7:30 BELLS Guest Post: Plainsong by Artist/Designer Iskra Johnson

I am very pleased to share this 7:30 BELLS Guest Post by Fine Artist/Designer Iskra Johnson, whose work I've admired for many years.
When I was 15 I had a friend named Frank. He was handsome and angry, and one of the things that made him angriest was the bells of Epiphany, a church down by the lake. One afternoon as we sat together in his attic in a usual state of undeclared courtship, the bells began ringing. Time to walk home from school with arithmetic on our backs. Time to get down on our knees and pray.

Frank leaped up, enraged. The bells aren’t real, he shouted, they are a recording. How he wanted a real man, (preferrably a muscular man in rags and pearls of luminous sweat) to be the one pulling that long frayed rope to the sky. What a fraud they were, to impose this granular lo-fi hoax on us! I think in that moment I realized the beginning of unrequited love, it’s very nature. By which I mean not only love of a man susceptible only to fevers –– but of an idea. You can chase it all you want, but beauty won’t necessarily love you back.

Here again comes February, that grimy still-winter month with a red sticker in the middle. Here Cupid’s quiver of bent arrows. I always think of Mexico, of that year of urgent flight. I vowed I would not spend Valentine’s counting petals alone in my bathtub. Love me, love-me-not, let me go. Bring me to the balmy land of heart-shaped milagros and coral bits! The fish were bright and the coral was stubborn, resisting its own impermanence and building elaborate leaded windows undersea. I squeezed the salt out of my eyes and thanked it, and my heart was still broken into little pieces. I filled my pockets with abstract glyphs of shells and rocks and sorted them into sentences to send to myself.

My friends said, We should go see ruins. And so we set off to see civilization before it ended, batting off the red rose vendors of St. Valentine and wondering if the songs on the boom boxes were about love or drug deals gone bad. In this way it is very easy to get into a car accident. You aren’t quite paying attention, and before you know it you are in a five-car pile-up and then in a police station. On this side is the land of the Tourist and on this, the Other Side. No papier-mâché mermaids here, and no margaritas.

Prison? Hitchike to the airport? Slowly trade our belongings or bodies for freedom? Somehow the known Spanish was not enough to figure things out. For six hours we stood in the rain under a leaking wooden shed and watched the Mexican dogs. Two mongerel mixes, shepherd and retriever, dirty blond and scruffy black. They leapt and nipped in the mud in mad dog-love, while above us a bare lightbulb swung back and forth, intermittently bright. I held my camera under my coat and turned the lens cap, knowing that photographing police dogs at the police station was not a good idea.

I had survived the week through the eye of my camera. I had three hundred pictures of loving turtles and matching parrots and the bleak, beautiful abandonments of Mexican doors. Metaphor was my friend. But here nothing was anything other than exactly what it

was. I could do nothing but be here, and I had no idea how long that being here might last. What I had was just this, the dirty ochre light, the clouds floating in puddles, the barking. I don’t know how long I fell into a certain state. It’s not something you can measure. You don’t even know you are there when you are there. But later you look back, and everything is very sharp and clear. Frank would have liked it. It’s what he always wanted to hear: plainsong. Something with harmonies unrecordable. Something so real it never goes away.

Learn more about Iskra Johnson and see her work at and

7:30 BELLS Posts run every Tuesday.