Wednesday, April 11, 2018


Good Afternoon, 12 x 16", watercolor/pastel on paper mounted on board

    At last year's Easter Vigil I was reading from the Book of Genesis, how God created each new day and after laboring proclaimed the resulting fruit of that labor to be good.  For some reason, this word struck me powerfully. Good, Good! Such a good word! Later, in the summer, when Chris Brannock initiated an art group structured around words the group selected, I knew my word offering would be good. 
     As summer eased into autumn, my uncle loosed his grip on life and died, to the day, one month shy of his 89th birthday. Family and friends, colleagues and former patients gathered in West Virginia to celebrate his life. At his service we heard reflection remembrances from his wife and each of his five children. Each told of a particular gift that their husband/father brought into their life and into the world. In the afternoon after the service we went to the family farm where my uncle had planted an apple orchard. The day was warm and golden as we were just on the cusp of autumn. Already primed by the words of my aunt and cousins, I knew that I was experiencing good in its sense from the very beginning.
     Uncle Walt, early on knew what he wanted and he stayed true to that early knowledge. From his tiny town in West Virginia he set off to Cambridge, MA (apparently with his guitar on his back). Though his undergraduate and medical degree were from Harvard and he served the Army Medical Corp in Italy, Uncle Walt chose to return to West Virginia (also with his guitar on his back), to be a surgeon to coal miners and their families. I looked around at my cousins and their children as they plucked apples and walked among the trees their father/grandfather planted. How very good and pleasant! From this firmly rooted foundation generations have established their own good lives.

Schubert's String Quintet in C Major, Adagio, 12 x 24", acrylic on board

     While thoughts of good have been percolating in my mind, I've also been creating paintings inspired by specific pieces of music. As it turned out, on what would have been Uncle Walt's 89th birthday, David and I attended a concert by the Ariel Quartet at the Unitarian-Universalist Church, so I was able to 'visit' my mother (sister to Uncle Walt) in the memorial garden at the church. The Ariel Quartet enlisted local cellist, Benjamin Karp to complete the quintet for Schubert's String Quintet in C Major. Sitting in the church, I looked through low windows 360 degrees around the sanctuary to see the surrounding land rich with trees that were tiny seedlings when I was a child. The quintet began the Adagio movement and I immediately had a sense of starting out on a journey. The journey starts with mere steps. After we have accomplished some distance, the beginning theme is repeated, but with an altered chord. The simple chord contains in it the beauty and the sadness which exactly describes my feeling about our choices and what is lost and what is gained. I would call it a good chord. The cello begins to churn, depicting for me the inevitable strife that even a good life must endure--is it doubt? conflict? being out of step? Or perhaps it is the realization that we have to let others make their own choices on the direction of their journeys. We have to let go (usually worth a churn or two...)
     Thinking about all these things brought to mind a landscape--a landscape with many paths. I envisioned the moors of the Pennines, surrounding Manchester, England. Paths there are created by deer and highland cattle that graze the land. So that is the setting I chose for my painting. How lovely then, that my daughter was walking in that landscape on her birthday.
    Which brings me back to the good afternoon and being witness to the life of Uncle Walt and its brilliant continuation which will create many, many good afternoons. We can only choose our own path, but we can enjoy the journeys that others choose and with a little imagination, tag along.

Friday, December 22, 2017

Christmas Chiaroscuro

 Perhaps I'm a bit off, but I love this time of year. SAD does not afflict me. It is not that I love the dark so much, but that I love the special, tender localized nature of the light. The darkness creates the loveliness of the light. When the days are shortest, we pay special attention to the light that we project out on our neighborhood. We concern ourselves with this dynamic.

The Italians have a special word for this interplay of light and shadow: chiaroscuro.  And it goes alliteratively well with Christmas! Tender Nativity scenes contrast the rough and rustic dark of a Bethlehem night with the Light of the World nestled into a manger. Light reflects off of the faces of Mary and Joseph as shepherds, sheep and cows gather.

Just by chance, while I was pondering all this, an interesting piece by Clarissa Pinkola Estes showed up in my Facebook newsfeed: We Were Made for These Times. A particular passage spoke to me in the same way that the dark/light of the winter solstice speaks to me:  'Ours is not the task of fixing the entire world all at once, but of stretching out to mend the part of the world that is within our reach. Any small, calm thing that one soul can do to help another soul, to assist some portion of this poor suffering world, will help immensely.' There, we simply are called to do our part. We are the gentle light in the manger.

