Category Archives: Art

Of Art and Beauty

Spring on 5th Avenue

By Johna Till Johnson
Photo by Vladimir Brezina

Why should anyone make art?

I’m sitting on the window seat on a blue-and-gold morning, sipping coffee. The breeze is warm, and there’s the sound of chirping birds competing with the blare of horns outside.

My glance runs up and down the potted ficus on the windowsill. There are new furled leaves waiting to bloom. It is spring.

What’s the point of art, and why should anyone devote his or her life to it, let alone squander precious hours of the few we’re all given?

Pondering the question, I realize I’ve unconsciously internalized a set of ideas: Art is frivolous, unimportant. Beauty is nice, but not necessary. Proper adults concern themselves with more important things.

But those are just ideas.

As I look around, reality seems to be otherwise.

I’m surrounded by beauty: The green-gold leaves of the ficus as they catch the sunlight. The geometric play of shadows on buildings. The lush greenery of the new foliage outside, sharp against the sky.

The world is beautiful, I realize. Nature is beautiful. And cities are beautiful, in their own terrible, savage, and dirty ways.

Humans are part of nature, and if Nature strives for beauty, shouldn’t humans? Isn’t the ache for beauty foundational somehow, built into our very cells?

There isn’t just one form of beauty. There’s an infinite variety, depending on how you look at things. Anything can be beautiful, from the rainbows on an oil slick to the multi-jointed machinery of an insect.

I think about Vlad, and his feelings about ants.

He hated the idea of killing them, not out of a reverence for life, but out of a reverence for beauty and the deep sense that we should conserve beauty wherever possible. “It’s just such a waste,” he said, in explanation. “That entire little intricate system (the ant) wiped out in an instant.”

If art is a deep-seated desire to reach for beauty, and Nature and the Universe is constantly creating beauty… then isn’t the desire to create art a way to align with the deepest forces of Nature and the Universe?

I feel a bubble of hope rising in my chest. Maybe creating art isn’t frivolous at all, but rather a way to authentically align with Nature…

But wait. Isn’t “beauty” just a human-made construct? Would the leaves of the ficus, or the rainbows in an oil slick, be beautiful if I weren’t here to see them, and declare them so?

The bubble begins to deflate.

If beauty is just a human construct, then the creation art is just another one of those activities we humans impose on ourselves to feel purposeful and to feed our egos…

Belief in beauty is a bit like belief in God, I realize. You posit that an idea greater than yourself exists and gives meaning, and search for evidence that it exists.

And then I remember something: The nine-year-old autistic boy who let out an audible “wow!” at the end of a Mozart concert.

David Snead, President of the Handel and Haydn society described it like this: “While [conductor] Harry Christophers was holding the audience rapt in pin-drop silence following the music’s end, what sounded like a child of about six years of age couldn’t hold back and gave out a ‘Wow!’ heard round the hall,” Snead wrote. “The crowd cheered in enthusiastic agreement.

The boy, Ronan Mattin, apparently didn’t normally communicate his emotions, according to his grandfather, Stephen Mattin, who took him to the concert: “I can count on one hand the number of times that [he’s] spontaneously ever come out with some expression of how he’s feeling.

If a nine-year-old boy whose mind and emotions are wired differently from most people’s can perceive the beauty in Mozart, isn’t that proof that it objectively exists?

Not proof, perhaps, but evidence, I correct myself.

And there is plenty of additional evidence, if you know where to look for it. By some accounts, plants can perceive and respond to music. And humans and animals alike respond to certain sounds and shapes, even across cultures. Physicists talk about using “elegance” as a good metric for assessing which theories are more likely to be true.

I think about how closely beauty and the impulse towards spirituality are linked in history. Why does the “love of God” inspire people to create, say, the Cathedral of Notre Dame?

And the suspicion grows on me, not for the first time: What if I’ve gotten everything exactly backward? What if art and the creation of beauty aren’t just nice incidentals, but the most important thing? I think of Tosca’s plaintive aria: “I lived for art, I lived for love.” Was she right?

I circle back to the question of why anyone should create art.

Because we’re hard-wired for it. Nature creates beauty, and humans are part of Nature. It’s what we do. And when we’re prevented from it (or prevent ourselves from it), our lives are constricted and constrained. Creating beauty (however we conceive of it) is part of living fully.

