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!

 

 

 

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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.

 

 





Camping In January in Algonquin Park

21 01 2014

This weekend, I felt like I had fallen into a Group of Seven painting, not unlike the way C.S. Lewis’ and Madeleine L’Engle’s characters get to jump around into past and future eras. When I placed the heavy leather tumpline of a loaded toboggan across my chest, and leaned into the blowing snow, I got sucked into another era, one long before the combustion engine, tourists and Mountain Equipment Coop.

Leaning into the past

Leaning into the past

I’m just warning you, in case you decide to go winter camping with Craig and Doris MacDonald in Algonquin Park in the middle of January. No slick synthetics, and no  lightweight titanium snowshoes or tents on this trip. Nope. Lash on the old-fashioned babiche and wooden snowshoes with a few feet of lamp wick and follow the ancient trail that the first white man recorded in 1827 near the park’s East Gate, beyond the gargantuan virgin pines. It leads to Sunday Lake where you’ll find Craig, master winter camper and expert on Algonquin Park and on the old ways of the Natives and the traders. He comes from generations of northern postal carriers that were more comfortable in snowshoes battling a blizzard than you and I are in our slippers sitting by a fireplace sipping a latte.

We are eight people camping together in the snow. No slackers allowed. It’s a race against a setting sun. A rough, six foot chisel and two metal pails are handed to my son who heads for the lake. “Don’t forget to pile snow on the top of the filled pails so the water won’t slosh all over your legs. And don’t lose the chisel in the lake!” Doris yells out. Someone searches for firewood and bark. My husband and other son stagger out of the forest and into the campsite after retrieving caber-size poles that Craig lashes together to make a structure to which we tie the locally made Egyptian cotton tent. Before my dazzled eyes, the exact shape of the tent in Tom Thomson’s painting The Tent begins to take shape. It’s cream coloured, spacious and gracefully proportioned.

Setting up the tent Doris is showing us how to weave a soft fragrant carpet of balsam boughs, the way the Native people do. Craig and Wayne, who still wears the traditional voyageur garb, hook up the stove whose skinny chimney pipe angles up through a metal square in the gable end of the tent. Wayne, the "voyageur"A fire is crackling and, in no time, the tent is heating up. A toboggan, placed in the centre of the tent, becomes our table. Wooden stakes that hold candles are driven into the ground. Soon, we are sitting in our T-shirts, eating home baked bread and chili and swapping stories of adventure and travel, especially tales of Craig’s interactions with the Natives in years gone by. Before I climb into my sleeping bag, I slip outside. The tent is glowing like an old-fashioned Aladdin lantern turned down low. The snow is hard and crisp and the temperature is dropping as the night darkens. It is dead silent and perfectly still.

So, this is how those Canadian painters did it a hundred years ago. Well, Tom Thomson, there’s still one painter who is thrilled to be camping,  your style, in 2014.





A Good Cure for Restlessness

13 01 2014

It always happens every year, that irksome restlessness that comes after a period of too much stimulation. It seems to take me forever to calm down after all the excitement of Christmas when the house bulged with guests and rocked with music and merriment, and our bellies protruded with too much gourmet food.

The inner turmoil goes something like this.  “I really need to thoroughly clean the house now that everyone has left.  I’ve got to get working on my spring show of 101 small watercolours.  Maybe I should participate in the summer Muskoka Arts and Crafts show with my cards, after all.  That means painting at least six cards a days.  I’d like to start blogging again.  And, oh, Sarah left her cello here.  Should I take cello lessons?”

So, I end up doing nothing.  I am suspended like a hummingbird before a feeder, wildly whirling my wings but going nowhere, then, erratically sipping at this feeder and dashing off to that flower.  No matter how many firm talks I give myself about focus and self-discipline, and no matter how many noble quotes I read about success, I just can’t seem to get very far on any project.

Matters came to a climax this afternoon when I found myself rarely alone for a few hours on a Sunday. It was the perfect time to start blogging again.  A full pot of hot rooibos tea before me, and a blank Microsoft page open, I waited eagerly for the gates to creativity to swing open.   But, they didn’t.   I hadn’t a clue what to write about, just like I haven’t had a clue, since Christmas, what to paint on the enormous stack of blank canvasses in the corner of my studio.  With each passing minute, the anxiety increased.   It was time to take a walk.

My quiet country road weaves through the forest and traces the rugged contours of the Algonquin Highlands.   I couldn’t help noticing that a raccoon, a grouse, a mouse and a fox had, each, gone for a walk not long before me. Why, even a car had made a new tread pattern in the snow part way up the road before the driver lost his nerve and turned around. The top, wispy branches of the naked maples were gently sweeping the clouds to the side so I could enjoy glimpses of the startling blue sky.   A playful breeze pinched my cheeks and rattled the dry beech leaves clustered tenuously on saplings.  Nervous nuthatches fluttered noiselessly in the branches while a hairy woodpecker hammered relentlessly at a tree trunk until it offered up a bug.

