by Jamie Hoang
Published December 11th 2014
Hailed as “One of the best technical painters of our time” by an L.A. Times critic, 27 year-old, Aubrey Johnson's work is finally gaining traction. But as she weaves through what should be a celebration of her art, a single nagging echo of her doctor’s words refuses to stay silent—there is no cure. In less than eight weeks Aubrey is going blind.
Traveling on a one-way ticket around the world with childhood friend Jeff Anderson, Aubrey is in complete denial. But a blindfolded game of tasting foreign foods in China jolts her into confronting the reality of her situation. So begins her quest.
In this adult coming of age story, Aubrey starts out at odds with her crippling disability and has a hard time accepting help. But on her journey she finds a deeper understanding of herself and her life—sometimes fragmented and complex, but always with relentless truth.
“From the moment I held the box of colours in my hands, I knew this was my life. I threw myself into it like a beast that plunges towards the thing it loves.”
Have you ever noticed that fire hydrants are rarely alike in shape or colour? I have. Most people associate them with the colour red, but that’s not always true. For example, looking around my neighbourhood of Venice Beach, California, I can tell you the majority of them are, in fact, white.
Before I knew their function, I thought these oddly shaped, metal objects bolted down into the side walk were street art. I grew up in Houston, Texas, and at the tender age of three dad took me to an opening at the Rothko Chapel. Located in the Museum District, the chapel sat just off the main strip of museums, so it was more like being in a neighbourhood than the centre of a city. Nestled inside quaint, single story homes, the grassy area surrounding the chapel made it easily mistaken for a community centre, and rightfully so. In honour of whatever they were celebrating, a team of local artists had gotten together at night and painted every hydrant in the town black. My dad noticed them first as he walked me to one and said, “Look honey, it’s a Rothko fire hydrant.” He meant the artists had painted the hydrants black as a tribute to Rothko, but being three, I thought he meant the physical hydrant was for Rothko. I remember growing more and more fascinated as I noticed them on every street.
Taking an immediate interest in what I imagined to be a worldwide phenomenon, I spent hours scouring our library of coffee table books at home (known to me at the time as ‘picture books’) for photos of international monuments. It was a “Where’s Waldo” type search for fire hydrants in iconic places. I looked for hours and hours and when I didn't find a single hydrant within the covers of my books, I drew them in myself. My mom was furious when she found out, yelling at me and slapping my hand to get me to understand what I did was wrong. Meanwhile, my dad stood in the background cackling so hysterically that his laughter became contagious and my mom couldn't help but join in. She didn't so much care about our books, even though they were quite expensive. With the start of preschool the next day she was afraid I might deface all of the books in the classroom. Which I did.
Years passed before I realized the two-foot high objects bolted into the side walk were lifesaving water pumps used to put out fires. But by then, I’d already spent so much time studying fire hydrants that it was impossible to pass one by without taking notice, and on the rare occasion I came across one decorated like Super Mario or engineered to double as a drinking fountain, I’d take a picture and send it as a postcard to my dad. Our inside joke became a small-scale version of what later emerged as Banksy or Space Invader art pieces, a duly oxy-moronic sense of community amongst art enthusiasts who found unity in bearing witness to a public secret. I personally wasn't the trespassing or graffiti type artist, so my subtle form of artistic expression with the hydrants was to include them in every single one of my paintings. They were hidden in plain sight as part of the landscape; like trees in a forest, viewers just expected them to be there. I’d only ever had one person recognize the black fire hydrants in my work, and he happened to also be at the Rothko celebration that day.
At my gallery openings, nearly two decades later, I made a habit of wandering about the room and listening to see if anyone ever recognized the motif. Not many did, and even if they took notice of one, they never thought to look for another. People rarely notice fire hydrants.
On the night of my biggest gallery showcase to date, I nervously stood in the back room of the Michael Sanders Gallery watching the room from afar. Typically at openings I moved around, studying the expressions of strangers as they connected with or dismissed my work, but this night was different. Champagne and bite-sized quiches on large platters floated about the room, carried by waiters who deftly weaved in and out unnoticed by the clusters of patrons gathered to examine my creations. My paintings had shown in galleries before, but this was the first time an entire space was reserved solely for me.