The bubble of hope is very large and light now. It feels almost large enough to carry me.

Dawn, November 12 2018


On the Pulse of Morning
by Maya Angelou

A Rock, A River, A Tree
Hosts to species long since departed,
Mark the mastodon.
The dinosaur, who left dry tokens
Of their sojourn here
On our planet floor,
Any broad alarm of their of their hastening doom
Is lost in the gloom of dust and ages.
But today, the Rock cries out to us, clearly, forcefully,
Come, you may stand upon my
Back and face your distant destiny,
But seek no haven in my shadow.
I will give you no hiding place down here.
You, created only a little lower than
The angels, have crouched too long in
The bruising darkness,
Have lain too long
Face down in ignorance.
Your mouths spelling words
Armed for slaughter.
The rock cries out today, you may stand on me,
But do not hide your face.
Across the wall of the world,
A river sings a beautiful song,
Come rest here by my side.
Each of you a bordered country,
Delicate and strangely made proud,
Yet thrusting perpetually under siege.
Your armed struggles for profit
Have left collars of waste upon
My shore, currents of debris upon my breast.
Yet, today I call you to my riverside,
If you will study war no more.
Come, clad in peace and I will sing the songs
The Creator gave to me when I
And the tree and stone were one.
Before cynicism was a bloody sear across your brow
And when you yet knew you still knew nothing.
The river sings and sings on.
There is a true yearning to respond to
The singing river and the wise rock.
So say the Asian, the Hispanic, the Jew,
The African and Native American, the Sioux,
The Catholic, the Muslim, the French, the Greek,
The Irish, the Rabbi, the Priest, the Sheikh,
The Gay, the Straight, the Preacher,
The privileged, the homeless, the teacher.
They hear. They all hear
The speaking of the tree.
Today, the first and last of every tree
Speaks to humankind. Come to me, here beside the river.
Plant yourself beside me, here beside the river.
Each of you, descendant of some passed on
Traveller, has been paid for.
You, who gave me my first name,
You Pawnee, Apache and Seneca,
You Cherokee Nation, who rested with me,
Then forced on bloody feet,
Left me to the employment of other seekers- 
Desperate for gain, starving for gold.
You, the Turk, the Swede, the German, the Scot…
You the Ashanti, the Yoruba, the Kru,
Bought, sold, stolen, arriving on a nightmare
Praying for a dream.
Here, root yourselves beside me.
I am the tree planted by the river,
Which will not be moved.
I, the rock, I the river, I the tree
I am yours- your passages have been paid.
Lift up your faces, you have a piercing need
For this bright morning dawning for you.
History, despite its wrenching pain,
Cannot be unlived, and if faced with courage,
Need not be lived again.
Lift up your eyes upon
The day breaking for you.
Give birth again
To the dream.
Women, children, men,
Take it into the palms of your hands.
Mold it into the shape of your most
Private need. Sculpt it into
The image of your most public self.
Lift up your hearts.
Each new hour holds new chances
For new beginnings.
Do not be wedded forever
To fear, yoked eternally
To brutishness.
The horizon leans forward,
Offering you space to place new steps of change.
Here, on the pulse of this fine day
You may have the courage
To look up and out upon me,
The rock, the river, the tree, your country.
No less to Midas than the mendicant.
No less to you now than the mastodon then.
Here on the pulse of this new day
You may have the grace to look up and out
And into your sister’s eyes,
Into your brother’s face, your country
And say simply
Very simply
With hope
Good morning.

© Maya Angelou 1993

Rebirth: Amaryllis


By Johna Till Johnson

Vlad had an amaryllis that he loved.

It was a constant source of surprise and delight to him. He chronicled its astonishing growth. And he often used it as a photographic subject.  He loved its extravagant color and brilliance, strange voluptuous shape, and the way it always chose its own time to surprise us.

After he died, I treasured and cared for it, along with all the other plants we’d shared.

Then came the Great Fungus Gnat Plague.

If you don’t know about fungus gnats… you’re lucky. True to the name, they’re little gnats whose larvae can damage or kill houseplants by attacking their roots.

