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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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