This reminds me of a funny thing that happened last Christmas Eve, which coincided with the first night of Hanukkah. We were visiting our daughter and son-in-law in Alsace and our celebration was interfaith. We placed all the candles in the menorah and lit the first candle with the servant candle. Then, because of the proximity of the candles, they all caught on fire. Well, no one is perfect... But, this reenforces my point. Start small, start where you are. Your local light will spread. This also goes back to the writing of Clarissa Pinkola Estes: 'Struggling souls catch light from other souls who are fully lit and willing to show it. If you help to calm the tumult, this is one of the strongest things you can do.' You are needed. Now.

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Precarious vs 5 Smooth Stones

Precarious, 7 x 5", mixed media
The word is precarious and it took me a few days to realize how I would represent this word for the art group.  Of course, a lot of things seem precarious at the moment in our world, so there was no lack of ideas. On the other hand, I wanted to create something natural and not forced--which is actually the theme of my little essay here.

My subject is David, before he became a king. He is at this time in the story a mere shepherd. I've written about this before in a blog from August 4, 2012 Taking On Goliath. My insight back in 2012 had to do with artists using the tools they have at hand, and know how to use, rather than piling on techniques and information that will simply make it hard to move. In this writing, I am thinking about our country and our world. Our current situation makes me think of David, the shepherd, who volunteers to take on Goliath, the giant. King Saul believes that David will benefit from his armor and  weapons which he bestows on the young man. Everything is bulky and out scale for the shepherd. The metal stifles movement and David knows that he can not take out Goliath with this hindrance. Instead, he removes the armor and heads to the stream to select five smooth stones. Placing the stones in his pouch with his slingshot David heads off to face Goliath, who is insulted by the diminutive presence. David selects his stone, lets it fly, and it becomes lodged in Goliath's skull. The giant drops dead.
Five Smooth Stones, 7 x 5", mixed media
So how does this relate to our world today, and our country's relationship in the world? I believe we are using bulky and oversized material to present our power to the world. It is like we have switched our priorities. North Korea and Russia demonstrate their military might in endless processions because that is all they have going for them. The United States has any number of tools for presenting   authority and capability. I have thought of Five Smooth Stones that have established our standing in the world:

1) Openness: Our country was basically created from scratch. We are flexible in our ideas and the founders thought in creative and fresh ways. Ideas can come from anywhere to be of value.

2) Opportunity: When life in the Old Country presented few options, America was seen as a place of opportunity, where one could create their own life, free from restrictions of inheritance and state religion, for example.

3) Inventiveness: Here, there was a new landscape and new vegetation. Necessity was the mother of invention. This became a 'tradition' of our country. We have always supported new ideas and machines. I believe this is also why we have been the leader in higher education. Research and creativity have been valued.

4) Generosity: Perhaps I am wrong, but I believe that the work of volunteers in America is greater than any other country in the world. The work of volunteers is structured into the government of other countries. In the U.S., PTAs and church/synagogue/mosque groups make a huge difference in our lives. I could just say, 'Band Parent' and get my point across. Volunteers are factored into healthcare, too. Our economy is different from any other in the world because of the work of volunteers. Personally, I think that this is why neither capitalism or socialism are really the correct fit for our country--but that is another subject. We are generous with our money and labor in coming to the aid of the rest of the world. That, in turn, brings us a lot of power.

5) Frontier/Nature: Because America was created out of the 'new world' we have always had to think carefully about nature. This has given Americans a special relationship with the landscape. It is not a perfect relationship, but it is important. The establishment of our National Park system is considered our 'best idea'.

To me, these are America's five smooth stones. They are why we are upheld as a positive force in the world. Your version would probably be different. I came up with these ideas fairly quickly. I'm sure there are gaps. But, my main point here is that we have a strong military to protect these endeavors of accomplishment, not the other way around.

This story of David and how he, a slight, young shepherd was able to overpower the giant is a lesson for all of us.  Saul asked David how he, a 'boy' could go against 'this Philistine'. David answers: "Your servant used to keep sheep for his father; and whenever a lion or a bear came, and took a lamb from the flock, I went after it and struck it down, rescuing the lamb from its mouth; and if it turned against me, I would catch it by the jaw, strike it down, and kill it. " (1 Samuel 17:35) This lesson can apply to us all. We can lose the second hand, over-sized armor and instead use our handiest tools, our five smooth stones, to create what we want in the world.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

React/Psalm 137

On the willows there, we hung our harps

At the end of the first meeting of our art group, the word was plucked from the brown bag. The word was 'react'.  Before we were to meet again, we would create artworks around this word. Because I had been studying the Psalms with the young people of St. Peter's Episcopal in Paris, KY, I had a lot of material rolling around in my brain.  I drove home in the dusk along the gentle landscape of Paris Pike. It didn't take long to determine that Psalm 137 would be the centerpiece of a 'React' triptych.