Every plant got infested. I spent a couple of weekends treating soil (one way to kill fungus gnats is to bake the soil; another is to spray with toxic chemicals) and repotting plants. When the dust settled, every plant was safely repotted in dry, gnat-free soil—except one.

For whatever reason, the amaryllis had gotten the brunt of the attack.

The outer layers of its bulb had rotted, and the bulb itself seemed dead. I mourned, and prepared to throw it out.

But a friend advised cleaning it off and putting it in the refrigerator.  She told me the cool darkness sometimes helped them to recover.

I took her advice and promptly forgot about it. Well, not entirely: occasionally I would notice it as I reached down for something-or-other, and think, “I’ve got to do something about the amaryllis.” But it made me too sad to think about, so I did nothing.

Then one day I reached down… and saw the amaryllis had grown a stalk!

It was pale, like albino asparagus, and bent, forced sideways by the refrigerator shelving.

But it was recognizably a flower stalk, and…

… was that a tiny bulb at the tip?

Barely able to contain my excitement, I repotted the amaryllis in clean, dry soil, watered it thoroughly, and placed it in the sun.

I didn’t have long to wait.

Within a couple of days the stalk had turned a vibrant green, and the bulb began to open. And here she is, back to her full glory, with two brilliant flowers glowing crimson in the early-autumn sun!

 

 

An Unexpected Sunday in Los Angeles

Evening Shoes, 1927, by Edward Steichen


By Johna Till Johnson

Photos by Johna Till Johnson and Daniel Kalman (and assorted artists)

I never intended to be at the Getty Center in Los Angeles on a sunny Sunday in July.

But as luck would have it, I was in town for a business trip, and I got a text from my friend Dan: His mother had just died (not unexpectedly). I postponed my flight home, rented a car, and headed for Dan’s mother’s house.

People grieve differently. Dan is a scientist with the soul of an artist, and throughout his life, art museums and galleries have been his places of worship. He and Vlad shared many happy hours soaking in art all over the world.  Dan had happy memories of visiting the great art galleries in London with Vlad (who initially studied art history at Cambridge before changing his career to focus on science).

Baroness de Meyer in a Hat by Reboux, 1929, by Baron Adolf de Meyer

So when Dan suggested a trip to the Getty that same weekend,  I was enthusiastic about accompanying him, his sons, his brother-in-law, and his eight-year-old niece.

My experience of museums had been limited to Europe and European-inflected cities like New York and Boston. So I guess subconsciously I was expecting a tall, dark, imposing building.

The Getty is imposing, all right, but in a classic California way.

Cacti at the Getty, by Johna Till Johnson

Designed by Richard Meier, the Getty looks exactly like the mental image many of us have of Heaven: White columns, lush green foliage, flowers, fountains, mountains, and sea.

It’s a campus of beautifully designed  buildings, interspersed with gorgeous landscapes, perched on the top of a hill with a breathtaking view of Los Angeles, the Pacific, and Catalina Island. It’s so sprawling that the buildings are interconnected by a cable-pulled tram (which we eschewed in favor of a walk up the hill).

Trees at the Getty, by Johna Till Johnson

Dan, like Vlad, loves photography, so we went to the current photography exhibition: Icons of Style .

None of us were really that into fashion (unless it’s made by Kokotat or sold at REI). But Vlad had introduced me to Edward Steichen many years ago, and Steichen’s photographs were among those featured.

Model on Ship, about 1946, by Bill Brandt

In fact, Steichen’s 1927 photograph “Evening Shoes” was one of the first we saw.   I leaned in closer to study the angles and edges of the shadows.

“Look at that!” said the woman next to me. I glanced over. She was older than I, bejeweled and made up, and her voice had a familiar intonation… Sure enough, she mentioned she was from New York.

We both admired the photo out loud, pointing out the features we liked best.
“And those are two different shoes!” she commented triumphantly. Indeed they were—and I’d missed it! (Take a closer look at the photo up top). I wasn’t the only one. Later on, I found out that a friend who had studied photography and was very familiar with the photo had also missed the fact that the shoes were from different pairs.

Kelly Stewart, New York, 2011 by Hiro

Dan and I wandered through the rest of the exhibit, both agreeing that the Chinese-born photographer Hiro had an unusually striking eye. Then we rejoined Dan’s family outside, and meandered through the grounds, enjoying the sunshine, gardens, and architecture.

