Derek Johnson Muses

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The Photo that’s Just So Important

Originally, I had tried to think of something to write about a human flaw, just so I could use the photo below in a post. But I struck out, so here it is. Just the photo.

Hometown Store

Hometown Store

I photographed this store on a road trip I took two years ago. It was trip that I took and told no one about, and even now, the only thing I’ll say about it is that it was to one of the most sparsely populated areas of the country. It was a three-day trip. The first day featured glorious weather. The next two featured bothersome rain.

Tell me, is this picture pretty enough to stand on its merit? Do you need to know the name of the town it is in, that I took it in the afternoon, that it is the only significant town for several miles? Do I have through in long exposition about how I rolled into town looking for a coffee shop but didn’t find one, then continuing to push on towards a state borderline? Does it matter that a whole town full of people spent years of their lives walking by this store, and that part of me feels like I traveled a whole world to find it? It is, after all, just a store, sitting out there on the prairie, with so much in between.

Or is this just another desperate ploy on my part to get attention? Probably, but I hope the other stuff matters too.

Writing Starts on the Trail, and Other Techniques

A few weeks ago, I shared a writing technique that I use to jump start myself when I’m down. Today, here’s some more strategies that I use to write.

When I go for an hour walk, I start with a cluttered head and let that head sort itself out. Some people listen to music to get a clear ahead, but that usually does not help me. When I walk, I make mental notes of my most passionate thoughts, and what other thoughts are in association with that main thought. The raw form of a post usually comes out without a specific category. Sometimes it’s an obvious container, like a Nebraska football game or a trip I was on, but when it’s something like a personal update or assessing a book, then it can be tricky to find the starting point. And in this process, the starting point may not be the main point.

When I get home from my walk, I (try to) go to my computer or to a pad, turn on some music, and begin writing. This stage is more about getting all the points out, not putting them in order (that’s rewriting). Once I get going, it usually takes an hour and 500-700 words to get a solid post out, and I almost always go one or two points more than I should. I never outline, although sometimes I just write down one thought to see if anything follows it. If not, I move on.

The rewriting can be the most frustrating. My minimum rewriting requirements is that I get all of the spelling grammar errors out and get the flow working. If it’s a post about TV or movies or something else I don’t see as part of a larger market I’m putting forward, I don’t labor over it like I do my travel posts or my posts on Husker Max. There is a point where the extra labor is not being used productively, although more often than not I could have done more.

The one thing I have learn as a writer is that I will always have more ideas than I will know what to do with. If I type a sentence and nothing else comes, I tear myself away. Some of these I have come back to, others I’ve forgotten. Ideas want to get out, but if nothing follows the initial thought, it’s always good to let be as it is.

And there’s never any shame in sitting on ideas, if nothing coherently comes  The World War Z article was one that I waited to write until the movie came out. I knew back in January it was something that I wanted to write about because of how much the story of Jesika tore at me, but I needed to figure out how. (Frankly, I’m still not happy with the way that post turned out, but that’s the way it goes. At least I got it out.)

Site of most of meditation, on a bright fall night at sunset...

Site of most of meditation, on a bright fall night at sunset…

My Fall Photo Show at the Seward Civic Center: Rails and Rural Stuff

I’ve been mentioning it for a while now, but finally, here’s a post on my show at the Civic Center. Big thanks to Clark Kolterman, Pat, Wayne, and everyone else there for allowing me this great opportunity. In addition to the video, there are a lot of barn, silos, old buildings in small towns, a buffalo, and a boat in a field of grass. (I’m not kidding.)

The reception is going to be Saturday, October 6 from 1-3. RSVP on Facebook and hope to see you there!


Visiting the Chicago Art Institute

After my last trip to visit production fields and test plots, I accomplished one of my important goals for my artistic development and visited the Art Institute of Chicago. I’d walked past it several times, but to go and observe the paintings was something else.

Actually took this photo three years ago, but it’s the best one I have.

My sister and I took the South Shoreline in from La Porte, Indiana, where we enjoyed some quality reading/discussion time. We both agree-it would be so awesome to live someplace where you could ride a train every day to work, so you’d get an hour plus of quality reading time. I’d give up my car for that. After an early lunch at Corner Bakery (the greatest spice-mixing eatery on the earth) and grabbing some Starbucks coffee (they got my drink wrong), we were off to the museum.

Rolling in, we found that we were arriving on free admission day…for Illinois residents. But at least this meant there would be a lot of people in the museum, which I actually do like. I visited the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art on their free admission day, and it’s fun when there’s more people there. It makes it the place to be.

