Exquisite Gorge 7: The Explorer

Printmaker and teacher Molly Gaston Johnson follows Lewis & Clark's westward path to make her mark on Maryhill's Columbia River project

Molly Gaston Johnson and her river of wood.

STORY AND PHOTOGRAPHS BY FRIDERIKE HEUER


Maryhill Museum of Art’s planned print day of its Exquisite Gorge project is approaching fast. Hopefully there is a chance to portray each of the participating artists and their work before August 24. Let me introduce today another one of the print makers who I had a chance to talk to in the last several days.

Molly Gaston Johnson, Printmaker and Educator

THE EXQUISITE GORGE PROJECT

“…a collaborative printmaking project featuring 11 artists working with communities along a 220-mile stretch of the Columbia River from the Willamette River confluence to the Snake River confluence to create a massive 66-foot steamrolled print. The unique project takes inspiration from the Surrealist art practice known as exquisite corpse. In the most well-known exquisite corpse drawing game, participants took turns creating sections of a body on a piece of paper folded to hide each successive contribution. When unfolded, the whole body is revealed. In the case of The Exquisite Gorge Project, the Columbia River will become the ‘body’ that unifies the collaboration between artists and communities, revealing a flowing 66-foot work that tells 10 conceptual stories of the Columbia River and its people.”


 Louise Palermo, Curator of Education at Maryhill Museum


Imagine being told since the time you sat on your father’s knees that you are a descendant of Lewis & Clark. Lewis AND Clark! Being regaled with lively tales of hardship and adventure, what is a little girl to do but fall in love with the outdoors and embrace most forms of risk-seeking ventures – it is practically written into your DNA. Well, perhaps not practically, but theoretically. Who knows about the factual truth of the family lore?

It would not matter, in any case, in my opinion. Aren’t many of us guided by narratives that make perfect sense of our lives and motivate us, regardless of whether they’re based on facts? Who needs 23andMe – there is power in (potential) myth!

(There are, of course, also facts in the history books – Lewis never married and had no children, and died as a suicidal alcoholic despite having been awarded the governorship of the Louisiana Territory after the successful mission of surveying it from the Mississippi River to the Pacific Ocean. Not exactly great-great-grandpa material. Maybe he had siblings?)

Molly Gaston Johnson

The person I am referring to is Molly Gaston Johnson, an accomplished artist and educator who has at least two things in common with Lewis & Clark, for sure: She, too, traveled here from the East Coast to see new vistas, and she never shied away from challenges that life threw her way. She had never been to the West Coast before signing on to the Exquisite Gorge project and was eager to explore yet another natural and artistic environment within a short window of time before she had to return to send off her firstborn to college.

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Johnson, who is based in Ocean Grove, New Jersey, is a fascinating study in contrasts. I met her in the courtyard of Hood River Valley High School on a day where blustery winds twirled dust all around us, momentarily cooling an intense sun. Sitting in limber posture on her wood block, she bent her spine with an ease that was the antithesis to her steely concentration on the carving. Unassuming, warm, seemingly lacking in any vanity, she did not reveal spontaneously that she has a rather stellar set of accomplishments. I had to pry, the-not-so-subtle art of interviewing.

At work carving the wood block. Must have an excellent Yoga teacher or the gift of good genes….

Educated at James Madison University under the tutelage of renowned artist Jack McCaslin, she received a full fellowship to study and earn her MFA in printmaking at Ohio State University. Here is a condensed bio that shows her impact on art and education ever since:

“She has worked in museum education at Washington, D.C.’s Corcoran Gallery of Art, taught printmaking to graduate students at Virginia Tech’s school of architecture, worked at the National Endowment for the Arts managing federal partnerships focusing on youth and prevention issues, and currently teaches art history, treks all around New Jersey as a teaching artist, and is developing an Art and Literacy initiative in a partnership between the Newark Museum and the Newark Public School system. She has received many awards including recognition with a New Jersey Governor’s Award for Distinguished Teaching Artist in 2012.”

Much of Gaston Johnson’s work has been concerned with helping other professionals, at institutions as well as in educational settings, to embrace art and art-making as a teaching tool, even in domains that are not necessarily thought to be related to art. From plugging artists into prison education, to persuading traditional STEM classrooms that art can help to communicate concepts, she has focused on education as well as the professional development of others. Details about the YoungAudiences program that makes use of her talents can be found here.

Her own printmaking studio, Social Animal Press, in Ocean Grove, New Jersey, where she practices woodcut, lino-cut, silkscreen and intaglio forms of printmaking, is just one part of these diverse endeavors, some more unusual than others. After Hurricane Sandy, the deadliest and most destructive hurricane of the 2012 Atlantic hurricane season, for example, she received an individual artist grant from the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation and Arts Horizons for an art project placing handmade tables throughout the devastated city of Ashbury Park for providing spaces to talk and grieve together. 

