In August, VALISE will bring together a powerful mother and son duo for the exhibit “Air & Water.”
Oil painter Hita von Mende and visual poet Jesse Johnson are showing together for the first time. In highly contrasting styles, they both explore the constantly changing landscapes and seascapes of the Pacific Northwest. Von Mende came to the island in 1975, and Johnson was born and raised on Vashon. After a flirtation with the outside world, he returned in 2010 with a 1-year-old in tow, and another baby on the way.
I sat down with Johnson and asked him what it was like to grow up as the son of such a talented, out-of-the-box artist. This is what he said.
“When I was about 5 years old, a group of my mom’s artist friends came over to our house on the north end to paint the outside walls. By the time the painting party was over, we had a starry night on one side of the house, an aquarium on another, a palm-studded sunset (on the south-facing wall, of course), and a great blue wave washing over the side of the house that faced the water (the white of the foam extended well up onto the roof). The word “literally” gets thrown around a little too loosely these days, but I grew up quite literally surrounded by art.
“Thanks to my mom, my life has always been filled with art. She was constantly taking us places either to see art (‘museums have the best bathrooms!’) or to make it. On more than one occasion, she has gotten out painting supplies in the middle of a restaurant and insisted that we do a quick painting while waiting for our food to arrive. And if you’re in the car with her, beware: You will almost certainly be asked to stop at some point so that the two of you can dash off a quick landscape. I have memories of waking up in the back of our old station wagon on the way to a painting workshop — where I would drop little sticks into a stream while she painted for what seemed like an eternity.
“It would be an understatement to say that my mom has been an inspiration to me. She simply is the way most artists aspire to be — big-hearted, open to just about anything, and supremely generous with her own imaginative gifts. And maybe best of all, she isn’t precious about her work. She simply gets it done. Even with a full-time job, she always finds a way to get the paintings painted.”
Johnson has a Ph.D. in English from UCLA, where he taught literature for five years, and a bachelor of arts degree in English from UC Berkeley. He has taught writing to inmates at San Quentin State Prison and at Richard Hugo House in Seattle. Johnson is also a writer of fiction. His first novel was published a couple of years ago, and his second novel is under contract to come out next spring.
— Jiji Saunders is an island visual artist known for founding and directing VALISE Gallery. She is also the executive director of Open Space for Arts & Community.