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Cinnamon Bay, St John, US Virgin Islands

I'll admit, my last summer at Bread Loaf was a tough one.  Five years is a long time to commit to any program when you're 20, and by the time I reached that fifth, final summer, I was like a marathoner near the end of the race, hitting the wall.  It took all I had to finish.

What does one do with two liberal arts degrees and no prospects?  Ready to leave the Rosebud Cafe, I went down the street to another restaurant.  I waited tables, managed the floor, and eventually worked my way up to general manager.  I applied to a doctoral program in Colorado and was accepted with a scholarship, but I decided I didn't need a doctorate to write, so I didn't go.  Soon, the personal computer arrived on the scene, and a friend quit the restaurant to work for a computer store in Burlington.  I'd already bought one to write on and had done some tinkering, so he suggested I apply for a job.  I did, and was made service manager right away.  (Back in those days, if you could read a manual and make a phone call, you could fix anything.)  After a short time, I was hired away by a video production and duplication firm, where I installed and supported a network,  custom-wrote software and managed the accounting, manufacturing and order fulfillment systems.  Finally, a large law firm hired me to manage their network and communication systems between several offices, as well as to lead special projects.

During this time, I continued to write.  I published some poetry, and though I knew there wasn't a living to be made with it, I continued.  But I wanted to make a faster move into the writing world, so I decided I might have better luck with science fiction and fantasy.  I had several stories published in magazines and anthologies, and was even invited as a guest to speak at a couple of "cons" or science fiction conventions.  I joined the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America as a professional, which meant I was actually being paid for my fiction.  (This kind of writing requires the writer to conjure up a believable landscape for the reader; I dug into my experience as an explorer of local landscapes to create my worlds.)  But the pay for an entry-level writer in this genre is only pennies—three or four of them—per word.  Persistence may have paid off eventually, but I realized there were many who wrote better science fiction than I ever would.  I needed to to get serious if I wanted to leave my day job.  So, I began to write articles for newspapers and magazines, which paid more.  Mostly, the articles went to local and regional publications.  But my crowning glory was a feature in Caribbean Travel & Life, on a trip I'd taken to the British Virgin Islands.

East End of St John, USVI

On a boat, somewhere in the Caribbean

For several years, I'd taken an annual, two-week vacation in the US Virgin Islands.   I enjoyed a small, comfortable group of friends who liked Cinnamon Bay in the US Virgin Islands National Park, and each winter, we'd endure Vermont as long as we could before flying down.  There were never more than four of us, and we camped to keep things affordable.  I loved my time there, as it was all about the landscape, both above and below the water line.  I'd rise at dawn to run over the steep, jungly hills from Cinnamon Bay to Waterlemon Cay, past groves of calabash, tamarind and bay rum trees; through a mangrove swamp that clattered with the movements of duppy crabs, the entire population of which vanished the moment it felt my footsteps; and past glimpses of distant green islands suspended along the blue horizon.  Later in the day, I'd go snorkeling.  Snorkeling in the clear, warm water was akin to flying—something I do in my dreams.  I tried to learn all the fishes and corals, and I especially liked the sergeant majors, which were the most colorful.  I did a little sketching on these trips, too.

Our campsite at White Bay Campground,
Jost Van Dyke, British Virgin Islands

Ivan Chinnery, at the Stress-Free Bar

And then I married.  Trina liked to travel, so travel we did.  We went back to the Caribbean, this time on trip that took us on a tour of St John, Tortola, Virgin Gorda, Anegada and, our favorite, Jost Van Dyke.  It was this trip that I wrote about for Caribbean Travel & Life.  Over the years, we went back repeatedly to Jost to stay at White Bay Campground, which was run by 7th-generation native Ivan Chinnery.  Ivan also ran the Stress-Free Bar and Local Flavour Restaurant, made charcoal and built lobster traps.  He seemed content in his life, doing a little bit of everything to get along.  He would be the inspiration for our departure from the rat race years later.