The layout was strategic, designed to move the viewer from one painting to the next and a break in sequence was delineated via a wall separating the rooms. Weeks of interior design, light installation, bulb testing, and precise placement of the artwork all culminated in this one evening. But as I stood watching people, both familiar and strange, my pinky finger strummed the ridge of a dime-sized, shallow hole, where someone had nicked the door frame chipping the paint. All I could think about was the imperfect floor-to-ceiling crack in the wall behind Dr. Rostin’s diploma from UC Irvine. Retinitis Pigmentosa (RP)—those words were the last thing I remembered him saying. I stopped listening after he said there was no cure, and my body numbed as it felt everything and nothing, all at once.
“Aubs,” Michael Sanders called, in a slightly-too-loud, perhaps intoxicated, greeting.
He was the gallery owner and my biggest supporter. From across the room he motioned for me to come over. I took a deep breath, lifted the hem of my long black chiffon dress and moved toward him with a glass of now-warm champagne. As I approached, he began the introductions: “Aubrey, you remember Mr. and Mrs. Gibson?”
“Of course,” I replied as we shook hands.
“So tell me. Is this a love story?” Mr. Gibson asked, cutting right to the chase.
Being that art was subjective, no right or wrong answers existed, yet people wanted affirmation that their interpretation was the same as that of the artist. Michael explained to me some time ago that people bought art that spoke to them, so if the artist was available, why not double-check that you “heard correctly,” so to speak? “If I dropped $7,000 on a painting, I’d want to know that what appeared to be a symbol of unity was not simply a walrus,” he’d said, making me laugh.
“Depends on your definition of love,” I said to Mr. Gibson.
“I love your use of colour here. The painting simply exudes romance. But there is a darkness to it too, a foreboding shadow if you will,” Mrs. Gibson chimed in.
The Gibsons were looking at one of my favourite paintings, Midnight in Paris--an abstract cityscape with a couple dancing underneath the Eiffel Tower. I’d never actually been to Paris, but my mother often talked about dancing underneath the iconic symbol of love with my dad on their honeymoon.
“I painted this in honour of my parents, on their 20th anniversary,” I said. I knew better than to say, On what would have been their 20th anniversary. Not many people want paintings that have any kind of connection, however remotely, to death, and so for good measure I added, “If you come at it from the angle of love, then the darkness symbolizes marital struggles, but you’ll notice that the dark is only on the periphery, never seeping into the core. On the other hand, the argument could be made that couples cripple themselves by disengaging with what’s on the periphery in exchange for each other.”
Mrs. Gibson squeezed her husband’s elbow and I knew I had sold them this painting. Couples who had been together as long as the Gibsons, or my parents, knew that in a relationship, one kind of love did not exist without the other.
Just behind them, I caught a glimpse of one of the first paintings I created in graduate school at Columbia University. A juxtaposition between poverty and gluttony, the piece was aptly named Poverty and Gluttony. The scene took place at night in the back alleyway of a row of high-end restaurants, where every night, high-quality food was thrown out. In a corner, curled up in a ball, was a little boy exhausted from starvation. I painted Poverty and Gluttony not long after my parents’ death. It was the darkest time in my life.
Drawing from the pain in Picasso’s Blue Period, more specifically The Old Guitarist, I mimicked Picasso’s technique of bodily distortion to convey loneliness and isolation. My painting hung in the Michael Sanders Gallery for two years before the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art asked to display it in a travelling exhibit showcasing emerging artists. Too dark a subject matter to be hung in someone’s home, the painting never sold, but it had a tremendous museum and gallery run because it directed the viewer to a place of uncomfortable contemplation.
It’s rare to see signs of it this young.
The words rang like deafening bells in my ears as my smile stiffened and I started walking to another piece of art, with the Gibsons following closely behind. What started as occasional blurred vision and patchy peripherals had culminated in a diagnosis with no treatment.
Six to eight weeks…a genetic disorder affecting the retina.
I had only recently started to gain recognition in the art community. “You’re sitting at the tipping point, Aubrey,” Michael had said to me on numerous occasions. I remember being on cloud nine and wishing the clock would start ticking at half-pace so I could enjoy the moment. But I no longer wanted time to simply slow down. I wanted it to stop.
