Sparks and Spirit

20 03 2017
IMG_1332

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 I have painted my way through an old book of outdated poetry, poem by poem.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.

 

 





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.





My Solo Exhibition Speech at the Huntsville Public Library, Nov.9, 2012

15 11 2012

Walks in Beauty

I  cannot remember the exact moment in my life when I responded to art.  Certainly, the beauty of stark simplicity and things made by hand were givens in my childhood: the bright, patchwork quilts, the thick, braided wool rugs, the jewel-coloured jars of home-canned fruits, jams, relishes and sausages, the vases of flamboyant flowers against a bare, white wall of my Mennonite home – these were some of the moments when I responded to art early on in life. Back then, I had all the time in the world to walk around and stare.

Just how I jumped from these early sensations to becoming a painter, I don’t really understand myself.  I had a little box of paints that my brother had given me.  Just seeing the clean, shiny colours,  smelling the turpentine, and feeling the spring of the brush hairs  thrilled me.  I started looking at the  world differently, dividing everything I saw into little blobs of paint.

While I always struggled with orderliness in my life, somehow the  organizing of shape, colour, texture and pattern on a two-dimensional, clearly defined plane was manageable and terribly exciting.  I felt like I was the conductor of an orchestra –bringing in separate parts to make a splendid, unified picture that sings beauty. Later on, one of my art teachers referred to colours as notes and told me to “Paint like a (wo)man climbing a hill, singing”

I am very honoured to be part of such a great painting tradition, one that stretches back 15 thousand years to the cave painters of France and Spain. It warms my heart to think that we humans still come together to celebrate the act of making marks, one by one, by hand, especially today when computers can make thousands of pictures for us instantly in any style and colour. Art exhibits remind us that we are not machines.  Each little brushstoke made by a human hand is crammed with information about what it is to be a particular human being.    No wonder ancient civilizations thought that art carried magical powers.

And just maybe it does.  After all, angels always seem to pop up whenever I go out painting.  I was shivering one cold autumn day while painting on the front stoop of an old house. I thought no one was home. The door behind me creaked open and someone dropped a warm shawl over my shoulders.

A few weeks ago, I drove past Tally Ho in Hillside on hwy #60.  I have always loved the view of the big garden and the small bight cabins under the big trees.  Since I had my easel with me,  I pulled over to the side of the road and set it up, squeezed out blobs of paint, and was all ready to go, when I realized that I didn’t have any turpentine.  Well, you can’t paint oils without some thinning agent. At that very instant, a car drove up behind me  – the owner of Tally Ho.  She put a call into housekeeping and within minutes, another car drove up and handed me a  jug of turpentine.

Last month, I set up my easel by some unused railway tracks in a rough end of Port Colborne, my hometown.  I was deep in concentration when I heard the flatulating engine of a passing Harley Davidson suddenly stop.  Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a leathery, tough-looking dude, heading right for me.

“What are you doing here?” He yelled at me.

I braced myself.

“This is no place for a painter.  Can’t you see there’s garbage all around?”

He was right.  I hadn’t noticed before.  I was even standing in it.  The beauty if the starkness of the houses had absorbed all my interest.   After a good long look at the painting, he burst out laughing.

“Hah!  That’s beautiful!  Imagine that!  You do find beauty in all the garbage and weeds. I live here and I never seen it before.   Hey, can I take your picture?  They won’t believe this.”

“Sure. Go ahead.” I answered, wondering who THEY were.

“Thanks,  he said, “You know, you’ve made my day.

“Thank you, Sir. You have made my day, too,“  I answered.  Away he went, muttering to himself something about finding beauty in the strangest places and I went back to my painting, smiling inside and out.

The challenge for the painter in Muskoka is not the sifting through garbage to find beauty, (at least not yet).  Rather, the challenge is to sort through a surplus of jaw-dropping beauty, ever changing landscapes, to find the little unexpected nugget that, on canvas, will say just enough of what I found to be important about the whole majestic scene.

It is very important to have local, original art hanging in a public library which is dedicated to another form of art – the written word.  Since a picture is worth  a thousand words,  books and visual art are a splendid team that speak truth in different languages.   In fact, it was from literature that I took the title for my show – a poem by Lord Byron entitled, “She Walks in Beauty”.  You walk in beauty, too. The many exhibits that will pass through this library will help you to develop the vision to recognize it  – the beauty of nature, the beauty of the commonplace, the beauty of the abstract, the beauty of the ugly, the beauty of the unexpected.  Painting is a lot about seeing.