Crosssing the river at White House Ruins,
Canyon de Chelly National Monument

Snowflurries on "Wall Street" in
Arches National Park

We even made it to Big Sur

Trina and I took every opportunity we could to travel, as traveling got us through the years.  My computer job gave me the benefit of traveling twice a year for conferences.  I always built a little vacation time into the trip, allowing me a taste of different landscapes.  This provided my first introduction to the American Southwest.  After one conference in Dallas, we rented a car, escaped the city as soon as possible, and drove 1500 miles.  We went camping in the Guadalupe Mountains, hiked down into Carlsbad Caverns, and enjoyed camping in the backcountry of Big Bend National Park.  (At one campsite, along the trickle of water that constituted the Rio Grande, down by Santa Elena Canyon, the temperature read 103 degrees at sundown; this was on March 3rd.)  Another conference took us to Las Vegas, and from there, we toured the interior of Hoover Dam, visited the red rocks of Sedona, climbed down into Grand Canyon and spent a night along the Colorado River at Phantom Ranch, poked around in the Petrified Forest and Painted Desert, explored Canyon de Chelly National Monument, hiked Utah's Arches and Canyonlands National Parks—it was a 1200-mile whirlwind tour, and I loved every moment of it.  Even though a slice of Mississippi mud pie in Moab gave me food poisoning, the positive energy of the trip allowed me to hike Angel's Landing in Zion National Park the next day.  It was these trips to the Southwest that planted a desire in my heart to live there some day.

Hiking down with crampons into
Grand Canyon after a snowstorm...

...and then taking a break along the
Colorado River at the bottom.


As for where we lived when not ranging across the US, we stayed in rural Addison County, Vermont, occupying a succession of old farmhouses.  One of Addison County's best features is the variety of landscape, and our love of variety is what kept us there for so long. Each house we owned gave us a different rural experience: lakes and ponds, streams and creeks, hills and mountains, dairy farms and wood lots.  Over time, the house sales gave us a nest egg big enough to change our lives.

After a time, we grew restless.  Vermont summers seemed to get muggier, and for the first time, I started seeing ticks.  Yet Vermont winters continued to be harsh.  I'll never forget chopping my car out of the ice one morning when it was 30 below zero.  We had dreams—wasn't it time to follow them?  For many years, writing in the hours before dawn and before work satisfied me. 

But now it was time for something different: New Mexico.  (To be continued.)
--- Michael Chesley Johnson, AIS PSA MPAC PSNM www.MChesleyJohnson.com
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Beneath the Bridge 9x12 Oil
Not painted during my time living in Middlebury,
but many years later, from life


(Missed some parts of this memoir? You can read all of the memoir posts here.)

As I look back on my life and my love of landscape—and as I bring my readers along on this journey—I ask myself the question, as I’m sure my readers will:  Why did I not continue painting the landscape for so many years after leaving college?

Painting the landscape is just one manifestation of my love of landscape.  I also read, write and think about it.  I walk within it and photograph it.  I enjoy other artists’ depiction of it.  I watch films with one eye keen on the landscape as the hero moves through it.  In short, my yearning for a deep relationship with the landscape can be satisfied in many ways.  Sometimes, I’m the maker and, other times, I take what the maker makes.

So it’s no surprise to me that there were periods in my life when I didn’t paint the landscape.  In fact, between my time as an undergraduate in Georgia and when I left Vermont for New Mexico—more than twenty years—I did very little painting at all.  Yet my immersion in the landscape during that time was rich and fulfilling.

Although the Bread Loaf School of English was a five-summer program (to which you had to be invited back each summer and, no, not everyone was), I completed my degree in four summers.  I did it, however, over five years, taking one summer off.  To do it in four summers, I worked on an independent study one year, for which I researched and wrote my thesis on Auden, and took a couple of extra seminars one summer.

During those years, I returned once to Georgia to work, but I remember little of it.  (Inspired by Thoreau, I have kept a journal since I was 17; it now occupies 37 hardbound notebooks, crammed with tiny marks that constitute my handwriting, so I leave it to some future biographer to parse through it and determine exactly where I was when.)  Mostly,  I stayed in Middlebury and worked at the Rosebud Cafe.