I remained aware of the people moving around me, but in my own thoughts time moved at a rapid pace. No one knew what was happening to me and even if they did they probably wouldn’t care. In the art world, save for the select few who were lucky enough to die before their time, artists moved in and out faster than the fashion trends of the New York Runway. Michael stood less than three feet away from me discussing how my paintings were a juxtaposition of life’s many facets—precisely the reason he found my work so fascinating—but his words registered as faint and far away.
I looked at him and smiled, unable to stop myself from reminiscing about the first time we met. I was in a low place when Michael stumbled upon me. Stunned by the sudden passing of my parents, I had dropped out of graduate school after only one semester and obtained a permit from the city to be a street vendor. Weeks went by with tourists asking me to paint them New York City skylines, which I refused to do until my landlord squashed my pride with an eviction notice. If catering to the lowest common denominator meant being able to pay the bills, then I wasn't above it. Michael had just made a small fortune buying up the re-make rights of South-east Asian horror films and selling them to the major motion picture studios in Hollywood. Atypical of a gallery owner, Michael was a jeans and zip-up sweater entrepreneur first and a suit-and-tie art enthusiast second.
At the time we met, my body of work included: ballerinas on skid row; cityscapes with churches next to brothels; a boy dressed in a suit sitting on a bench reading the newspaper; and a homeless woman carrying a Burkin bag—images that offered multiple meanings depending on what the viewer brought to the conversation. For instance, on a normal day, seeing the boy sitting in a suit, reading a newspaper might evoke laughter at its absurdity. But look at the painting on an especially trying day and the boy becomes a symbol for the end of youth and loss of innocence… or something like that.
I often wondered if I had missed the mark because no one ever paid attention to those pieces, even though I made a point to display them in front of the cityscapes. On especially slow days, I’d dream about a bigwig executive buying a piece for his penthouse office in the financial district. Michael was not that guy. At least, I didn't think so. New York was a business-suit city and Michael’s casual attire suggested he was either a tourist or vagabond. So when he offered me $500 cash for Ballerinas on Skid Row, I laughed at him. He gave me a confused look, handed me the money, and asked for my number.
“I have a boyfriend,” I lied. I was 23 and certain he had just propositioned me for sex.
“I’m happy for you,” he said, dryly. He handed me his business card. “I just bought a gallery in California. Call if you’re interested in how this piece does.”
Just shy of two weeks later (ten days to be exact), I called to find that the painting sold. That call marked the single greatest leap in my career and was how I ended up driving 3,096 miles to a new residence in Venice, California.
Had it already been four years? The time passed so quickly that I wondered if I had taken it for granted. Looking right at the Gibsons, who were talking to me, I smiled in blind acknowledgement of compliments I didn't hear. I knew I wasn't dreaming—the champagne glass and Michael’s hand on the small of my back leading me to another painting were proof of that—but I wanted to rewind and reverse the news I’d received earlier. I wanted to go back to not knowing. It didn't matter that the disease was genetic, predetermined before I’d even had a chance to fight it. I simply wanted to get out of this phase of excruciatingly slow acceptance.
Unfortunately, there is no cure.
Other than an experimental vitamin A palmitate, a drug that could, at best, slow the process, I saw no reason for regular office visits. Short of a miracle or divine intervention, it seemed the battle had already been lost. When the thoughts in my head calmed, I realized the Gibsons had begun negotiations for Midnight in Paris and excused myself.
I spotted Jeff Anderson, an old friend who was both familiar and strange, in a far corner looking pensively at a painting I’d entitled Home. One of the few paintings in my collection with no subtext, it was literally a painting of my childhood home, only instead of a frontal view it showed an obscure angle from outside our kitchen window looking into our 1970s-style living room. A home void of its people, it remained the only still life in my collection.
As I approached him I said, “You actually came.”
Jeff dressed up for the occasion in a suit and tie, but the look didn't fit his personality and I wished I’d just told him to wear jeans.
“I did,” he smiled.
“Nice boots,” I said, looking down at the black cowboy boots he wore beneath his cuffed dress pants. The boots gave him a rugged demeanour closer to the guy I remembered from high school.
“Just keepin’ it real,” he smiled.
“Are you having a horrible time?”