The Institute is way too big for its own good. My sister and I took over four hours and we still didn’t get through everything (although we probably did see over half of it). It took me less time to see every at the SF MOMA. The lesson I learned was don’t waste as much time on the abstracts on the things you don’t care for as much, spend time with photographs, twentieth century paintings, and realist paintings that you like.We didn’t even get to the Lichtenshien special exhibit. 1930’s cartoon have their place, but this is the Chicago Art Institute.

A couple of things stood out on this visit. First, the exhibition Capturing the Sublime: Italian Drawings of the Renaissance and Baroque, collection of strained drawing from the Renaissance, many of them nudes. I started glancing through them and thought little of them. I took first and second glances and found the drawings to be too distant, grayish and emphasizing tendon-like lines. Then I wandered on to the next exhibit and realized that a lot of my black and whites of barns are the same. Later, I came back and compared some of my photos, and there were probably more similarities than I would like to admit. Talk about a good dose of humility.

Asian art I still don’t get. I didn’t get it when I visit the Asian Museum of Art in San Francisco last year, and I don’t get it well. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy connecting with their culture, but overall, I think Asian art might have been the forerunner of the comic book. So many white glass dishes covered in wispy blue lines.But I do like their animal sculptures.

Like this guy

But the real moment of truth for me came when I was observing the American art. While I was sitting on a bench taking in the paintings in a particular room, I was draw to a patch of white light that stood out on a black tower. The painting looked like it was from an industrial city in the 1870’s or something, like Chicago, Dubuque, or Milwaukee. I was captivated by the way the box of light just jumped off the canvas and presented itself to me. I spent the rest of my time looking through the gallery the same way that painting presented itself to me, trying to find the hole of light in the painting.

When I visit an art museum, I love to sit back and soak in what it has to offer me. That’s why I made it a goal to visit the Art Institute in Chicago, and while it’s now my goal to visit the Met in New York, along one other significant art museum in my time in that city. That museum gave me so much new perspective, perspective that I need to grow as an artist and as a writer. Reflecting on it, I know my work has to get better.


Vocation of Writer/Artist

I have a conflict within my vocation as an aspiring writer/artist becomes. As an aspiring artist, it is my duty to follow my heart every day, but as a Lutheran Christian, following my heart causes me grave concern. I have to give into time of free head-space and wandering thoughts, but wandering thoughts in many instances causes me to turn to places I know I shouldn’t go. It is in those moments, I have to run back to the words and sacrament, remember why my Lord and Savior has called me to this life.

In many ways, it leads me on a course where it would be natural to despise God’s Word. The path of an artist is one of finding what is new. Read as many books as you can, listen to every kind of music, travel, met new people, have new experiences.The nature of God’s Word is to read it over and over, keep its sayings close, and there are times when I open it up and find myself bored with it after five seconds. (Previous forlornings on not knowing the scriptures.)

As an artist, you have to accept things as they are. If you can’t photograph a certain barn on the road without power lines getting in the way, then you have incorporate the lines into the photo in the best way. As a writer, you have to find the best way to express yourself. But as a Christian, you have to know that “all things are lawful, but not all things are helpful. All things are lawful, but not all things build up.” (1 Corinthians 10:23). While emotions aren’t wrong, using them as your only guide in life is.

Even as artists, you do have to make judgments about how you present your work. You have to decide what to edit and what to go with, and how to tweak your photos on the computer. There are some directions that an artists just shouldn’t go: even though the nude form is good, not every presentation of it is appropriate. You find a way to express yourself, but if others don’t find it meaningful, then what good is it?

But God is the ultimate authority on what is good, not man. It is He who sends rain on the good and the bad, and this is His creation. I just express it to his glory, Amen.

Heartland Renaissance

There are three demographics articles that I read or heard of in the last year that surprised me, mainly because they’ve mentioned my small home state and the heartland region, as an economic haven. The first was a list of the best cities for young professionals, which included Omaha and Des Moines as number one. The second, which came out this December, listed the top cities to start over in, and included Sioux Falls, Lincoln, Fargo, and Iowa City as number one. Given the small size of Lincoln and Omaha, I never thought much of either city in terms of national importance, but the benefit of being a frugal culture has caused us to recover a whole lot sooner from the economic downturn.

I travel a lot to Michigan and Indiana, the state where my sister lives. It’s not overtly difficult to see why these states plunged into the depths of the recession-too much year-round recreation. Too many middle class families taking too much time at the lakes in winter must have been bad for business. In Nebraska and Iowa, nobody owns summer houses; there is no place within a reasonable driving distance of Omaha or Lincoln to get away to.

I travel a lot in the summer, and I’ve seen a lot of urban renaissance in the mid-sized towns. Sioux Fall, Des Moines, Eau Claire, Dubuque, and Omaha, all have revitalized downtowns centered around rivers, very similar to Twin Cities. None of the shops are as extravagant as Chicago or San Francisco, but each is their own little world. When I see painted park benches overlooking a river or metal statues of wolves and pioneers lining the street, I can really tell that a city cares about its image, and it makes me want to be there.

