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:

 

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‘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.

 

 





“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?