“No, but I did overhear a conversation that could've come straight out of a Daniel Clowes comic,” he said. Of course he did. I smiled.
That Jeff showed up at all to an event he probably considered pretentious, playing the part of an interested patron, was a whole new level of maturity. He was never a fan of art. In fact, in a heated debate about the value of art, I remembered him saying he thought collecting art was a wealthy person’s game of who could pay the most for the least comprehensible painting. Being around him was familiar and distant all at the same time. Jeff had always been my forever friend, the one I thought I’d never lose. But time and distance changed us and now our relationship was just a shadow of the childhood friendship we once shared.
There was a bit of an awkward silence until Jeff said, “Where’s the fire hydrant?”
I grinned, thrilled that he remembered. “It’s there,” I said. “Look closely at the texture of the exterior wall.”
Jeff stepped forward and squinted. “No kidding,” he said, as he searched until he found it.
“Do you mind if I borrow her?” Michael asked, coming up beside me.
“No, of course not,” Jeff said.
“I’ll be right back,” I said to Jeff.
“Want to grab lunch tomorrow?” he asked, as I walked away.
“Sure,” I said, turning back to him with a smile.
“Who’s that?” Michael asked me.
“Just an old friend,” I said. “How are we doing?”
“Eight! Eight of your paintings have minimum bids placed on them and three have multiple bidders. You’re going to be up there with the likes of Mike Kelly and Douglas Gordon in no time,” he said. And I couldn't help but think, If he only knew how quickly.
“If you’re lucky, they might even include your name next to mine in the history books,” Rusty Coal said, breaking into our conversation. A slender five-foot ten inches, he sported a tailor-made, grey Dolce & Gabbana skinny suit and black tie. Sleeves rolled up to show his mural of tattoos, he looked more like a rogue runway model than an artist.
Michael rolled his eyes. “I knew that line in the New York Times about being the perfect blend of Warhol and Jasper Johns was going to go to your head.”
“Ah yes, if only I could be so lucky,” I added, giving my favourite arch nemesis a hug. “How are you?”
Rusty was my contemporary—an artist who broke out onto the art scene alongside me. Reviewers often pitted us against each other like horses in a race to the finish line. But our relationship was more akin to that of siblings; we were competitive, but at the end of the day we always looked out for each other. I loved him because he was one of those people who constantly broke the mould of stereotypes placed upon skinny hipsters covered in tattoos.
“I'm good. Working on a series for MOMA in New York,” he said.
“Holy shit Rusty, that’s awesome. Congratulations!”
“Pshh, what kind of traffic does MOMA get?” Michael said. “It couldn't possibly be as prestigious a showing as the Michael Sanders Gallery, Aubs.”
“Only about three million people walk through it a year,” Rusty said.
“Exactly, small potatoes,” Michael replied in jest.
Best known for his pieces that combined Neo-Dadaist and Pop Art concepts into the more specific theme of love, or sometimes the lack thereof, his name was quickly becoming commonplace in artistic circles.
I first met Rusty at an art convention in Down town LA where we were two of 231 artists from 73 different galleries nationwide. We were both looking at Willem de Kooning’s 1941 painting Seated Man (Clown) when he turned to me like we’d been friends for years and said, “Not a good painting, but proof that with time a craft can be perfected. Even still, it should probably be in the back of someone’s garage and not on display. What do you think?” I agreed and we spent the next hour ripping it apart like catty teenage girls at the prom. He made you feel like you were important and your opinions mattered, regardless of whether he’d known you for 20 years or five minutes. However, harsh judgement applied to everyone, including me, and he didn't hesitate to tell me I needed to push things further, code for I don’t like it.
He and I often joked about how each of his pieces was the result of a broken heart, so much so that when I asked him, “How many?” he knew exactly what I referred to.
“I had a few repeat offenders,” he smiled devilishly.
Rusty was the most emotionally vulnerable guy I knew. One of my favourite pieces of his was a 10x20-foot canvas littered with newspaper headlines about people murdering for love. The words and phrases varied in size from actual nine-point newspaper font to large, 12-inch letters, weaved in an abstract painting of a nude couple making love. Unlike so many of our peers who focused on abstract expressionism and making art weird for the sake of being weird, Rusty sought to create meaning through the conventional form of symbols. Headlines for Love was an expression of absurdity in the modern dating world: It touched on obsession, lust, and deadly romance.
