Imagining the world through Lennon's eyes
An exhibit of the late Beatle's artwork, collected and curated by wife Yoko Ono, shows his artistic talent knew no bounds
Wednesday, June 22, 2005SHAWN LEVY
Yoko Ono might some day have achieved fame as a filmmaker, musician or performance artist all on her own. But a chance meeting in a London art gallery in 1966 settled the matter of her fame well and good.
A fellow given an early tour of an exhibit of Ono's enjoyed what he saw and asked to meet her.
His name was John Lennon, and he was a Beatle.
Lennon and Ono sparked when they met, but they were both married, and it would be another two years before they became romantically involved. Their subsequent affair and marriage was as public and sensational as any tabloid brouhaha of modern vintage -- maybe more so when you consider how unusual such media manias were at the time.
After Lennon was senselessly murdered in 1980, Ono, long resented by Beatles fans who blamed her (largely erroneously) for breaking up the band and long considered just plain odd for her art and her singing, became a living link to her husband, shepherding his unfinished projects into release and collaborating with the remaining ex-Beatles on a variety of new works.
Among the artifacts with which Ono has taken special care are Lennon's drawings and paintings, scores of which will be on display Friday through Sunday in a free exhibit and sale, "The Art of John Lennon," at downtown Portland's Pioneer Place mall.
Ono is more than just the subject and curator of Lennon's work. In many instances, she has contributed to them by coloring the images, adding a vivid brilliance that occasionally overwhelms but generally complements the loving kindness Lennon expressed in his drawings. Now 72, Ono brings decades of experience as an artist and drum-beater to the project. She spoke with The Oregonian about Lennon's art, his love of collaboration, the enduing popularity of The Beatles, and various and sundry other subjects.
Was there a certain impulse that made John want to draw instead of write music or lyrics?
Well, he started as a painter, an artist. He was a very good artist in high school, and his teachers told him, "You won't be able to get into any school, but maybe you can go to art school." And he got into Liverpool Art School, which was a very prestigious art school at the time. And he felt he was safe. He didn't want to go from high school to be an accountant or something. He was an artist. And then he got interested in rock and roll and went into that. But he was always doing some drawings. It was a security blanket. Like his guitar. He was always either strumming or drawing.
You worked on a lot of these drawings as well. And you and John did a lot of music together. And before you, he worked with his bandmates. Was he principally a collaborative artist?
Exactly, yes! He was very good at it. And I wasn't, because I was always doing things by myself. In a way, it was a little bit difficult for me, and I learned a lot about partnership from him, I suppose.
When John's fans listen to his music or see his paintings, we often think back to our own pasts. But for you, these works of art are specifically part of your past. Do these drawings still hold for you a piece of the moment in which they were made?
That's what he was doing with these things. He wasn't the kind of artist who would plan things and then do it. He was very quick in doing these things. He would get inspired and just do it. It was part of his life. And that's why it reflects his family life a lot.
So it wasn't like so much of his music, which was written to send a message to the world?
No. It was casual. He was always doing it. I noticed once when we had a meeting with lawyers and having some big conference at Apple, he was bored and was drawing. And after the conference, one of the lawyers said, "What were you doing?" and John showed him and he said, "Oh, how beautiful! May I have it?" And John was very obliging and said, "Here, here." He still has it probably.
The Rolling Stones and Paul McCartney are back out on the road. Could you imagine John, who would have been 65 later this year, still traveling around the world and playing rock and roll?
Of course! Why not? I know he announced to the world when he was 30 or something that he wouldn't do it any more, but that was just a one-off idea at the time. He did go on creating records. He would have gone back out there. Especially if he knew that Paul went. He'd say, "I've gotta do it!"
We on the outside who grew up with The Beatles still think of them all together, even with John and George gone. And we also think of you and your son Sean and all the other wives and children as this big family.
It's true, though. It is a big family, and it keeps getting bigger. There are so many kids and they're all getting married and having kids. It's great. I think it's a beautiful thing to happen. Unlike some punk rock band or something like that, each Beatle had or has a family viewpoint, more or less conservative or . . . I don't mean conservative. . . .
Yes, that's it. Traditional is the word. So they married and had long marriages and had children and took care of their children.
Does it ever surprise you that more than 40 years after The Beatles began they're still such a phenomenon?
I think that's very nice. Their songs were very sweet and loving. And the power of it has to do a lot with sweetness and caring and love. And some people probably thought, "Well, I'd like something more devilish," like the Rolling Stones. But eventually what wins has all that love and that flow of life in it. In a way, that's why we go back to it.
Compared to the music, which has a life of its own, do you feel a special responsibility toward John's drawings and other works?
Well, not really. I feel very responsible to see John's music be out there with good quality presentations. If you just leave it to other people who care only about quick money, the quality can suffer and go down. So I'm very caring about the music, too. I'm very caring about everything that he created: statements and all that.
If you were meeting someone who wasn't a longtime fan and didn't know John's drawings, how would you describe them?
Well, they should see it. And if you see it you'll get the feeling of something hitting your heart and making you feel very warm. His paintings and drawings are very, very warm. And they hit you directly, instead of some art that's intellectual and requires that you know the history of art or have a critic looking over your shoulder explaining it. John is basically an outsider as an artist, though some of his stuff has gone into the Museum of Modern Art. But mainly it's people's art, and so when you go there to see the exhibition, you will feel a direct communication from him to you.
It's also very funny. John couldn't write a sentence or make a drawing without some wit in it.
Even without trying to express something humorous, the lines of his drawings are all funny!