Psalm 137
Psalm 137

By the rivers of Babylon--
   there we sat down and there we wept
   when we remembered Zion.
On the willows there
   we hung up our harps.
For there our captors
   asked us for songs,
and our tormentors asked for mirth saying,
   "Sing us one of the songs of Zion!"

How could we sing the LORD's song
   in a foreign land?
If I forget you, O Jerusalem,
   let my right hand wither!
Let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth,
   if I do not remember you,
if I do not set Jerusalem
   above my highest joy.

Remember, O LORD, against the Edomites
   the day of Jerusalem's fall,
how they said, "Tear it down! Tear it down!
   Down to its foundations!"
O daughter Babylon, you devastator!
   Happy shall they be who pay
        you back
   what you have done to us!
Happy shall they be who take your little ones
   and dash them against the rock!

The beautiful sorrow of hanging one's harps on foreign trees after being forced from the homeland can be keenly felt. But, who is prepared for the kick in the gut of the last lines?  I checked with parents of the Sunday School class before the discussion about Psalm 137. They gave their okay and I was comforted that several mothers were in the room as I read. The students were engaged.  For our first class, they had created a painting of a tree planted by a stream of water (the first Psalm's firmly rooted imagery). So, they were familiar with the scene. But, as I read the last lines, their heads shot up and they looked to their mothers for assurance. I did, too! How do we get to the point where we are not just angry and terrified by our forced exodus and labor, but willing to see the young and innocent pay the price for our pain?

I reflected back on my drive over to the meeting, earlier that very evening. Listening to the news, I heard Mitch McConnell blurble on about how we needed to take the decision-making on health care away from the Feds and back to more local control, kind of like what the state-wide exchanges were supposed to do. Our Republican governor dismantled the exchange in Kentucky, KYnnect, which was a model program for the rest of the country. 'Oh, man!', I thought, 'I would like to punch Mitch McConnell in the face!'
Black-eyed Deer in the Headlights
Sadly, that was not the first time. I've been struck by how often Mitch McConnell, perhaps the single most influential person in thwarting the work of our previous President so that the path would be paved for the current occupant of the White House, looks dumb-founded, flummoxed, as if he does not understand what happened.

The Majority Leader of the United States Senate does not look all that different from the countless children who appear on the pages of newspapers and evening newscasts. Of course, they have good reason to be bewildered and stunned, being the victims of bombings, never-ending wars and the struggle to escape to better lives. These little ones are 21st century collateral for adult anger and grudges; perpetual reaction.

21st Century Collateral

How do we interrupt the reaction? This is my question for this summer as we are in a hot mess of reaction in our country (we just witnessed history in Charlottesville this past weekend). I envisioned Mitch McConnell as a child, with blond hair and blue eyes and polio (his cure and treatment paid for by the U.S. government).  This made me think about how our country seems to be experiencing a crippling, not from polio, but a crippling of conscience. Taking in the news, I see a lot of pain and we can not react our way out of pain.

An answer arrived in the form of a Facebook urging from my niece to listen to an On Being program featuring Ruby Sales. She said something very interesting and surprising (though I wonder why it should be surprising). Ruby Sales said that there needs to be a white liberation theology. If a white man grows up understanding that his value is all tied up in his special standing as a white person, what happens when that power is diminished? Through what Rev. Sales calls black folk religion, she grew up confident in her love. No matter what anyone else might have thought of her, she understood she was a beloved child of God. She had plenty of love to extend to others. I believe that all of America could use a good dose of liberation theology. We could no longer have to react. We could begin creating again.

Monday, June 26, 2017

Theme Song

Out the Window

Sitting abreast of leaves and limbs
   listening for the song
     how to be in harmony

Heart at attention, quivering gently
   sensing a shepherding action
     how to be in harmony

Redemption is always possible
   create a way to make it new
     how to be in harmony