Unlike Rusty, whose body of work was driven by emotion, I was hailed as being one of the best technical painters. When I was interviewed by the LA Times, the writer called me a chemist of colours because I had demonstrated how I created “Cadmium Red” by combining cadmium sulphide with selenium and producing a warm and opaque hue. Knowing I would never again be able to mix my own colours was maddening.
My friends knew me as a bulldog with thick skin. It was they who turned to me when life slapped them in the face with public criticism, unexpected death, betrayal, creative fear and self-doubt—not the other way around. Convinced that they wouldn't know how to react, I vowed not to tell anyone until I myself was okay with the situation. I planned to deal with it like I did my parents’ death, by making it a non-issue.
Mentally exhausted, I was just about to excuse myself when Mr. and Mrs. Gibson approached.
“Frank and Ellen have officially added Midnight in Paris to their collection of Aubrey Johnson pieces,” Michael informed me.
“Thank you so much for your support. I'm glad you enjoyed the opening.” I shook their hands and walked them to the door. “It was so great to see you both again.” As they headed out, Mr. Gibson wrapped his arm around his wife’s shoulders and kissed her on the forehead, reminding me of my parents who, even after 20 years of marriage, walked like they couldn't get enough of each other.
At 2:15 a.m., after the gallery had emptied out, Michael and I sat down for a breather. Of the 26 canvases on display, 11 sold. Exhausted, but proud, Michael offered a half-dozen times to get me a cab home, but I assured him I was fine to walk. I liked to be alone after my openings, to absorb and reflect on the events of the evening.
Closing up shop wasn't my job; in fact, no other gallery ever allowed it, but Michael and I were friends, which warranted unprecedented access. I liked to spend some time alone with my pieces in the quiet atmosphere of an empty gallery. They were my babies and, like a mother at graduation, I was proud to see them succeed but sad not to have them in the house any more. I did my customary stroll through the gallery and stopped at the one Jeff had been looking at earlier, Home. I had painted it just before moving from Houston to Manhattan, as a kind of cathartic sayonara.
It occurred to me then that Jeff had slipped out at some point without saying goodbye. I hadn't meant to leave him alone for so long. Looking at my phone, I sent him a text: Sorry I didn't get to say bye. Lunch tomorrow at Urth Cafe sound good? Twenty seconds later he replied: Sure. I texted back: 12:30. Cool? His reply: K.
I locked up and started the walk toward home. Disintegration of the retina… I thought the walk would lessen my anxiety, but it didn't. Transition programs and support groups available. How could I hope for things to get better when told with scientific certainty there was nothing they could do? As I racked my brain for any kind of upside, a horrible stench invaded my senses, making it hard to breathe, let alone concentrate. At the end of the block I found its source: a homeless guy squatting in the shadows with his pants around his ankles. He seemed to be finishing up and used the front lapels of his soiled, button-down shirt to reach under his crotch and wipe up. The pile of human excrement was foul to see and putrid to smell. Yet, it was appropriate, seeing as how the universe seemed to be taking a massive dump all over my life.
Barnes & Noble: http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/blue-sun-yellow-sky-jamie-jo-hoang/1121052716?ean=9781634433716
"A touching exploration of identity and reinvention painted with gentle yet precise brush strokes."
--Kirkus Reviews (Starred Review)
"Blue Sun, Yellow Sky delivers a glimpse into the artistic process, a stunning globe-trotting journey, and the intimate portrait of mending a heart broken by life itself."
-- Indigo Wilmann, Visual Yarn
"...deeply cathartic..." Shawn M., Amazon Reviews
"A whirlwind trip around the world..." Traci McDonald, Author of Killing Casanova
"...stays with you..." Sara T., Goodreads Reviews
Jamie Jo Hoang's Her writing can be found on TinyBuddha.com and her personal website heyjamie.com. She lives in Los Angeles, and works to support her expensive hobby of traveling. So far she's been to: Peru, China, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, Uruguay, Chile, Bonaire, France, England, Jamaica, Ireland, Scotland, and numerous other cities within America.