddenly asked if I would dance a minuet while the children played Mozart’s Minuet. No, she wasn’t joking. I had never seen or danced a minuet. I had no idea what to do and no time to think. Then, I remembered Mary Mapes Dodge’s, the Minuet..How her dainty head she held, how her pretty skirt she spread, how she slowly leaned and rose,- long ago”: There were my instructions, tucked away in my memory. Somehow I pulled it off.

 

While the review of the poems brought back a flood of memories, it raised new issues reading them from the perspective of an adult. The Song of the Shirt was written by Thomas Hood in the early 1800’s, It’s quite a feminist poem, that describes how a seamstress’ endless drudgery is slowly killing her. “Stitch, stitch, stitch! In poverty, hunger and dirt – sewing at once, with a double thread, A shroud as well as a shirt. Why was that the only poem omitted from the second edition? They kept The Man with the Hoe a few pages over, that describes the brutish work of men’s labour? There were many nauseating poems about the glory of battle and hewing down the enemy that we could have done without, instead.

 

The poems got me thinking about life, death, war, about the timeless beauty of nature, and about the values and priorities that have remained and those that have changed since 1920s and the 1950’s. In Apostrophe to the Ocean, Lord Byron describes the ocean as “unchangeable save to thy wild waves’ play. Time writes no wrinkle on they brow.”” Alas, Lord Byron, not so today. We have managed to stuff more plastic and pollutants in the ocean than there are fish.

 

The next challenge was how to respond to the poems through watercolour paint, a medium that I hadn’t used in years.  The only rules were to be playful, and to keep it fresh. Often I sprayed, dropped, or squirted the pigment onto the paper and let the water and gravity do the mixing. While I did revert back to the tight-fisted painting from time to time, as I got further into the project, I got bolder and freer and more excited. I would read a poem or two or three and just start painting, not necessarily illustrating the poem, but just getting the feeling of the poems out on paper. Sometimes it was only the title that spoke to me, like My Kate by Elizabeth Barrett Browning. I painted my Kate, my eldest daughter, instead.

 

Having a limited time for the project kept me focused, thinking less and responding emotionally. It was months of intense work, but very rewarding. I never expected these passé poems to inject sparks and spirit into my watercolours. The title Sparks comes from Paul Revere’s Ride and Spirit comes from To a Skylark. My friend Elspeth came up with that title. Thank you, Elspeth.

 

Thanks to my husband Brad who gave up his Sunday to varnish my paintings for me and to make me a custom size board at the last minute. As we work in the same building, he’d often slip into the studio with a fresh cup of coffee for me and a word of encouragement , like, “Oh, that’s beautiful! These are really lovely, Elizabeth.”

 

Thank you to my plein air painting buddy, Roxanne Driedger, who photographed me and my paintings for social media and helped varnish.

 

Thank you, Pat, for the best painting class I have ever had in my life.

 

Lastly, thank you, Mother, for giving me 101 Famous Poems and for instilling in me a love of poetry and of the enduring values that they promoted. They have carried me along through the highs and lows of life.

 

 

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2 responses

21 03 2017
Andrea Percy

I always enjoy what you have to say about contentment and wisdom, fulfilment and a life well lived. Thanks for sharing!

21 03 2017
ejohnsonart

Thank you, Andrea. I am very fortunate to be able to do what I love, live with the people I adore and in a very beautiful region of Cananda. I have great health on top of all that. What more can I ask for?

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