Middlebury Falls, during a spring thaw

One of my logos designed for the Rosebud Cafe

I didn’t have a car for many years, so I always lived a short stroll from Main Street, except for a brief time when I lived a few miles south in another village.  In Middlebury, I first shared an upstairs apartment with a fellow Bread Loafer from Colorado who tended bar at the Rosebud.  I later shared an apartment with a Midd grad who tended bar at the historic Dogteam Tavern.  And for a few months, I shared a farmhouse in Orwell, where I borrowed a friend’s Volkswagen so I could get to work.  (Yes, another bartender, who worked at a local dive, the Alibi; when you work in restaurants, your friends tend to work in the same field.)  Night driving was not fun, because the car's headlights emitted about as little light as a couple of fireflies.  But mostly, I lived in Middlebury so I could walk.

The Rosebud Cafe, which gave me both employment and a social life, sat at the intersection of Main Street, just a few shops down from the bridge that spanned the falls of Otter Creek, and Frog Hollow, where the Vermont Craft Center and the Alibi were located.  Although many alumni of the college probably remember the “‘Bud” as being a popular bar, it was also a restaurant that had two levels; it served a sort of Middle Eastern cuisine (think humus, pita bread and tabouli) on the upper Main Street level but pizza on the lower Frog Hollow level.

A small ad I created

At the end of my first summer at Bread Loaf, I vowed to stay in Vermont.  I got a ride from a fellow student down the Mountain (as we called it) to Middlebury, where I was dropped off to look for a job and a place to stay.  The Rosebud was the first place I walked into.  The bartender flagged down the manager for me, who hired me as a sandwich maker without experience.  (I later would learn the difference between mayonnaise, which my family had never used, and Miracle Whip, which had been a staple in our kitchen, when an annoyed customer sent back a tuna salad sandwich that I had made with the latter.  We had run out of mayonnaise, so I’d been sent out to get some but had come back with Miracle Whip, not knowing any better.)  As for lodging, I found a boarding house up the street and near to campus, where I stayed a couple of weeks before finding an apartment to share.

There are many stories I might tell about my days at the Rosebud, but I’ll save those for another time.  For me, the years in Middlebury were a time of personal exploration.  I discovered that I contained an interior landscape that was as new to me as was the physical, exterior one I had moved to.  I began to write seriously, mostly poetry.  In addition to my prose journal, I kept a poetry journal,  and I spent a great deal of postage on sending manuscripts out.  I was encouraged by Robert Pack, the poet who first taught at and later served as director of Bread Loaf, after hearing my work at a reading I gave.  Some poems got published, most did not.

Middlebury College and the town itself are inextricably entwined, like arteries and muscle, both geographically, financially, culturally and politically.  They might be considered to comprise a single organism.  Middlebury today has a population of 8500—only a thousand more than when I lived there—and most people consider it still quaint.  Part of its charm, besides the small-town-look, is what’s around it.

Surrounding Middlebury are many square miles of farmland—cornfields, dairy farms, woodlots of maple, pine and hickory—and through it all runs Otter Creek.  Otter Creek, the longest, northern-flowing river in the US, wanders lazily from Rutland, through Pittsford and Brandon, then under the Main Street bridge in Middlebury where it cascades over an 18-foot drop, only to continue on through Weybridge and Vergennes, and finally Fort Cassin, where it merges with Lake Champlain.  I explored as much of these fields and woodlots as I could, on foot.

Although the town itself offered many pleasant walks along its tree-lined streets, I preferred the wilder places.  I explored muddy Otter Creek, starting at the covered bridge off Seymour Street, and hiking over banks and rocks.  I walked every country road that allowed me to do a loop, and sometimes I found a trail that went off into the woods.  Chipman Hill, the highest point in town, was a favorite.  Between these walks and my expeditions for getting groceries at Stan’s Meat Market and trucking laundry back and forth in a backpack to the laundromat, I got in a lot of walking.

Middlebury had an office supply store.  It also sold art supplies.  As a writer and artist, I felt doubly blessed.  It was here I discovered the Rapidograph pen.  I bought several.  Although I didn’t paint during this time, I began to do freelance graphic design:  newspaper ads, menus, brochures.   Many were for the Rosebud, but also for some other businesses.  I loved how that little, needle-like point floated so effortlessly over my paper, creating beautiful marks.  Over time, I began to incorporate markers and colored pencils into my work.  This was something I continued doing, long after I left Middlebury.