Statue in downtown Sioux Fall-courtesy of Anita Davis’ blog:

(Direct Link to the photo above)

Even conservative, nice -place-to-raise-the-kids Lincoln has evolved with the times. Since I was in high school ten years ago, the aging Starship 9 second-run theater has been torn down, and finally now, a parking structure is being built to replace it. The Haymarket is a thriving district, although it could use another good restaurant. A couple of rotting building have finally been ripped out of the shady block between 9th, O Street, 10th, and N Street, and hopefully there will be some good replacements. Will Lincoln ever look like the hip college scene that Madison, Wisconsin or Dinkytown in Minneapolis is? Maybe not, but at least things can move in the right direction.

The Lincoln haymarket in the morning.

In processing all this, I am reminded of something that Robert James Waller wrote in The Bridges of Madison County (yes, I’m embarrassed). “The people of Madison County liked to say, compensating for their own self-imposed cultural inferiority, ‘This is a good place to raise kids.’ And she always felt like responding, ‘But is it a good place to raise adults?'”  The answer to that isolationism isn’t to build a fancy downtown in a city of 200,000 and to start new businesses; it is to change from an attitude of isolationism to an attitude of acceptance and mutual support.

Noyes Art Gallery: A Community of Artists

When I first met with Julia Noyes about showing my photographs at Noyes Art Gallery in Lincoln, she told me that she was always looking for something new to show. (Somewhat ironically, she then agreed to let me show my photos of old barns, windmills, and other rural scenes.) Those words have always stuck with me over the last couple of months, that, with photographs, writing, or any other endeavor, a fresh perspective can always change our minds and get us to think differently.

Every time I come into Noyes Gallery, I see something that brightens my day. An old basement window with a bright glass pattern or a chest with detailed paintings always get my attention. The artists of Noyes aren’t full-time artists and paints, photographs, and sculpt in their spare time. Julia herself paints abstracts that jump off the canvas. Kevin Baker makes woods sculptures and paintings that reflect the American Southwest. Tom Sitzman makes metal sculptures. And many others paint wonderful landscapes or ordinary things.

Every months, there are new exhibits in the focus gallery. In January, there were several clay sculptures of bears and people, reminiscent of the mid-twentieth century, and for February it features jewelry, among other things. This month, the Gold Room also features award winners from the Association of Nebraska Art Club award winners, a traveling exhibit that has many inspiring works.

Tomorrow, the gallery will have a special opening for Valentine’s Day from 1 to 3 in the afternoon, and we would love to see you there. You may not be interesting in buying art for yourself, but it never hurts to look and see what our artists are turning out. Our work always makes great gifts, and you can buy it with the pride of knowing that you supported a local business. So whether it’s tomorrow, a First Friday, or any other day, please stop in and sees us. You just might leave with a new perspective on things.

How I Seek to Decorate: Open my Mind and Heart

There are three photos and one poster in my room that face my bed. The three photos are all of suns low in the sky. The first is of a moss-covered, gangly tree in Florida; the sun is positioned perfectly in between where two branches met at the top. The tree looks like a looming monster. The second sunset is in Wyoming, and is set against a tall, slanting hill covered with pine trees. The third, and most recent, I took on the California coast just north of San Francisco. The sun is balanced against a hill that slants to the opposite way than the hill in the other photos. And beside them is noir-ish, 1930’s poster from Yosemite, featuring two yodelers dancing on the edge of a cliff. I have to have at least one fun picture,

Most days, I barely notice these pictures. They are the ghosts of those moments when I linger between sleeping and rising. But whenever I recognize them, I remember the places I’ve been and think about where I’m going, and what I want my life to be. I travel a lot for work and pleasure, and every time I see those pictures, I thank God for the beauty of His creation.

I house-sit for my parents in a two-story duplex. It’s a great house, with more space than you would think from looking at from the outside. Since I started living there five years ago when they moved to Iowa to start a business, I have sought to fill the empty walls with my pictures from all over the Midwest, and the country as well. Landscapes from Death Valley, the waters around the Golden Gate Bridge, and cliffs by the Mississippi have decked our walls at one time or another. Birds, barns, cattle, and flowers all fill-in space, mostly behind corners or in the bathroom.

My main goal with my photo art is to create space and evoke emotion. It is what I love the most about landscapes and rural scenery-finding the right photo can  make a room feel real in a way that you never expected. You don’t need to find something obvious and loud to fill your walls (not that you couldn’t love a bold painting); likely if it’s your house, you won’t spend hours staring at what’s on your walls. The right picture or painting, you’ll walk by it everyday, and it will change the way you look at the world.