I noticed, when I sat down again to my cold tea and computer, that the gates to creativity had mysteriously opened in my absence.  Ideas and words flowed easily and I was able to write.

For me, a brisk walk in nature is the best cure for just about anything.





From Cross Lake to Shoe Lake

20 04 2013

Cross Lake to Shoe Lake 1981

Planting potatoes in June in Cross Lake, Manitoba, is a dangerous job,  especially in Katherine McKay’s garden.  She lives beyond the Sinclairs’ shack, close to the Narrows where the Nelson River bellows at the shriveled forest and the wind picks up speed for its morning charge through the town.

Raging like an angry bull, Katherine’s husband is leaning over the fence, shouting something unfriendly in Cree, then doubling over with laughter as he points at us gardeners in the enclosure. The villagers had warned us about him.  “He hates white people with a vengeance.”  No trace of Katherine who had ordered the garden.

Brad and I are on our honeymoon.  Book–blearied university students, sick of the stale atmosphere of libraries and labs, and looking for a summer of fresh air and adventure, we impulsively volunteered with a relief organization to create kitchen gardens with the Cree in order to promote local food production, healthy eating and active living, and to decrease dependency on the Hudson’s Bay Store.

Just days after our May wedding, the bush pilot dropped us off with a bag of seeds, rakes, hoes and a rotor tiller.  He promised to pick us up at the end of August, then rattled his plane up into the clouds and was gone.  Swarms of black flies descended to welcome us.  Nobody else.

But that was last month.  Right now, I am shivering in Katherine’s freshly tilled garden, despite three layers of sweaters on my back. But it’s a garden, another precious garden to add to our other three.

Gardens are not a real hot item on this reservation. We’ve tried everything to promote them: a booth in front of the Bay Store, radio announcements, community involvement.  It was only when we dressed up like a tomato and a cob of corn and paraded through town, waving our garden-promoting banner, that a few kind souls took pity on us and signed on.

This morning, however, something other than potato pieces was seeding itself –  a memory.  I recall another village in a forest –  also on a narrows.  Cedar Narrows, Brad had called it.   I visited Dorset two years ago with Brad and his family.  We stayed in a primitive cottage on Shoe Lake.   I did not connect with it then.  Recently moved back to Canada from Europe,  I secretly found the endless, Canadian wilderness terrifying and the cabin awfully dingy.   But here, half a continent away, Dorset and Shoe Lake are reconstructing themselves in my memory, in all of its quaintness and natural beauty.”

“Hey, Brad”, I holler through the wind. “I think I’d like your uncle’s cabin in Dorset now. Could we spend some weekends there this fall and winter?  Would your uncle Gord lend us the key?”

Well, I can quickly see that my comment is setting off firecrackers in Brad’s imagination..  It is taking immediate root and growing into an idea, a whole plan in his mind. Shoe Lake is his favourite place in the world, where he has spent all his summers since he was a baby

“Elizabeth, let’s post-pone our studies for a year. Move to the uncle Gord’s  cabin and spend the year learning about the bush, canoeing, hiking, and hunting, instead. We’ll have time to think, read, paint,  and pursue whatever we want.  We’ll live simply on our savings, get paying jobs next summer, then pick up our university studies,  refreshed.  Anyway, I don’t know if engineering is right for me.

Our reckless and spontaneous plan warms us to the core.  The  Dorset Venture becomes a beacon of light that illuminates every activity with purpose.  Suddenly it is important to learn about survival and the ways of the bush from our Cree neighbours.   We borrow Mother Earth News magazines from George, the Metis, and start eating lambs quarters at lunch and catch fish from the Nelson.   I read about the benefits of cattail silk and sew it into my sleeping bag for warmth, that is,  before I notice the tiny worms in the silk.    After one week, when we feel totally sure about our plan, we phone home.

“What? You’ve gone mad with love.”  “Finish your education first.”  “We don’t like that plan at all.” were the responses.   Uncle Gord was the worst.  “Old Charlie Bean froze in his sleep up there.  Could happen to you.  You could burn the cabin down and no one would even know.  Neither of you are familiar with wood-stoves.  If something happened to you kids up there, I’d carry that guilt around for the rest of my life. “

But, in the fall, he hands over the key when we offer $60.00 a month to rent the cabin and assure him that we’ll keep an eye on his own big cottage.