One of my teachers was Bill Schultz.  His teacher, Brachman, was a student of the great American painter, Robert Henri, who wrote, “Art in the community has a subtle, unconscious, refining influence.” With art hanging on its walls, the library will become the life-centre of Huntsville from where powerful, stimulating ideas and discussions will radiate, just as Henri predicted of art schools.

I thank the show curator, Mary Rashleigh  and head librarian, Debbie Duce for having the vision to create this venue  for artists to communicate with the public. It’s a great privilege for me to be the first to have my say about my little slice of life and my impressions of it. Thank you to musicians, Josh, Graham and David and a heartfelt thank you to everyone for coming to look at my paintings and to share this celebration with me.

“Walks in Beauty” hangs in the Huntsville Public Library until December 21, 2012





A Different Kind of Landscape Painting

6 06 2012

“All gardening is landscape painting.”

Alexander Pope

My mother grew a huge vegetable garden in which we four children had to put in a certain number of hours of planting, weeding and picking.  My favourite memories of the garden concerned peas.  I loved planting the peas.  They looked like soft green buttons  sewn on the umber-coloured shirt of a sleeping giant,  and I was the seamstress as I dropped each pea- button, one to two inches apart, into the trough.   When they grew into plump pods, I’d eat them raw, cramming whole fistfuls into my mouth.  No snack can compare to those freshly shelled garden peas.   Even the pods were delicious, once you peeled off the inner membrane.

It took me many years to have a vegetable garden of my own.  But now I have one and it is a miracle.   Two years ago, my husband and I purchased the  land on which my husband’s business sits (Portico Timber Frames).   The soil itself is mostly sand and rock – fill that had been dumped into a swamp.   But  the site has sunshine and it is flat, both rare features in Muskoka and the Haliburton Highlands and I began to dream of the possiblility of growing a garden there.    Since the soil grew scruffy weeds, I wondered if it might just grow vegetables, too.  I could just see that desert bloom.

After reading Patricia Lanza’s Lasagna Gardening,  I went to work trying out her no dig, no till, no weeding system of gardening.   After mowing down the weeds and grass, my husband and I built long rectangular boxes with wood from Portico’s scrap pile.  I lined the bottom with 4 sheets of wet, overlapping newspapers to kill the growth.  On top, I dumped layers of manure, coffee grounds from Tim Horton’s, peat moss, chopped leaves,  straw, top soil, compost, anything I could think off that might make a good soil.  Then, I sowed my seeds, flowers and veggies all mixed in together.

Today, it is a verdant, bountiful garden that feeds my family all summer long and provides a quiet and refreshing place where people can stroll and rest in.  Much more has grown up in this garden.  My daughter opened a wood-fired pizzeria in my garden (mypizzaonearth.com).  My new studio opens out onto the garden.  My husband and nephew built an English-style brick pathway and patio in the garden.  My little garden developed further to include a burgeoning Dorset community garden where members meet to garden, trade plants and gardening tips and to socialize.   Birds love to visit the garden, too.  Miracles do happen. Deserts really can bloom.

As I dropped the peas into the soil this afternoon and was transported back to my mother’s garden,  I looked up at my own beautiful garden with is tall spires of garlic, its deep blue irises, its bright yellow-green lettuce, and fragrant herbs. I realized that, while I paint for a living, I now live in a painting.  My surroundings are also my canvas.  Gardening is just another form of landscape painting.   No wonder I am totally absorbed by it.





“Eggstraordinary”

12 04 2012

It had never occurred to me to paint elaborate designs on an egg.  Eggs were for making puffy omeletttes and béchamel sauces.  To me, egg painting was an old Ukranian tradition, kind of in the vein of painting entire landscapes on a grain of rice as the Japanese do.  I just didn’t see the point of either. I am from Canada, where we like to make giant creations (giant goose, giant tomato, probably even a giant Ukranian egg somewhere on the prairies.) Besides, my paintbrushes were much bigger than an egg, which could never survive my exuberant brush strokes anyway.  Even if it did, an egg painted by me would look as if a dog with purple saliva had licked it. But that was all before I met Jan Buley, the wife of my daughters’ piano teacher.

I agreed to attend Jan’s Pysanky class, only because I was sure nobody would show up and I felt sorry for her.  I even dragged a daughter or two with me. It was a small class in the basement of Sutherland Hall that early spring evening.  I was nervous, because I hadn’t painted since the boys were born.  I was convinced that I had flushed down any artistic talent while washing dirty diapers out in the toilet.  Surely, I had rocked it away while comforting a wailing toddler.

“Today we are honoured to have a special artist in our class today,” I heard Jan tell the class.  “It will be interesting to see what extraordinary designs she comes up with.” When I realized that she was talking about me, I seized up completely.