On that unexpected Sunday, we reminded ourselves of something important: Art, like nature, heals.

Detail: Fountain at the Getty, by Daniel Kalman

Note: In the photos of photos, I’ve done my best to edit out extraneous reflections (including that of the photographer). But if you look carefully, you can see them… 

Urban Garden Center NYC

Urban Garden Center

By Johna Till Johnson

When it’s cold and snowy out, where does a New Yorker in search of lush greenery go? The Urban Garden Center, of course!

It’s a whimsical wonderland hidden under Park Ave at 116th St., and one of the many crown jewels of Spanish Harlem.  In summer, there are live chickens (because what’s a garden center without chickens?). Children love to come and visit, and feed the chickens.

In winter the fauna are more limited: Teddy bears and mermaids.

Fairyland (with teddy bears!)

And speaking of fairyland, the center’s owner, intrigued by my picture-taking, regaled me with stories of New York “back in the day” (we are pretty much the same age).

My favorite was the time when he, as an 18-year-old from Long Island City, Queens, drove his brand-new Honda CRX right into the middle of a gang war in Spanish Harlem.

As he drove into a narrow alley, the two sides stopped fighting each other and attacked him. They lobbed a Molotov cocktail at his car, lighting the hood on fire.  There was nowhere for him to turn, so he threw the car into reverse and burned rubber backing out of the alleyway, flaming hood and all.

Ah, New York… those were the days!

Fairyland fauna: Mermaid

 

 

Welcome to Spanish Harlem

Welcome to Spanish Harlem!


By Johna Till Johnson

They say old New York is dead.

The city’s hot lifeblood has gone thick and sluggish. Starbucks and suburbanization have driven a stake through its  heart.

They’re wrong.

The beating heart of New York never dies. You just need to know where to find it.  The pulse is particularly alive in Spanish Harlem, which shimmers with dynamic energy. It’s bright with color, even on a dark snowy day.

Spanish Harlem street corner

Like much of old New York, Spanish Harlem (also known as East Harlem or El Barrio) is known for many things: Poverty. Addiction. Gang violence (the area is home to the most dangerous block in the city, according to police statistics).

But Spanish Harlem is not defined by those things, or not defined only by them.

It’s diverse: Puerto Ricans, African Americans, Asians, and a remnant of the original Italians who settled there in the early 1900s mingle with displaced WASP Upper East Siders and the influx of international staffers working at Mt. Sinai, the steadily-growing medical complex that dominates the southern part of the neighborhood.

There’s also a spirit of pride, and neighborliness. You’re more likely to be greeted with a nod and a smile here than anywhere else in the city.  “We’re all in this together,” is the unspoken sentiment.

Helping each other

More than that, Spanish Harlem is characterized by hope. It boasts one of the best high schools in all of New York state,  Manhattan Center for Science and Mathematics, which regularly sends local students to top-ranked universities.

There are a number of community gardens, decorated with whimsy and offering bright spots in the urban landscape.

And a surprising number of artists, poets, and musicians hail from Spanish Harlem. A notable one is Marc Anthony,  the top-selling salsa artist (and Jennifer Lopez’ ex-husband).

Above all, Spanish Harlem is the land of dreams.

Hall of Fame

I am not certain, but I suspect that the graffiti in this mural refers to the song Hall of Fame, which celebrates setting high goals and working to achieve them.

Yeah, you could be the greatest
You can be the best…
You can be a master
Don’t wait for luck
Dedicate yourself and you can find yourself…

Standing in the hall of fame
And the world’s gonna know your name
‘Cause you burn with the brightest flame
And the world’s gonna know your name
And you’ll be on the walls of the hall of fame…

Do it for your people
Do it for your pride
How you ever gonna know if you never even try?

Harlem: Do it for your people

Zlarin: Rainbow

Rainbow sidewalk stencil on the island of Zlarin

By Johna Till Johnson

Croatians can be whimsical.

As I was walking along a pier on Zlarin, a small Croatian island in the Adriatic, I noticed a rainbow stenciled on the sidewalk. Who put it there? And why? There are no answers.

But it made me smile.