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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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.





The Real Thing

7 03 2012

My home is filled with beautiful and strange works of art that I have collected over my fifty years of life.  Nothing very big.  Each one is precious to me and carries a story with it: the little hand-painted tiles I found in an ancient bazaar in Iran, the oil painting that I purchased on an island in the Dnieper River in Ukraine, the painted, basswood toucans that my husband and daughters made for me one Christmas when cash was low, my Schwartz-Buenemann paintings, one of which my husband obtained as payment for carpentry work.  ( I now paint with her oil paints.) These are just a few.

As the years go by, I like them more and more, not just because of the happy memories they evoke, but because they are beautiful and real. They are not perfect, thank goodness.  The burn marks and the firefighters’ water stains on my icons from Sidney, Nova Scotia, tell a tale of these paintings being snatched out of a burning church.  The flaws make them more beautiful.   The artists’ hands held the works of art (maybe even dropped them), carved, chiseled, sewed or painted them.  In most cases, I have visited with the artist, held those toiling hands in mine, and  become friends with them.  They’ve helped me to be real and genuine, accepting of my scars, and not just a copy of someone else.

So, when a friend suggested that most people would prefer to buy a reproduction at Walmart for $6.99, than pay hundreds or thousands to get an original work of art, something in me protested very strongly.  It’s like asking someone if they prefer receiving a form letter or a personal handwritten letter.  Better yet, it’s like asking if you would choose to watch a documentary on Tuscany ahead of going to Tuscany.   There are ways of getting to Tuscany on the cheap (I’ve done it.), and there are also ways to collect original art, without spending a lot of money.  In this blog, I wish to dispel the notion that original art is reserved  for the rich.

Original art can be affordable if you buy small items and if you buy from unknown or undiscovered artists.  Buy art that you like.  Don’t buy the name.

In many cases, artists are open to you paying for their art in installments.

Some artists are happy to barter their art for other goods and services.  In the past, I have traded my paintings for a holiday at a fancy B&B, dental work, bushels of fruit and vegetables, a private quintet concert in my home, and other works of art.

If you can’t afford the art you like, just start saving.  If you really want something, you can usually find a way.   I wanted to buy my husband a soapstone bear for his 50th birthday.  I had to save and wait for several years, but the sacrifice made it even more special the day I brought Frobisher home and gave it to him.

Hand-pulled prints, such as lino-block, or wood-block prints are generally cheaper than paintings or sculptures and are wonderful works of art to collect. All of my early art purchases were lino-block prints.  Some came from thrift stores.

Art collecting takes you on countless adventures as you track down treasures in little galleries and studios or second hand shops in out-of-the-way places. You get to know your area.  You meet inspiring people. You find out a lot about art.  You support your local economy and build community. You feel alive.

Go to local arts councils and studio tours and find out where the artists are and what they are creating.  You will find that there’s a great deal to explore right in your own back yard.  You might not need to go on that cruise after all and you can save yourself a ton of money.

The $6.99 will get you nothing more than a fading poster and a cheap frame from Walmart.  Original art will open doors for you and give you much pleasure and a lasting legacy.   Choose the real and the genuine.   You’ll catch the spirit.  Happy Collecting.





Just Get Painting

15 02 2012

 I’ve always loved traveling.  I did a lot of it in my teens, but not so much in my adulthood.  The four kids, homeschooling, music lessons, a house and a business, a big garden and chickens forced my husband and me to run a pretty lean ship and nothing was left for exotic trips.

But there was always a way in which I could travel – in front of my easel.    Art is the only way to run away without leaving home, American dancer, Twyla Tharp, wrote. While I never seriously wanted to run away from home, I certainly enjoyed being transported out of my daily routines by the simple beauty of colour, shape, and line whenever I slipped out to the boathouse to paint in the early morning before the babies started wailing.  I always returned renewed, as if I been somewhere special and far away.

"Childhood"

I guess that’s how I became a painter.  Sure, I had always managed to squeeze in a few studio art courses at university while studying language and literature, and the odd week-long art course when the kids were tiny.  A relative had to be cajoled to move in and run my household in my absence. That wasn’t very easy or very often.  So, I’d just paint.  I’d pore over art books and art magazines, then paint some more.

I came to learn a very valuable lesson.  And that is, if you want to be an artist, you just start being one.  Just get painting every day, even if you don’t have all the credentials.  You find out that you had the best teacher right with you all along. That’s you, yourself!  The artist within just needs a lot of practice at seeing and doing to be coaxed out.

Art books and magazines are a pretty good second best.  If you live far away from night courses and art galleries, as I do, it’s big colourful reproductions that substitute very effectively.  I tore out my favourites and placed them in a box.  I pored over those scraps, asking myself just what it was that drew me to this or that painting. Then I’d try out the technique myself.   To this day, when I need inspiration or have a painting problem, I rustle through my box of cutouts. Among the many excellent painters who preceded me, one always holds the solution in his or her paintings and tells me what I need to change in my painting.

I am so grateful to my dear friend, Janette Malloy from Ohio, who, every once in awhile, boxed up old American Art magazines and sent them to me.  Pure gold could not have excited me more.  Years ago, I sat beside her at a Charles Reid workshop in Hilton Head, SC.  Already an accomplished painter and a member of the Pastel Society of American, and thirty years my senior, this talented artist became a mentor who introduced me to pastels, impressionism and wild colour.  Teachers like Janette Malloy cannot be planned.  They drop unexpectedly like angels into your life, and ignite a creative spark that you never knew you had.  All you can do is pray and wait expectantly for a Janette to drop into your life, just at the right time, and guide you along your artistic path.  There is no greater gift.  Sadly, Janette Malloy died only a few months ago.  I am very grateful for the time and the conversations I had with her.

Painting itself is a conversation, with the living and the dead, about a journey that we illustrate through colour and shape.  It might not take you to Spain or Esfahan, but it does, strangely enough, get you into infinity.