Take, for example the photograph that I have in my foray: an early morning clouded sky at Cabrillo National Monument in San Diego, facing a cliff where the Juan Cabrillo Statue stands. I walk by it a lot, when I come down the stairs, or when I come out of the bathroom. Every time I see it, the meldings of blue, light pink, and gray in the sky draw me into it. I always look for the statue, muted and small on the crest of the cliff. I took that photo on the day when my father and I had come to San Diego to attend the Nebraska bowl game, right after a huge snow storm had hit Nebraska on Christmas eve. I was very thankful to be there.

That is exactly the spirit the take when it comes to hanging things on my own walls: find works that inspire good thoughts. It’s more than just filling space, it’s about creating a culture of beauty and consideration, where even the smallest places can be transformed into a place of meaning that make you go Wow.

Kicking it at the Joslyn

Since today was the first Saturday without college football since August, I declared it to be Cultural Enrichment Saturday. And since it is Saturday, I decided to come to Omaha to enjoy a free admission before noon at the Joslyn Art Museum, a privilege the museum grants every week.

Although the Joslyn’s collection isn’t as large a a major city’s museum, it has a lot of great classical pieces and pieces from the American west. Impressionists, photographs, indian artifacts, and even some church art. Today, I came to see two particular shows: American Landscape: Contemporary Photographs of the West, and From Sea to Shining Sea. As a photographer of rural places, I was intrigued to see both shows and see what insights and reflections I could gain.

Rolling up to the Joslyn reminds of why I love coming to Omaha, and cities in general. The marble building, the courtyard full of those cool brass structures. I rolled in, paid a quarter for the peace of mind knowing that my laptop was in a locker (in San Francisco, I could check my bag for free), and hit the gallery. I was drawn in, by the first photo of a waterfall gorge in Colorado in black and white. It looked like two billion things at one place.

American Landscape was a photo shoot of the west, with a modern hashtags of power lines, thrown away plastic bags, and roads. The philosophy of the show was, man’s been in the American west for well over a hundred years. There is simply no way to hide it in photographs, so let’s just show the evidence of humans. So, the mostly black and white series had its share of open plains in the Badlands and Sandhills and remote rocks hills, but it also had abandon homes, farmhouses, railroad grades, and power dams. I went through the series, reading the captions, the sitting on the bench, and letting my eyes drift over the paintings. (Lesson I learned in San Francisco: enjoy the gallery, and let it come to you.)

So I went through that series, and moved on to From Sea to Shining Sea. Which, alas, was no more than proof that comic book were not just a mere late twenty-first century for men with low self-esteem. The paintings were by Currier and Ives, who immediately remembered as a a line from a popular Christmas song. They were colorful, and almost too idealized. These pictures were what must have enticed naïve, non-english speaking immigrants to come west. (Indeed, even one of the captions in the Joslyn’s other gallery admitted that the west was too idealized in paintings, tall tales, and the Wild West Show.) I let this colors pass through my mind and remembered fondly some of the places I’d been. That was all.

I wandered through the neighboring gallery of abstractions, and then back to the American Landscape. I drifted in between pictures, but there was one photograph that kept calling my name. It was a series by a man who took photographs from a plane. The first confounding one was of a mining hill, with a series of roads scattered all over it (at least I think those were roads). I kept looking at it, looking at other pictures, and looking at it again. Then I approached it from far away and walked toward it, and as I approached, the roads jumped of the photograph, showing the man-made portion of the terrain over the natural portion. I kept trying to look at the photograph as if I were looking out of the plane, which was probably my mistake.

Until I noticed the next to it, which was some old mining field of a substance I can’t remember. This photograph looked nothing like a photograph at all, just black white abstract figure and some white spots. Again, I approached a couple of different times, walking from different points of the gallery. I let my eyes linger on the next wall, photographs of old railroad grades I found more appealing. But whenever I went back to that photo of sheer black and white, even after I walked through the rest of the Joslyn and came back to it, I couldn’t see it as a photograph. That’s how I knew it was time to go.

The Joslyn’s collection of western art reminds me of why I love to take pictures, and why I love to write. The dramatic westerns, the painting from guys who had to drag their painting materials with them across mountains and rough terrains to find their ideal landscapes, then haul them back east. Those guys really inspire me, even if they did over-idealize the west. When I travel these parts, I see a different country. I see rottting barns, old fences, and empty building in the downtowns of small towns that housed restaurants, shops, and car dealerships. I see rural America, just rotting away, with stories to tell if they knew how to tell. Or we knew how to slow down and listen. That’s why I’m grateful for the Joslyn.


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