Cat doodles


But the moments walking were what really satisfied my soul.  Blue chicory and white queen-anne’s-lace doing their late summer dance along the roadside.  In the fall, when the leaves in valley were still golden, catching a glimpse of snow-covered Camel’s Hump, thirty miles away, a harbinger of winter.  Walking home at 2 a.m. from work, with the snowflakes gently spinning down under yellow streetlights and the drifts whispering beneath my boots.  Then in early spring, the peepers singing, filling the night with promise.

When I finished my last summer at Bread Loaf, one of my sisters and her husband came all the way from Georgia to see the graduation ceremony at the Little Theater.  Afterward, I still had my job waiting for me at the Rosebud—but the ownership there had changed, and I felt it was time to move on.  Still, I would spend the next twenty years in Vermont.  (To be continued.)


Another doodle, 12x12

A small test design, which became...
The Ultimate Chaos Behind Order
9.75 x 8.25 colored pencil, ink

--- Michael Chesley Johnson, AIS PSA MPAC PSNM www.MChesleyJohnson.com
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The Bread Loaf Inn, before Bread Loaf
(Photo: Middlebury College)
(Missed some parts of this memoir? You can read all of the memoir posts here.)

Just after I finished college, my best friend committed suicide.  There’s no need to go into details.  I was devastated.

Before that but soon after graduation, our tight group of creatives parted.  For me, the suicide was the final cut.  (It would be decades before I would reach out to those friends again.)  Some powerful impulse, an impulse I still can’t rationalize or define, made me break away completely—I couldn’t even force myself go to the funeral.  And, as much as I had enjoyed my time in Athens, I’d already made plans to escape the South.

I had applied to and been accepted at Middlebury College’s graduate program, the Bread Loaf School of English, in Vermont.

Robert Frost in his cabin near Bread Loaf
(Photo: Middlebury College)
The Frost Cabin
(Photo: Aiken1986 [CC BY 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)],
from Wikimedia Commons)

I’d always admired Robert Frost’s work, and his poetic descriptions of the landscapes of New England painted a romantic view that enchanted me:  stone fences, snowy pastures, gentle hills edged with maple trees.  It reminded me of New Jersey, where I remember more snow than I probably actually experienced there, and it made me quite homesick.  Frost had taught at Bread Loaf in the school’s early days.  I felt that his spirit, which surely still looked down upon those pastures and stone fences, would inspire me in some way.

Bread Loaf is different from most graduate programs.  Designed for school teachers, who ordinarily teach from late summer through spring, it runs only in the summertime.  A master’s degree through the school takes five summers.  Even though I had a tuition scholarship each summer, I was grateful for having the rest of the year off, as this would allow me to make a living.  My intention was to stay in Vermont and survive.

I had, at the time, no clue what that living would be.  My work experience was very limited, since I didn’t have a job during high school, and I got my B.A. in three years by attending college year-round.  But, over the years, I’d pushed wheelchairs in a hospital, planted azaleas for a nursery, and washed glassware and cleaned out rabbit barns for a laboratory that made medical diagnostics.  In Middlebury, however, when not at Bread Loaf, I worked at the Rosebud Cafe.  Of course, I wanted to be an artist and a writer, and I believe that many creatives take lowly jobs to secure peace of mind so they can pursue their heart’s desire in the after hours.  These jobs, which didn't require any energy or attention outside of the work day, seemed fitting.

But more about making a living later.  Right now, I want to tell you about my time at Bread Loaf.

Me, settled into Cherry Cottage

Bread Loaf has been described, somewhat tongue-in-cheek, as a “summer camp for adults.”  In fact, the campus indeed was once a resort, built by wealthy philanthropist Joseph Battell back in the 1860s.  It occupies a bucolic parcel of hayfields and spruce forest along the east branch of the Middlebury River with a view of Bread Loaf Mountain.  In Battell’s day, carriages journeyed there regularly over a single-track dirt road.  (Once cars were invented, Battell refused to let them travel on “his” road to the resort, insisting on letting only horses through.)   Today, a twisty paved road takes you there from Middlebury in the Champlain Valley and up into the woods that surround the hill town of Ripton, where just past town the trees give way to Bread Loaf and its centerpiece, the Bread Loaf Inn, which is a rambling, Second Empire structure.  Several other buildings, including the Barn, where classes are held, line the road.  I had the pleasure of living in tiny Cherry Cottage during the summers.  It has a shady, wrap-around porch with wicker-backed rocking chairs and, when I was there, thickets of sweet-smelling fern a yard deep edging the porch.

