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

 

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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.

 

 





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.