One cold, October evening, Brad gallantly carries me over the threshold and sets me down in the middle of an uninsulated, dark and damp, mice-infested shack with no running water, except for what is leaking through the holes of the roof and the broken chimney. I hear a strain in Brad’s voice as he welcomes me to my first home.  No surface is without mouse droppings.  Night is falling.  My quivering candle guides me to a musty bed in the corner and I crawl in,  button-lipped. Before I fall asleep,  a mouse runs down my leg.   The luster to our dream is starting to fade.

All of that happened thirty-two years ago.  We cleaned, polished, and patched, that cabin, hauled water, built an outhouse, and made a warm, happy home.  We had a fabulous year and learned a great deal about ourselves and each other, but it will be the subject of another blog.

We did, indeed, go back to our formal studies at university,  and on to our professions, but  we vowed we would return to Dorset to raise our family.  Six years later, we bought the lot with the cabin from Uncle Gord.  Two years after that, we quit our professions and moved back into that cabin with a toddler, Katherine and a newborn, Sarah Jane.   But that story will also have to wait.





Returning Thanks

25 03 2013

“No duty is more urgent than that of returning thanks.” Saint Ambrose

Now that I have lit the old cookstove and poured myself a mug of frothy hot chocolate, my pressing duty this morning is to return thanks for the wonderful awards that I was given last night for excellence in painting.

Each spring, Muskoka Arts and Crafts hosts a members’ exhibition of art and craftwork in Bracebridge. The opening Friday evening is a gala event, made special with beautiful flower arrangements, hors d’oeuvres, and wine. The members walk around to see what each other has produced over the year and meet the public while a live jazz band entertains the large crowd. At the end of the evening, awards are presented by two judges who are internationally acclaimed artists and craftspeople themselves. This year’s judges were Susan Warner Keene and Michael C. Fortune. I received an award for excellence in painting for my acrylic Huntsville and I received the Award of Conservancy, which is also a cash award, for my oil Looking for Booth’s Farm. Furthermore, my third painting Canoeing in Algonguin Park sold at the show. I’d say it was my night. Everything I submitted was recognized for excellence. I am elated.

Excellence in Painting Award, Muskoka Arts and Crafts Spring Members' Show, March 20, 2013

Excellence in Painting Award, Muskoka Arts and Crafts Spring Members’ Show, March 20, 2013

The Muskoka Conservancy Award, MAC Spring Members' Show, March 20, 2013

The Muskoka Conservancy Award, MAC Spring Members’ Show, March 20, 2013

Exhibiting ones work to the public is the final stage in the creation of a work of art. My paintings do not feel completed until I can see the effect the art has on the viewer. When I receive awards, I feel motivated, empowered and joyful. Even though I do not depend on them to keep me painting, it ‘s awfully nice when I do receive recognition for my work. I will proudly and gratefully hang my awards in my gallery.





Let it Snow!

14 12 2012

The world outside my studio today is a grey, cast-iron caldron of popping popcorn and I am peeking over the rim watching the fluffy stuff jump, swirl and pile up and up.

I wish those white blobs were edible. My lunch date at my friend’s house was cancelled due to this big snowfall and I’m starving. Like her, most of us in Muskoka live isolated at the end of windy, hilly, back roads that are not plowed very often. When it snows like this, we just learn to change plans quickly and sit tight until we can budge.

Thankfully, I don’t have to budge for another hour. Tom Allan is playing Vivaldi and I am reminded just how well Vivaldi and snowy days go together. The two seem to be mimicking each other with their pristine, joyful dances.

It is a great joy just to see the snow finally return to Dorset. It certainly took its time this year and I was beginning to worry that global warming was going to deprive me of one of my favourite painting subjects. I love it when the winter snow dresses the trees like royalty in stately mantles of ermine and lays down a thick spongy carpet over the impassible, debris-strewn forest floor. Snow transforms it into a smooth, white desert that I can stride easily across on racket-shaped snowshoes into the remotest of places.

Winter Garb

Winter Garb  by Elizabeth Johnson  24×20″ acrylic on canvas

As I watch the first big snow come down in Dorset, I think of A. Y. Jackson’s First Snow Algoma, of A. J. Casson’s big blobs in First Snow, Grenadier Pond  and of Kathleen Moir Morris’ snow-laden Montreal scenes. Many Canadian painters have even managed to sneak those beautiful snow shapes into their spring and summer paintings. Whether they were put there subconsciously or intentionally, they are there.  Just have a look at Lauren Harris’ clouds and Arthur Lismer’s blossoms in Georgian Bay, Spring. What about Tom Thompson’s Lily Pads? I bet those painters were longing for the snow to come back soon after the spring melt.

A gallery owner once advised me not to paint winter scenes. “They don’t sell,”  he said.  He might have just as well told me not to be Canadian. Snow is the trademark of so many Canadian painters.

My hour is up. I must go out into the popping, dancing whiteness and find my son for his violin lesson. He will be playing a Vivaldi concerto for his teacher this afternoon.