As for Bread Loaf being a summer camp, I will say that the students not only work hard but also play hard.  Faculty, all cream-of-the-crop at their home institutions, come from Princeton, Harvard, Oxford and other top-notch schools, so you can imagine how rigorous the coursework must be.  But the classes are held mostly in the mornings, leaving the afternoons and evenings free.  In my time, each student brought a typewriter, and the campus echoed with a perpetual clacking; you’d think a plague of locusts had descended.  Besides studies, though, there was softball, volleyball and soccer; theater practice and performances; poetry readings in the Blue Parlor; and evening lectures.  There was also the Fourth of July Parade, in which I took part each summer, donning a Revolutionary War costume from the theater department.  The parade lasted about fifteen minutes and consisted of walking first one direction on the only street in Ripton, and then reversing .  Ripton is a very small place.

For me, Bread Loaf was all about the landscape.  (My master's thesis, by the way, was on W.H. Auden's use of landscape in his poetry.)   I remember walking the pebbly, slippery bottom of the East Branch in sneakers, with golden pools of sunlight illuminating the water, and green fir and spruce edging the boulder-clad stream.   I remember the northern lights one Independence Day, the long, slowly-twisting colors like breeze-rippled banners high overhead, while I sat in an Adirondack chair in a hayfield.  I remember a sweltering day when I hiked along the narrow ribbon of pavement that cuts the campus in half and headed off into the woods on a gravel forest road and found a trailhead hidden among the cool ferns.  I remember another hot day, after a trip to town, the long, twisting drive back up the mountain from the flats, over stream and through woods, feeling the air cool down, one degree at a time, in each mile.

I didn't paint during those years.  Instead, I drew and sketched.  One summer, my roommate wasn't a student but on staff, a stage carpenter who built sets for the plays that would be performed at the Little Theater.  He found a long roll of kraft paper, which we taped to the wall of our room, and we spent the summer creating a landscape on it that included bits and pieces of Bread Loaf moments.  At the summer's end, we rolled up our mural and hid it in the library as a sort of time capsule.  (It may be there still.)   I also drew covers for The Crumb, the newsletter that was stuck between the salt and pepper shakers on the dining tables at lunch, as well as covers for some of the play programs.  Mostly, however, I walked and wrote and steeped myself in the landscape.

It was in my Rosebud Cafe days that I did most of my drawn or painted landscape explorations. (To be continued.)

My program design for "Heat" by William Hauptman

--- Michael Chesley Johnson, AIS PSA MPAC PSNM www.MChesleyJohnson.com
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The famous arch of the University of
Georgia at Athens.  When I was there, a
man sat on the step, selling peanuts.

Although I loved both art and writing, I chose to enter college as a biochemistry major. This may surprise my readers, but many of us, I am sure, chose a path in our teens that is not our path today. The path seemed a logical one at the time, as both my parents worked in the science field, and I did very well in high school in science and math. I was an Honors student in both subjects every year, won two awards from Georgia Tech as Distinguished Math Student and Distinguished Science Student, and also won a scholarship to study college math at Emory University one summer in a program for advanced high school students. So, science seemed a natural route.

But I quickly discovered college chemistry was much different--and harder--from the chemistry I had studied in high school. At the University of Georgia, my chosen school, the department placed a heavy emphasis on quantitative analysis. Granted, I was in the University’s Honors Program, and the coursework was more difficult, but I learned that I really didn’t care about measuring to the third decimal point with any accuracy. That kind of focus bored me. I suppose I was fortunate in learning early on that I didn’t have the temperament for the sustained rigor required by science.

I’m sure I disappointed my parents by giving up on a career that probably would have guaranteed my financial security. But after choosing to change my major, I felt truly free.  And I’d made the decision on my own.

But which major was it to be? Writing or art? I loved them both.

When did I do this watercolor? High school?
College? I have no idea.

If I’d been aware of the concept of a double major, I likely would have chosen both. In those years, though, it was cheaper to buy a typewriter than to buy art supplies. Even though I went to Georgia on a scholarship, money was still tight. I switched to English Lit.

Unlike my hometown, the University of Georgia and the city of Athens constituted a vibrant, cosmopolitan community. Compared to my previous environment, this was a landscape of bright, shiny objects. I spent all my free time roaming, exploring every nook on campus, plus every street and path that led beyond and into the city and surrounding countryside. I also began to make interesting friends among the people who populated this landscape. Many of them were art majors.

Lamar Dodd

One of Dodd's Monhegan paintings

This was the era of Lamar Dodd. The art department was headed by Dodd, a Georgia native who had studied with the Ashcan School artists in New York and who had achieved membership in the National Academy of Design. Although he was more of a representational painter who underwent fits of modernism, students were encouraged toward novelty. It was a time when Art underwent a sudden explosion of speciation. “Art” split off into Concept Art, Performance Art, Land Art, and even Art About Art. Its evolution in Athens rushed along full-tilt--how could I not have been fascinated with it all?

Beyond my core courses, I crowded my days with electives--among them, an anthropology course on Native Americans of the South, where I learned about making a tea from yaupon holly; a religion course in Buddhism, which I dropped because I couldn’t understand the accent of the Indian teacher; and a music appreciation course, where I learned about John Cage and Subotnick. Strangely, I took not a single art course. Perhaps this is because my art major friends complained how they weren’t being taught anything useful in art school.

The B-52s on that legendary night
(Photo credit: The B-52s)

When not roaming the campus,I filled my nights and weekends with friends, immersed in the gritty music of Patti Smith (Horses  and Radio Ethiopia) and other punk/new wave groups. We also had art talks, often about projects my friends were doing. We also hung out at the house of one of the college professors, a filmmaker, an almost-manic creative type, who entertained us with one novel idea after another. Some of my friends also lived in that house. And I can honestly say that I experienced the now-legendary Valentine’s Day party where the B-52s played their first concert at a private home in Athens.

These were all landmarks in the social landscape, and today I can revisit that landscape in a mental map. While visualizing the routes I took through it, I try to understand how I got from one point to another--and how I might have ended up somewhere else, had I taken different turns with different friends.

Map of Oconee Hill Cemetery

The natural landscape engaged me, as well. One of my favorite spots, where I read my assignments on 17th century poets, was the Oconee Hill Cemetery. Though appropriate for those poets of memento mori, it was also a spot for the Romantics; I read Wordsworth, Keats and Shelly while lounging on the lawn. Another spot was literally right on the Oconee River itself. I discovered an old, broken dam that thrust out into the river, and I could walk across it as if on a balance beam until I had reached the very middle of the flow, and I would then sit, surrounded by bright, sparkling water and the thunder of the flood. Then there were the Botanical Gardens, also along the river. One night, a friend and I “borrowed” shower curtains from the dorm bathrooms to use as ground sheets for a (probably illegal) camping trip there. I remember waking up in the pitch-black night to find the woods around us lit up with luminescent fungi, and then arising in the morning to find a scorpion in my blanket. And to return to the theme of painting, yes, I also took my paint box there and painted with friends. I suppose we were trying to emulate Monet and Renoir painting together at La Grenouillere.

The Oconee River as it runs
through the Botanical Gardens

I don’t remember much of the work I did, other than it was colorful and filled with liquid strokes. This artwork from my college years vanished long ago, and I’m sorry I have no examples to share. (Other than the watercolor of indeterminate date above.)

One day, as I was wandering downtown Athens, I came across an art supply store. The owner, an artist, was stretching canvas, large ones, maybe on four-foot stretcher bars. Somehow, she got the idea that I was a novice, and she offered to show me the technique. I was surprised and grateful for this artist’s generosity, and I try to remember this when students come to me today.

 I'm proud that I received my B.A. in English Lit in three years, after going summers as well as attending during the regular school year.

But then my best friend committed suicide.  (To be continued.)
--- Michael Chesley Johnson, AIS PSA MPAC PSNM www.MChesleyJohnson.com
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One of my first efforts...
...and if my father'd had a color camera,
it might have looked like this.

I've been a landscape painter now for nearly 20 years.  Although I occasionally paint the still life, daub at a self-portrait, or attempt the figure, my preference is and always has been for the landscape.  I love the landscape's visual variety and unexpectedness, the vastness of which seems bounded only by the limitation of my own wanderings.

An introspective moment in the landscape.

Lately, I've been thinking back on my life.  As part of this retrospection, I would like to map this love over the decades, starting with my youth, when I first discovered the natural world's richness.  It seems that the real beginning was in rural New Jersey, when my family and I occupied an antebellum tenant farmhouse somewhere beneath the ridge of Sourland Mountain, not far from the Raritan River.  I don't remember a great deal about the farm, but I do remember expanses of untilled land, overgrown with weeds, scattered with sugar maples and oaks, and with plenty of room for a young boy to roam.  Our driveway—or better, the single-lane road to our house, since it was probably too long to qualify as a driveway—seemed to go miles before hitting the main highway, and it crossed a railroad track.  Once a year, a steam engine would chug across the track, an annual celebration of some sort that we used to drive out to see.  I never walked as far as the track, but I found the fields surrounding our house most interesting, especially in autumn, when little was left but tall grass stalks and the going was easier, and in winter, when the blue shadows of snow made the reds of these grasses even more beautiful.

The farmhouse in New Jersey.

We lived at the farm only a couple of years.  After that, we moved a few miles away to a new house in a new subdivision with a small yard.  Fortunately for me, who had begun to enjoy exploring in my free time, away from school and chores, there were very few houses yet.  It was mostly a landscape of overgrown fields and small parcels, broken open by bulldozers and filled with the kind of weeds that like disturbed land.  A bicycle expanded my horizon, and I discovered beyond my normal walks creeks dipping lazily between hills and woods that seemed to harbor secrets.  I had a wealth of time on my hands to wander.  Did my parents ever wonder what I was up to?

About this same time, I discovered maps and J.R.R. Tolkien.  Maps gave me a bird's-eye view of where I had been and where I might go.  Possessing this near-godlike view of the landscape excited me; although I enjoyed heading out and not knowing where the path would lead, I now also enjoyed having the capability to plot a possibly-exciting new destination.  And Tolkien!  His books added another dimension to my world, a dimension where there were countless more places to go and adventures to seek, even if they were all in someone else's head.  His elves, especially the wood-elves, seemed like kin in their love of trees, and I began to spend time with trees: Woodland trees that enjoyed the company of others as well as solitary trees that rooted along ditch and the edge of fields.  Tolkien, who also loved maps, drew the ones for his books.  Inspired, I began to make my own fantasy maps and to write my own stories.  I discovered a variety of methods to "antique" my maps, most of which involved playing with matches.

Each summer, we made the long drive from New Jersey to first Mississippi and then Arkansas, to visit grandparents, uncles and aunts, and cousins.  (My family roots dig far down into the Deep South on both sides.)  This journey necessarily involved the landscape and its ornaments.  I remember the lights of the bridge over the Delaware as we crossed at night; the crooked roads of the Smokey Mountains and the rocket ship sign outside a  motor court in North Carolina, always a waystop on the trip; the "Vulcan" statue towering over the city of Birmingham, Alabama, and a billboard advertising barbecue that read "Yas, Suh! It's Cooked in De Pit!"; and in our night travels, a dark landscape punctuated by the occasional drive-in theater.  Sometimes I could see heads talking on-screen, with the hum of our tires the only soundtrack.  (At the time, we owned two Valiants, one of which had a push-button transmission.)

My grandparents on their farm in Mississippi.

I always looked forward to arriving in Mississippi, where my grandparents were truck farmers, supplying collards, black-eyed peas, corn, turnips, tomatoes and more to local grocers, as well as milk in 10-gallon cans to the local dairy co-op.  The farm occupied 200 acres, and besides fields, it had several patches of woods, a winding stream and lots of wandering possibilities.  After helping my grandparents in the fields in the mornings, hoeing beans or bunching collards, I spent my afternoons exploring and learning the trees:  pecan, apple and persimmon near the house, and then further out, tulip trees, sweetgum, sassafrass and many acres of pine.  I loved nothing better than to be out in the landscape, roaming.