Creating to be
   at home, in the world
     how to be in harmony

             *   *   *   *   *   *

Kathy Rees Johnson
June 2017

Monday, May 1, 2017

Finding Treasure in Humble Media: Learning from Bartok and Homer

David and I made plans to visit Philadelphia so that we might see the exhibit American Watercolor in the Age of Homer and Sargent. It turns out that we had a lot of company in Philadelphia because the NFL Draft was taking place at the same time as our visit. In fact, this first-time outdoors event took place right in front of the stairs-made-famous-by-Rocky of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, where the exhibit is (for just two more weeks!) Walking over to the museum, we passed by block after block of barriers and idling engines powering the fun for fans. It was a warm day and we felt the welcome refreshment of cool air and relative quiet. It turned out to be an excellent day to be at the museum as the featured exhibit that we traveled to see had been packed throughout its tenure thus far, but that day, because of the NFL hubbub, the crowd was gently encountered.
     We walked into the calm, dimly lit (to protect the watercolor) exhibit. I was immediately struck by  a couple of things: 1) watercolor here refers to transparent watercolor (called simply watercolor) and also opaque watercolor, also called gouache (I thought they were different) and, 2) graphite (pencil), chalk and pastel were routinely used in conjunction with watercolor. The artists were not purists about using only transparent watercolor. Of course, they did not have to be purists. They were already using a medium that was not considered 'professional' or salon worthy. Watercolors were employed by women and hobbyists, along with school children. So the artists were freed from the typical bonds of academe and market. Some of the works in the exhibit were sketches and studies. But most were finished work. Many of the earlier pieces gave the same effect as oil paintings. The virtuosity was quite amazing (and it also explains the use of opaque watercolor and Chinese white.) But gradually, as we absorbed the teaching of the exhibit, one could feel the loosening liberation allowed by the medium.
    Winslow Homer's is the first painting you see, drawing you in. His astonishingly fresh work appears throughout. This made me wonder: why does Homer's work look so fresh? Is it because painting was a natural activity for him? His mother painted with watercolor (her work is included in the exhibit). He also had thorough practice in observation, having made illustrations of action during the Civil War. This required fresh, accurate and fast perception. Watercolor works very well with this sort of composing. There is no reworking or continual tweaking of the composition.
   At the end of the exhibit, there is a compare and contrast room of work by Winslow Homer and John Singer Sargent. Both artists' work are breathtakingly beautiful, of course. Sargent is simply virtuosic with complicated masses of people (or alligators).  Every stroke is perfection. Homer's work is more rustic and immediate. You feel the bright sun or the cold water and heavy skies. Homer is intimately involved with nature. In the very last room, some of the artists' art materials are exhibited. Sargent's tubes of watercolors are on display and Homer's well worn box of pan watercolors with brushes that must have been transformed when laden with watercolor.
   The exhibit left me refreshed and affirmed in my newfound use of economical but versatile materials.

Bartok Harmony, 8 x 10", opaque watercolor and Cray-pas
This painting was created in response to a performance of Bartok's Quartet No. 3,
performed in November by the Daedalus String Quartet, in Lexington, KY, November 2016.
please see my blog from 11-21-16: Back to the Church of Bartok
    David did some brilliant preparatory work and discovered that on Saturday, the Curtis Institute of Music would be presenting all six string quartets by Bela Bartok. We thought we would walk over and stay for the first couple of quartets. It turned out that this was not merely a recital by world class students, but a whole project: The Bartok Project. Students studied Bartok and the background of the period in which he wrote the six quartets. The works were composed during a roughly 30 year period, basically from the build up to WWI through the beginning WWII. Bartok's world (in Hungary) was in a state of despairing flux.
    Before each quartet was performed, the four musicians would make a brief presentation about Bartok, his influences, the quartet or the world at the time of the writing of the quartet. This exercise enhanced the experience of listening to the music even above the spectacular renderings by amazing musicians. A different quartet of musicians presented each of the six quartets. We learned that Bartok was an introverted personality, personally quiet in nature. He had a keen interest in folk music, a humble media that Bartok brought to his compositions. Bartok shared this interest in Hungarian and peasant folk music with compatriot composer Zoltan Kodaly. The upheavals referred to above were coming into play. We listened to Quartet Nos. 1 and 2 with this in mind. I am sure that you are not surprised that we were determined to stay for more when the intermission arrived--plus, there was pizza!
    After a lovely luncheon repast, where we were able to mingle with the musicians, we settled in for Quartet Nos. 3 and 4. The recital was in the Gould Rehearsal Hall. The musicians were seated facing each other and the audience encircled the musicians. We were encouraged to change our seats and vantage point, which David and I did. This has helped me remember what I heard during which quartet because I could envision where I was sitting and only had to narrow it down to two quartets! These quartets are known for their dissonant qualities, though I think we have become more accustomed to dissonance. Bartok creates a lot of texture in his quartets. This particularly came through in this segment (at least, that is what I noticed from this vantage point--all the texture for pizzicato, ponticello, using the back of the bow to strike the string (col legno--I had to look that up!) snapping the string so hard that it hits the sound board. Bartok used all sorts of techniques in an experimental manner. Was he freed up by his use of folk music? In the Quartet No. 4, the harmony was such that it sounds like another instrument, such as an accordion is in the mix. It was an extraordinary effect.
    You know by now that we stayed for the whole project. After a break with cake, we reseated for Quartets Nos. 5 and 6. It was a bit of serendipity that as we moved, the musicians changed their arrangement. The viola and cello were across from each other and the two violins likewise opposite each other. I was able to see the violist for every quartet. This pleased me immensely. Presentations around Quartet No. 5 centered on mathematics, nature and Bartok's love of symmetry. My ears perked when the discussion covered some of the same territory that I addressed when talking about my ideas about harmony, including the golden mean and the Fibonacci sequence (please see my blog, Harmony...naturally, 2-9-17) . Abigail Fayette, violin, passionately spoke of how Bartok's compositions were complex and yet simple; like nature. I felt this explanation most acutely during the two 'night music' movements, the second and fourth, when I could hear the night sounds; harmonious bullfrogs and gentle wind through the grasses.  Quartet No. 6 was Bartok's last full piece composed in his homeland of Hungary. He knew he would be leaving. It is full of his sadness: Mesto, Mesto, Mesto, Mesto--all four movements.

