Joint exhibit at Hope and Feathers Gallery explores the world of Wabi-Sabi

Thursday, July 17, 2014
For several years, Barbara Johnson had been drawn to painting images of old, crumbling buildings, demolition sites and other gritty corners of cities and towns, finding a beauty of sorts in the transitory nature of many human-made landscapes.

Meanwhile, Rachel Folsom had decided to take a break from her painting to try her hand at drawing — something she could complete more quickly — and she was attracted to ordinary objects for her subjects, from leaves she’d find during a walk or old, chipped jars in her house.

Without quite realizing it, both artists had been touching on the Japanese aesthetic of Wabi-Sabi: the appreciation of beauty inherent in objects that are imperfect, unfinished, worn or seemingly unremarkable. And now the two friends — they’ve known each other for years — will show work along those lines in a joint exhibit in May at the Hope and Feathers Gallery in Amherst.

The two have been showcasing the work for the past year on a Facebook site, “Wabi-Sabi of the Week.”

Johnson, of Easthampton, and Folsom, of Amherst, met in the 1970s during a printmaking workshop at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, and they’d admired one another’s work for years. But it wasn’t until a couple years ago that their work was exhibited together, at Hampden Gallery at UMass, though their paintings were in separate galleries at the show.

But they enjoyed the experience, Folsom says, and they decided they wanted to do a joint exhibition at some point. The theme for that show then arrived somewhat unexpectedly, Folsom added, when she was browsing a magazine one day and came across an article about Wabi-Sabi.

“I’d never heard of it, but I realized that’s what my drawings were all about,” she said. “I’d been drawing these basic objects, things that appealed to me because of their directness and simplicity, and just doing [the drawings] in the way I’d done them was very much along the lines of Wabi-Sabi.”

According to a number of sources, the origins of the term can be traced to Japanese Buddhist teaching on the ideas of transience and imperfection and the acceptance of those conditions. From an artistic standpoint, Folsom notes, the Wabi-Sabi aesthetic embraces things like simplicity, modesty and an appreciation of the natural world; it can also include asymmetry, such as a roughly molded pot or cup.

Johnson says she’d also inadvertently been working in that aesthetic with her watercolors and oils of old or dilapidated buildings, many of them inspired after she’d taken up studio space in Cottage Street Studios in Easthampton, a renovated mill building which overlooks more played-out structures.

“It was something that happened unconsciously,” she said of her more recent work, which she took up five to six years ago. “I had been fascinated, in a horrified way, with all the destruction I saw [on TV] from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and those images began to work their way into the cityscapes I was painting.”

The theme of Wabi-Sabi, she added in a follow-up email, is less about destruction than “making peace with what is there. The essential ingredients of the buildings come from the earth and return to it — a cycle that has the past and future encapsulated in it.”

A new approach

Both Folsom and Johnson have long been part of the realism school of painting. Folsom worked first in watercolor, then oil, painting still lifes, Western landscapes and sometimes quirky portraits, such as one of herself peering from a reflection in a mirror. Johnson has also painted portraits, landscapes and still lifes, imbuing much of her work with the light and texture reminiscent of Renaissance painters.

But when Folsom turned to drawing a few years ago — she does some occasional painting these days — she took a very different approach. Her graphite sketches, done on cradled clayboard, are spare but also surprisingly detailed looks at a wealth of objects — plants, a torn-up dollar bill, jars, bricks, gardening tools and a number of found materials.

Folsom said she began the sequence of drawings after she found a discarded or lost pair of glasses outside the CVS store in downtown Amherst. Her picture, which shows the spectacles casting a shadow, detail a spiderweb of cracks in the lenses.

“I’d been looking to take a break from painting and work on something that I could finish more quickly, and then I found these glasses and I thought, ‘Oh, I want to draw this,’” she said.

As in some of her paintings, Folsom also brings a sense of humor to her pictures. She depicts the bits of a torn-up dollar bill in a circle, like the hours on a clock, and some of her still lifes concentrate on strange-looking root crops, like a lumpy celeriac she bought at the supermarket. She also brings intricate detail to a sketch of a garlic bulb, complete with extensive roots.

And to highlight the idea that broken things can be put back together, she drew a glass teapot on top of a cracked marble table, so that the crack is visible though the teapot; in fact, it almost appears to be part of the teapot.

Folsom says she’s found drawing very meditative, which seems to fit well with the Wabi-Sabi aesthetic. “I spend a lot of time in observation, in thinking about how I want to frame the drawing, what angle to take, just thinking about the process ... Even though these are ordinary objects, I’m looking to find the beauty in the imperfect.”


For her part, Johnson fills her paintings of worn cityscapes with rich color and detail. She may be showing the worn heart of urban America, but sunlight can still play upon the scene, and the red brick of old buildings can make a bright contrast to the green of weeds and plants reclaiming an adjacent alleyway or stretch of asphalt.

In her oil painting “Reflections of Holyoke,” for instance, part of an old factory wall, with broken windows on the second floor and boarded-up window embrasures on the ground floor, looks out on canal waters in front of it. The yellow plywood in the lower window embrasures is reflected in the water, and the whole scene is bathed in the warm light of spring or summer, creating a surprisingly bright image.

“I like to think of [my paintings] as a reflection on time and transformation, the idea that nothing lasts forever,” Johnson said. “And I think Wabi-Sabi ties into that ... it’s about acceptance.”

Many of Johnson’s cityscapes take in local views; one, of the backs of buildings on Cottage Street, recreates a perspective she has from a window in her studio. But she’s also painted scenes from Washington, D.C., Chicago, and other locales, and some are based on photographs she’s taken from the train window when traveling to Washington. One, for example, depicts a switchyard in Baltimore.

Johnson also paints miniature watercolors of some of these scenes; the intricate detail and limited palette of these works make them appear at first glance to be photographs. She says she uses them as studies for larger works that will use expanded colors.

In the end, she says, Wabi-Sabi seems a fitting term for her more recent paintings because the aesthetic reflects “the natural process of life on planet Earth, the cycles and ravages of time, the effects of weathering, the dents, stains and cracks of attrition. However, objects still possess an undiminished poise and strength of character.”

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.

The joint exhibit of Rachel Folsom and Barbara Johnson opens during Amherst’s monthly Art Walk on May 1 from 5 to 8 p.m. and will remain on view through May 31 at the Hope and Feathers Galley, 319 Main St. in Amherst. An artists’ reception will be held May 3 from 4 to 7 p.m. Folsom and Johnson will also give a talk on May 22 at 6:30 p.m. Folsom’s website is www.rachelfolsom.com; Johnson’s website is www.barbarajohnson.com.

For gallery hours and additional information, visit www.hopeandfeathersframing.com.