Category Archives: Culture

Autumn Sunrise

Upper East Side, 10-26-18

 

By Johna Till Johnson

Twice a year I can watch the sun rise.

It happens in late fall and early winter—around early November and again in February—as the Earth tilts away from, then towards, the Sun.

The sunrise migrates Northwards and hides behind the big building on the left in December and January. It peeks out again in February on its Southward path, an early sign of Spring to come.

Sometimes a sunrise is more than a sunrise. These words from a poem by Adrienne Rich spring to mind:

Though your life felt arduous
new and unmapped and strange
what would it mean to stand on the first
page of the end of despair?

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!

 

 

Mosque at Sunset: Manhattan

Mosque at sunset

By Johna Till Johnson

Sometimes beauty just hits you like a punch in the stomach.

I was running late for dinner when I saw sunset-tinged clouds behind the neighborhood mosque. I just had to stop and take the picture.

On Fridays the haunting tones of the jumu’ah call to prayer at 1 PM reminds me the week is almost over.

This time, it was a reminder that the day was almost over.

Another summer day drawing to a close…

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… 

Berries In the Snow

Berries against the snow, Connecticut

By Johna Till Johnson

Berries in the snow
Bright hopeful against the cold
How long will they last?

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