A cake for The Bartok Project, cut in golden mean proportions, third by third, in layers of 3 and 5?
     What an opportunity for David and me to learn more about Bartok and have our appreciation grow in such a rich way. The weekend was a reminder to me that sometimes the solution lies in returning with humility to see life in a fresh way and then create.

Monday, April 17, 2017

Industrious Cottage

My work space--scaled to fit my creating and me!
In just over a week I will be taking part in an online workshop to become a SoundWerker* We have been instructed to create a 'sanctuary' for learning, so I've been clearing the decks in my very layered workspace/atelier. The act of clearing allows the basic beauty of this space to re-surface. I love being here even when the horizontal surfaces are loaded! I am surrounded by both possibilities and products of my endeavor. All the materials are at hand and I can sit down and get to work. The bank of windows gives me a three inch clearance when I stand looking out the window. It is like being in a tree house and I can look across the street at the prettiest little house in Lexington. Architectural elements held in common with my former studio which I had to relinquish, abound: stained window trim and beams spanning the ceiling area, not to mention lots of angles. ** David's taborets, which he made from  drawers recycled from our former lake house, hold all my art materials. In my new space, he designed cubbies, making use of otherwise empty space are the place for stashing large tablets and boards. David also crafted several 'hoppers' and a chest which are likewise essential for storage. The paper file  was a hand-me-down from Heike Pickett that is most appreciated!

Building on the past with inspiration from the grandmothers

The space fits important furnishings that have been with me throughout my life. I have the kitchen table from my childhood, an old French table with fat legs, made of oak. It is the table that supported my baking habit. The old wooden case for my maternal grandmother's harp aligns perfectly with the slope of the ceiling and holds my fabric stash, fabrics that I use to make aprons (a constant in the wardrobe of my paternal grandmother.) Last summer's project, Redbud-the-harp, stands at the ready between the taborets and the old oak table. I can sit down in the midst of things and work out an issue  (or a kink!) while looking out the window as the trees transition from bloom to leaf.
Artificial arboration decoration
Right now, I'm working at a desk that I thought would be great for David, but is perfect for me and my laptop. There aren't any trees to look out upon, so I created some artificial arboration.

The lower workshop: for framing and now a bit of woodworking

An older space in the house is also put to use. Once David's domain, I have invaded. The barrier was earlier broken when we placed our exercise equipment in the basement workshop. I had plenty of time to think about the space while I was cycling and rowing. I use the kids' old work table for framing and now I seem to be making some instruments out of user-friendly Musicmakers kits.*** As I mentioned, Redbud now resides up in the atelier. Cherry Bloom is coming together in the basement workshop.
Cherry Bloom the Old World Lyre receives her first coat of finish
I suppose that the kitchen is also a place of industry in our house. Fortunately for me, David is invading that territory and he makes a couple of dinners a week while I am down in the basement sanding or upstairs working on a painting or playing Redbud. Life is a lot more fun when I am making things (and it isn't always supper)!

* I am studying through the SoundWerk Certification Course, Lynda Kuchenbrod, Director. The mission is to use the healing power of music, sound and vibration made by plucked instruments. Interested? See

** We are so grateful for the sensitive and excellent work of Graham Pohl of Pohl Rosa Pohl. He listened carefully to what we wanted and designed the perfect space! He also told us when something was not going to work and he designed with structural integrity in mind.

*** If you have ever dreamed of making an instrument, I highly recommend Musicmakers. Their directions are written in a thorough, but light and encouraging way. I was a complete novice when I made my harp, Redbud. They have all kinds of instruments. I love that Musicmakers is also encouraging the return to the informal making of music through their instrumental offerings. For more information, see: