Imagine the Possibilities

What could be more fun that spring break? If only I were a kid, I’d sign up right away for Spring Break: The Art of Japan at the Arts Council of Princeton, March 29 – April 2, for ages 5-12.

“Journey to a place where past meets present, and discover a contemporary hybrid culture that combines influences from Asia, Europe , and the simplicity of Zen Buddhism,” says the promotional material. “From heroic Samurai to Animé, Spring Break campers will enjoy creating a variety of mixed media art projects (painting, drawing, sculpture and more) that explore this vibrant country. On the last day of camp, campers will be treated to the eye popping cinema of Hayao Miyazaki, a prominent Japanese filmmaker of many popular animated feature films.”

Princeton artist Margaret Kennard Johnson lived in Japan for eight years, and learned the minimalist and simplistic sense of design there. (Above, her print: “Possibilities.”) Although she won’t be teaching at the camp, spring break students can see some of her artwork across the street from the Arts Council at the Princeton Public Library.

Ms. Johnson is a time traveler. Consider some of the titles of her prints and handmade papers: “Anticipation 2000,” “Of Another Time,” “Beyond,” “Into the Unknown,” “Reaching 2000,” “A Long Time Journey” and “Of Now.”

In fact, the Ms. Johnson has done a bit of traveling through the years. Born in Ohio, where her mother, Florence Lett Kennard, taught art at the College of Wooster, she attended Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, then went to Michigan to get a master’s degree at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor.

Next she went to North Carolina, where she studied design at the now defunct Black Mountain College with Josef Albers, a printmaker and designer associated with the Bauhaus School of Design in Germany. Then it was off to Texas and Iowa for various teaching positions.

She landed in Princeton in 1948, then spent a year in Zurich in the mid-’50s with her husband, Ed, an electrical engineer and research physicist for RCA Corp. It was in Zurich that she was influenced by medieval European architecture, and old archways, city walls and medieval towns became images of her prints.

In 1975, the couple moved to Tokyo for eight years, where her art work was influenced by Japan’s simplicity. Since then she has traveled on all seven continents, including Antarctica.

But the real time traveling began after Ed Johnson developed cancer. “Before that, I had taken the future for granted,” said the artist. The threat to her husband’s future “made me think more of the present.”

The predominant themes in the artist’s work are time and space – “the infinite,” according to Michael Verne, writing about Ms. Johnson in “Japan: Through the Eyes of Nine American Artists” (Charles E. Tuttle Co., 1997).

When Ms. Johnson toured Antarctica in 1988, she found she could “look out into eternity through clear air, until it dropped away in the blue horizon… It was like a religious experience,” she said, “to see into infinity. I began to think of spatial unknowns, as well as the unknowns of time.”

“My work has involved imagining mysteries of the past and future,” she continued. “The print approach is good for antiquity, or past mysteries.” For the mysteries of space, Ms. Johnson uses mesh – mushroom bags, wedding veils, orange bags, black mourning veils.

“With mesh, I can show the magic and mystery of the unknown,” she said.

Ms. Johnson’s printmaking technique, as demonstrated one afternoon in her Princeton home studio, starts off with a cardboard plate, like a matte board. Using an architectural doodle she made while on the phone as inspiration, she incises the design into the cardboard, then covers it over with modeling paste and gesso to give it texture.

Sometimes she may throw in sundry household items, like straws, for texture. She covers this over with spray adhesive and heavy duty kitchen foil, then runs it through the press. The ink is rubbed into the lower levels of the design, the top surface is wiped, and the image is printed onto the dampened paper.

Unlike etching, this intaglio relief, or dry point, uses no acid, because the artist is able to scratch into the plate. In his book on Japanese influenced American artists, Michael Verne writes of Ms. Johnson’s work: “The technique and the imagery may be simple; the print may have taken about a week to complete; but the idea took a lifetime to develop.”

When the work becomes too loose or free flowing, Ms. Johnson uses rectilinear forms to structure it. Josef Albers, with whom she studied at Black Mountain College, had been known for his homages to the square, and the less-is-more concept in design. “I studied with him for only one summer, but I learned so much. It had to do with the relativity of one shape to another, of one color to another.” Albers taught that color changes in relationship to other colors.

Not only did Albers’ philosophy influence her work, it influenced her life, she said. “The ideas were so basic – what do you have as priorities in your life? What do you emphasize or not?” Albers knew what he had to put between the objects as well as the objects themselves, she said.

Several of Ms. Johnson’s works are structured by what appears to be a horizontal line with little blobs of orange. These blobs are actually rust, and the line is an iron wire embedded in the paper.

Ms. Johnson calls the rust spots a “collaboration” between the artist and the material. The wire “gives a clean line to the contrast of the softer edges of the papers.”

These wires are actually leftovers from a class she taught at the Museum of Modern Art in New York for 25 years, starting in the 1950s. Similarly, while in Japan, she collected papers, not knowing when she would get back (she has returned to Japan eight times since living there). Ms. Johnson believes that paper is not a passive medium to receive an image, but an interactive part of the work of art. If there were a bumper sticker that said, “She who dies with the most Japanese papers wins,” it would belong on the back of Ms. Johnson’s car.

There is no doubt that Japan has held a strong influence on Ms. Johnson. Although she didn’t live there until she was 57, Japan has always been a theme in her life. Sitting in the living room of her home, looking out the large glass doors, one sees a Japanese garden, designed long ago by late Princeton resident and Japanese garden expert Polly Fairman.

There is a coffee table that has been made from an antique Japanese shop sign for kimono fabrics. There are books on Japanese art everywhere, and sofas, chairs and a dining table designed by Japanese American furniture designer George Nakashima.

Even the stone sculpture she made before her children were born, in the 1950s, exhibits a Japanese influence.

When she moved to Japan, everything Josef Albers taught came flooding back. “In Japan, silences are considered as important as what is said,” related Ms. Johnson. “I was really ripe for the experience, the subtleties and spareness.”

While in Japan, her work got simpler and simpler, with a more minimal approach to design. She remembers a shrub in front of her Tokyo apartment “that flowered in February, like a prelude to spring.” A Japanese friend told her the smell was too strong. “They dwell in subtleties,” she said.

While in Japan, she wrote  “Japanese Prints Today: Tradition with Innovation,” through the eyes of 22 Japanese artists. Required reading for Spring Break?

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