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There is a stillness in and around the artist when she is at work that stands in stark contrast to the whirlwind mobility required in her professional life, raising two daughters while trying to make a living as an artist. A semblance of this contrast can be found in the design of her wood block, which depicts swirls of wind, a fluidity across scalloped rather than straight edges, compared to the solidity of the region’s mountains, the rigidity of some lines of speech incorporated throughout and, of course, the unperturbed flow of the Columbia river.

There is a subtle sense of humor hidden within various symbols which are also exploring contrast. The viewer is invited to discover, as one example, the dipper bird who can fly, but dips for food under water, placed above the constellation of the Big Dipper. My kind of stuff, in other words, as anyone who has ever seen my montages will remember, some more appreciative of this streak than others …

The dipper sitting on top of the dipper….

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Gaston Johnson’s section 3 of the Columbia river includes the Bridge of the Gods. Here, too, we find a juxtaposition, one of formation and dissolution. In geological terms, it was a landmass created by a landslide in between 1100 and 1250 A.D., functioning as a massive dam that connected what are now Oregon and Washington. During the last Great Cascadia Subduction Zone earthquake in the 1690s – folks, we are due for another one; don’t postpone dealing with that earthquake kit that has been on your list for ages! – the bridge collapsed, creating the Cascadia rapids that we see today.

The Native American narrative around the Bridge of the Gods has a more poetic explanation, involving love triangles among the region’s mountains, feuding competitors, doomed brides, a guard on the bridge who could not prevent disaster, and the eventual downfall of it all. A detailed telling can be found here.

Sketch and notes on the stories of origin of the region.

Nature forms, nature dissolves; art can document if the artist is sensitive to change and the power that comes with fluidity, even in the context of eons of geological rumblings. Gaston Johnson’s woodblock wonderfully reminds us of this heritage.

Wind swirls

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Hood Rover Valley High School

The words included in the carving were selected from many insightful haikus offered by 70 or so students at Hood River Valley High School, the community partner for this portion of the project. Guided by Carol Birdsell, art, English and humanities teacher, the students shared their perception of the area and what those environments mean for them personally.

Some of the many thoughtful haikus produced by the students.

Birdsell was at work as well on the Sunday I visited, trying to perform miracles in the few days left before school starts, to get the new classroom set up and emptied of chaos.

Studio essentials

Wandering through the deserted building I was once again struck by how much individual contributions of teachers and staff affect successful education. There was much in the room and hallways that spoke to this point.

Carol Birdsell, art, English and humanities teacher, trying her best to make the photographer drop her camera. Man, did I wish I had had engaged, lively, welcoming teachers like her.

There were also the rules for traffic etiquette – I guess a lot of kids drive themselves in an area where they are widely dispersed.

Everywhere, though, there were signs that indicated how much this educational environment is trying to empower students. It also looked like art is taken seriously.

I have no knowledge about this particular school, but in general art and art history (as well as music) education are among the first subjects to get the ax when financial strain for an institution becomes overwhelming. Some teachers simply pick up the slack. Others are too overworked or administratively hampered to do so. But the burden rests with them.

Student art displayed in the studio rooms.

Even though the public generally agrees that art instruction is a necessary part of overall education, fewer and fewer students are exposed to the arts. An NEA report from almost a decade back confirms the shrinking numbers, and it has only gotten worse since. The United States Government Accountability Office (GAO) already confirmed that those worst affected are – surprise – schools with higher percentages of minority students and those designated under No Child Left Behind. Newer reports show this disparity as well.

Encouraging and confidence-promoting words in the hallways.

This is true despite the fact that we have now scientifically controlled studies that confirm our intuitions, providing some hard data for the people holding the purse strings (for the full report go here):

“Through our partnership with the Houston Education Research Consortium, we obtained access to student-level demographics, attendance and disciplinary records, and test score achievement, as well as the ability to collect original survey data from all 42 schools on students’ school engagement and social and emotional-related outcomes.

“We find that a substantial increase in arts educational experiences has remarkable impacts on students’ academic, social, and emotional outcomes. Relative to students assigned to the control group, treatment school students experienced a 3.6 percentage point reduction in disciplinary infractions, an improvement of 13 percent of a standard deviation in standardized writing scores, and an increase of 8 percent of a standard deviation in their compassion for others.”

The fundamental purpose of education goes beyond the basic areas of instruction. True education helps to create citizens who can think independently, critically, and place themselves in a historical context that defines what values we hold or should pursue. People like Gaston Johnson who work in dual roles of artist and educator know that all too well. I wish she didn’t live so far away and could bring her expertise to bear on our own rural or urban communities with underserved school districts and join those already at the frontlines here.

During a time where intolerance is on the rise and democratic values are clearly under attack worldwide, we should be particularly intent on providing the best possible education for all. Art is part of that endeavor. Let us not hesitate to support it.

Marcel Duchamp pops up in Hood River!

This is Part 7 in a series of stories and photographs by Friderike Heuer, published on Oregon ArtsWatch in collaboration with Heuer and her web site YDP – Your Daily PictureIt is also published on YDP, on Thursday, August 15, 2019.

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