Jacqueline Johnson is a multi-disciplined artist creating in both poetry, fiction writing and fiber arts. She is the author of A Woman's Season, on Main Street Rag Press and A Gathering of Mother Tongues, published by White Pine Press and is the winner of the Third Annual White Pine Press Poetry Award. Her work has appeared in: “Revisiting the Elegy in the Black Lives Matter Era,” Routledge 2020, The Slow Down, American Public Media, October 16, 2019 and “Pank: Health and Healing Folio," 2019. Works in progress include: “The Privilege of Memory,” and “How to Stop a Hurricane,” a collection of short stories and “This America,” a poetry collection. She is a graduate of New York University and the City University of New York. A native of Philadelphia, PA., she resides in Brooklyn, New York.
My grandmother Hannah was significant in cultivating my relationship to the earth. She lived all her life in Charleston, SC. 7 Logan Street was the family home for many generations. There was a large garden in the front of that house that my grandmother tended. She was the kind of gardener who planted collard greens in between roses and chrysanthemums. There were hydrangea bushes and fig trees. At ten years old my job was to pull weeds and to water the garden. One day I took a potato eye and planted it in the front of the garden to see what would happen? In two weeks a lush, leafy plant emerged which I proudly showed my grandmother. From this garden I could look up and view the night skies and learn the constellations. In the Fall I would pick pecans from a tree across the street. The land all around us was fecund and always in bloom with magnolias, japonica and four o’clock flowers to name a few. She taught me how to care for a garden and that it could be a place of refuge from the world. When I moved back to New York, I would dream of my grandmother and I in her garden. During my teen years and for a long time afterwards I kept indoor gardens.
It would be another twenty years before I would have an opportunity to stick my hands into the earth again. In the 1990’s I started a garden in the 2 x 4 plot in front of the brownstone building where I live. My elder neighbor planted two large hosta plants and I followed with a sage plant, lavender, and roses. I framed the garden with a row of yellow chrysanthemums just as my grandmother had done in her garden. The soil was sandy and full of snails. At times keeping a garden in the city is like practicing guerrilla warfare. I spent a lot of time picking all kinds of garbage out of it and replacing plants folks had stolen. The garden became a way of holding a conversation with my neighbors. The Caribbean women would take leaves of basil and sage. Once a man from India asked for the leaf of an elephant ear to make medicine. The garden attracted butterflies, bees, and other insects. I began to learn more about the relationship between the garden plots and the congress of trees that lined the block. Eventually I began to take care of the trees and I took a class to become a tree steward. As a newbie tree steward, I have been able to save broken limbs on young trees and to show some of my neighbors how to take better care of their trees.
Tree Steward in the Stuy
Try to get him to see the hill of sand
planted across base of the oak tree,
that petunias, marigolds, small patches
of purple Impatients were never meant
to live on top sand brought in
from Brighton Beach or Coney Island.
Where he comes from sand is all around,
a welcome cover for African Gerber or aloe,
small, arid bushes and lemon trees.
Here in the heart of the Stuy men in kufi's and
jeans irrigate the land with buckets
forming small rivulets of water.
Sand upon the tree flanches, which are
akin to young lungs and anchors will suffer.
Try wearing a plastic bag over your head.
It is the same for the tree.
Oak tree over eighty years old,
an elder really.
This winter one will see the tell-tale signs
brown leaves still on upper branches.
Ironically, attending writing residencies in places like MacDowell Colony, in New Hampshire and Blue Mountain Center near the Adirondack Mountains and Soul Mountain in East Haddam afforded me opportunities to be in the woods, near large lakes, mountains and large swaths of land that had a connection to First Nations and Native people. At MacDowell, I had an epiphany when I entered the woods. I had been so afraid to be there. The moment I started walking into the woods outside my cabin, I knew the woods was my home. What started out as a fearful walk became a daily meditation. At Blue Mountain Center, I climbed Blue Mountain also known as “hill of the storms,” with eight others. I will never forget how this city dweller became the first person to reach the top and the incredible view of the Appalachian range going as far as my eyes could see. I learned that mountain climbing had little to do with physical strength but more with one’s state of mind and heart. At Soul Mountain, a residency created by Marilyn Nelson, I spent a lot of time outdoors observing everything from Coyotes, wild Turkeys and Ostriches. I learned more of the local African American history. Here is a poem I wrote from that time:
Looking for Venture Smith
Imagine the surrey empty and rusted.
Your favorite blue and white plates
in hundreds of pieces; one of
Chloe’s shoes unbroken in what
used to be your living room floor.
What would you think of your old office,
once filled with shillings, pounds,
where Solomon kept his ledgers and
small bottles of rum and port, now
site of nuclear silos and electrical fences?
What survives a life is an eclectic mix:
Hanna’s perfume bottles, smooth stones
of your private wharf; outline of a
blacksmith’s shop and half dozen old nails.
Those scientists who play in the dirt
say stones of pink crystal and tourmaline
are remnants of your Nkisi left by the door.
Venture, myth was you were six feet tall
and six feet wide lifting stone or
oxen like blades of sweet grass.
You were larger than life
using your prowess with money
to free your wife and children,
purchase land, freedom of others.
Broteer, you were so cruel, they say
some went back to their masters
rather than work for you. Were so frugal,
swam clammy cold, Connecticut River
rather than pay for a ferry.
Abraham the local historian asks, “what
is the position of your water wells?
Black people,” he says,
“Built small wells in these parts.”
I always say if the Brooklyn Botanic Gardens did not exist, I might not have stayed in Brooklyn. I visit the gardens all year-round taking full advantage of both the various outdoor gardens and the conservatories. It is where I go when I am stressed, in a state of mourning and when I need to ground myself or be reminded of the beauty of the land. A few hours at the BBG always restores my spirit. One of my favorite times to visit the BBG is in the spring for the Cherry Blossoms. I created this quilt to honor the joy I find in the gardens.
A lesson: What advice do you have for someone who wants to co-create with the natural world?
I think it is important to have an open mind and heart. Sometimes I have an idea for a piece that I do not know how I am going to execute it. Which means I may have to learn a whole set of new skills or do a deeper level of research in order to manifest an idea. In recent years, in order to bring more of nature into my quilts I have learned to work with new materials. Last summer I took a class to learn how to do cyanotypes on paper, fabric, wood, and shells. I try to invite the spirit of play and experimentation into my practice. It is not always easy to do but when I am stuck – playing around is my way back. This year I am testing different types of painting related finishes onto my quilts. And in the true spirit of experimentation – it may work or it may fail. Persistence and play are the biggest allies in my artistic tool kit. Here are some of the cyanotypes I created on paper and wood.
Visit Jacqueline Johnson's page at TWIN.cafe
Image info: 1. Twin.cafe 2-7. Jacqueline Johnson