After a brief history of egg painting, Jan produced little wooden sticks with copper cones wedged into one end of them.  She called them kistka pens.  You scoop beeswax into the cone, then hold it over a flame until it melts, then draw your design onto a raw egg with the pointed end of the cone.  The waxy lines dry instantly.  Then you submerge the egg in a light value dye (like yellow).  After rubbing the dyed egg dry, you draw more designs on the yellow with the beeswax, and then submerge the egg into another colour that is a bit darker (like, orange).  Then you draw some more wax lines or shapes on the orange with your kistka pen , and then submerge it in a bit darker dye (crimson).  You carry on the process until you finish with black.  The fully painted egg is placed inside a toaster-oven, just long enough to melt the wax.  You rub off the melted wax with a clean cloth and, voila, you’ve got a work of art on your egg.

Only mine didn’t work. My “eggstraordinary” creation was an embarrassing, slobbery mess.  But, my daughter painted an exquisite egg.  For that reason, I bought the whole kit for us to try it again with my sisters, sons and nieces at Easter.  That was over 10 years ago.

Pysanky, which means “to write” now has become part of our annual, family Easter tradition.  I’ve gotten a bit better at it since Jan’s class, even though my eggs are still sloppy.  I love seeing how all the different, creative personalities come out in the egg designs.  Jamie, who is marrying Gillian in a few weeks, wrote love notes to Gillian over his egg.  Sarah’s and Emily’s eggs are perfect and exquisite miniature masterpieces.  What I like is the happy, social time with my family as we chat and laugh and joke while we make art together around the big kitchen table. Traditionally, the Ukranians painted eggs to keep evil away.    My family paints them to create art, fun and family togetherness.  While painting is usually a solitary occupation, pysanky proves that it doesn’t have to be.

I am very thankful to Jan for introducing me to this unusual but lovely tradition.   Now that I come to think of it, Grandma Beer from the great Canadian frontier of Haliburton used to paint scenes on fungi that she broke off of tree trunks.  Now, I wonder what the Ukranians would think of that?





The ART of Living

28 03 2012

My friend Cathy loaned me a book called Provence Interiors.  With the weather turning cold again, I get to sit down by the fire, wrap up in my wool shawl, and turn page after page of this gorgeous book and dream.

The French are masterful artists, even in the way they live.  Their interiors have a worn, carelessly thrown together look that is spontaneous, inviting and homey.  The rosy-coloured plaster may be chipping and the white slipcovers a little bit loose-fitting, but in the hands of the French, the imperfections somehow add to the charm.  Life slows down in these rooms.  I want to walk right into them.  Is it that the French have been immersed in art for so many centuries that the artistic flair has become a national birthright?  Art exudes from their hands, and from every little crack and cranny of their homes and of their lives.

Once, I was an au pair girl in Paris. Browsing through Cathy’s book brings it all back with a whiff of nostalgia.  That was well before cell phones and PC’s invaded our silence and strained our relationships.  For me, at 18, the French devotion to art came through in the way fresh flowers bloomed on Madame’s paper-strewn desk.  It was visible in the presentation of delicious food, splayed out on large platters and in the dinners which were long, and lazy.  Art was everywhere in the streets of Paris: in the cafes and in the little parks and gardens, where carefully dressed people just enjoyed the sun and chatted to each other or watched passers-by or pigeons.  People sauntered through Luxembourg Gardens and stopped to watch the children sail the brightly painted boats in the pond.  Art was in the way the French greeted each other.  Even shopping for food was a slow, daily ritual as the shoppers pulled their plaid canvas shopping bags on wheels from fromagerie, to epicerie, and to the divine-smelling boulangerie.  (Oh to sink my teeth into a croissant aux amandes!)

As I look back from the vantage point of 34 years later, I don’t doubt that I am romanticizing the French experience.  Nonetheless, life seemed dignified and slower in their art-permeated culture. There seemed to be time to constantly rediscover the world and to be enchanted with it.   I think the French would agree with me stating that art is not necessarily something you can touch or hold.  Art is a way of seeing the world.    It is having a deep, appreciation and reverence for the simple things in life.  It is the opposite of busyness and noisiness.  It is taking the time to see that even “A mouse is miracle enough to stagger sextillions of infidels.” (Walt Whitman)

I have found that a very good way to start cultivating the art of living fully and creatively is to pick up a pencil and a sketch pad and just start slowly and silently drawing whatever surrounds you, giving it your full attention.  You don’t have to be an artist.  In fact, don’t even think about what your drawing will look like.  The more you do this, the more staggering the simple things in life become.  Life springs wide open with endless possibilities, and you, like the French, will respond with surprising creativity in all aspects of your life.