But my first landscape painting didn't happen until we moved to Georgia.  (To be continued.)
--- Michael Chesley Johnson, AIS PSA MPAC PSNM www.MChesleyJohnson.com
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Overrun 12x14 Oil - Available (includes frame, shipping to lower 48 states)

I wanted to create a companion piece to "The River in Autumn," which I featured in my last post, using Gamblin's 1980 Oil Colors.  I had two nice matching gold frames, and I thought it'd be nice to use the same color palette in a second painting.  With that in mind, I created "Overrun."

First, I put "The River in Autumn" in a frame and created some design sketches.  I also pulled out some pastel sketches I'd made of a similar scene, from which I planned to pull some details as well as color notes:



I found myself especially enjoying the following mixtures:
Yellow ochre + phthalo green (a deep cool green for shadows)
Yellow ochre + ivory black (a deep warm green for sunlit areas)
Ultramarine blue + ivory black (a dulled-down blue for reflections)
and if I wanted an even lighter, warmer and richer note in the water:
Yellow ochre + cadmium yellow light

Here is the first painting again:

The River in Autumn 12x14 oil - Available - (includes frame, shipping to lower 48 states)

And now,  here is how they look together, framed:



Separately, the paintings are $1200 each (includes frame, shipping to the lower 48 states).  But I would like to keep them together as a pair, since they share color palettes and theme.  I'd sell them as a pair for $2000.  Let me know if you can give this nice pair a good home!

I had a great time painting these variations on a theme.  Now I am off on family business for a week, and then I will be back for the winter to paint, write and play with Raku the Firecloud Rez Dog.


--- Michael Chesley Johnson, AIS PSA MPAC PSNM www.MChesleyJohnson.com
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The Big Mountain
9x12 Oil - Available

Plein air painting workshops are difficult.  The instructor tells you, "Okay, I've shown you how to do it – now go out and paint one on your own."  You gather up your gear, walk around a bit...decide that you don't want to paint the same thing as the instructor...so you walk around some more.  Eventually, you've circumnavigated the entire hilltop, all the while scanning both vista and intimate close-ups, hoping for something that will grab you.  Yet nothing does, and the clock continues to tick.  Fear of failure grabs you, and suddenly there's no hope for inspiration.  And now, here comes the instructor, stepping purposefully toward you to critique what you've done so far.

I've seen this happen a great deal in workshops.  (And yes, it's happened to me, too, when I was on the other end of the stick.)  Nothing inspires the student, and that is indeed a desperate situation.  However, there's a solution, right in your bag of gear.  It's the materials you've brought with you.

On the first day of my workshops, I tell my students that we can't always find something to "connect with" or to be inspired by in the landscape—especially in a workshop, when the terrain may be unfamiliar and the situation, intimidating.  To the class, I offer this advice:  Consider the painting session just an exercise, and pick anything, absolutely anything, to which you can apply what is being taught that day.  If I'm teaching atmospheric perspective, pick a vista; if I'm teaching you how to paint a tree, pick a tree.  It really doesn't matter if the subject inspires you or not.

However, if you have an open mind, you may find that your materials themselves may inspire.  The mere act of mixing color and pushing around paint might engage you.  Or, inspiration may come as a part of the process of analyzing the scene.  I personally find it exciting to observe how shadow and light differ; warm here, cool there, more intense color here, more dull color there.  The intellectual pleasure of observing may transform into a heart-felt one, and you  may find that, suddenly, the subject inspires.

At the top of this post is a scene I have painted many, many times as a demonstration for my students.  It illustrates how to capture the luminosity of sunlit rock, as well as sunlight on trees.  For this particular demonstration, I found it hard to be inspired—the scene is so old to me—but once I started mixing paint and making marks, the inspiration came.  I was very pleased with the results.  It's sketchy, but I like this one that way.  It's fresh.
--- Michael Chesley Johnson, AIS PSA MPAC PSNM www.MChesleyJohnson.com
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