In August, VALISE will bring together a powerful mother-son duo for the “Air & Water” exhibition.
Oil painter Hita von Mende and visual poet Jesse Johnson are exhibiting together for the first time. In highly contrasting styles, they both explore the ever-changing landscapes and seascapes of the Pacific Northwest. Von Mende arrived on the island in 1975 and Johnson was born and raised in Vashon. After flirting with the outside world, he returned in 2010 with a one-year-old and another baby on the way.
I sat down with Johnson and asked him what it was like growing up as the son of such a talented and original artist. That is what he said.
“When I was about 5 years old, a group of my mother’s artist friends came to our house in the north to paint the exterior walls. By the end of the painting party, we had a starry night on one side of the house, an aquarium on the other, a palm-strewn sunset (on the south-facing wall, of course) and a big blue wave breaking on the side of the house facing the water (the white of the moss extended well up to the roof). The word “literally” is a bit too vague these days, but I grew up literally surrounded by art.
“Thanks to my mother, my life has always been filled with art. She would take us constantly either to see art (“museums have the best bathrooms!”) Or to make art. On more than one occasion, she took out painting supplies in the middle of a restaurant and insisted that we do a quick painting while we waited for our food to arrive. And if you are driving with her, beware: you will almost certainly be asked to stop at some point so that the two of you can set off through fast moving scenery. I have memories of waking up in the back of our old station wagon on the way to a paint shop – where I dropped little sticks into a stream as she painted for what seemed like an eternity.
“It would be an understatement to say that my mom was an inspiration to me. She is quite simply the way most artists aspire to be – big-hearted, open to just about anything, and extremely generous with her own imaginative gifts. And maybe best of all, she’s not valuable in her job. She just does it. Even with a full-time job, she still finds a way to get the pictures painted.
Johnson has a doctorate. in English from UCLA, where he taught literature for five years, and a Bachelor of Arts in English from UC Berkeley. He taught writing to inmates at San Quentin State Prison and Richard Hugo House in Seattle. Johnson is also a fiction writer. Her first novel was published a few years ago and her second novel is under contract to be released next spring.
– Jiji Saunders is an Island visual artist known for founding and directing the VALISE gallery. She is also the Executive Director of Open Space for Arts & Community.