A Magic Carpet for Visual Dreaming

Charles Johnson's third life as an illustrator and his big book publishing year


And I plan to USE this beautiful drawing table — a work of art in itself that cost me $230 — as a magic carpet for visual dreaming every week. — Charles Johnson

Novelist, essayist, philosopher and visual artist Charles Johnson has revealed himself from many angles during the past 12-month period with the publication of four books — Taming the Ox: Buddhist Reflections on Politics, Race, Culture and Spiritual Practice (2014); The Words and Wisdom of Charles Johnson's self portrait with daughter ElishebaCharles Johnson (2015); Middle Passage, the 25th anniversary edition of his National Book Award winning novel (2015); and with Elisheba Johnson, The Hard Problem (2014), the second book in the Aventures of Emery Jones, Boy Science Wonder series for young readers.

Charles Johnson’s current life as an illustrator comes after years of teaching and writing — his first two lives. He was the Pollock Professor in Humanites at the University of Washington in Seattle. His third life began in his teens but was dormant for much of his professional life.

The turning point came in late July 2013 when the artist slated for the first Emery Jones book had to suddenly back out because of a personal crisis. 

To publish the book in October 2013, as scheduled, would have been impossible if Charles Johnson and his co-author and daughter, Elisheba, had had to find some one else to do the drawings planned for the book. So Charles said, "OK, I'll do them. I used to do this."  Between August 1 and 18, he did the drawings, working night and day on a board propped against his desk.

Once that book, Bending Time, was off to the publisher, Elisheba convinced her dad that he should do a cartoon panel every week to sharpen his chops for another project. And so he ordered a drawing table with a glass surface that could also function as a light box.

Charles Johnson cartoonWhen the drawing table arrived, the distinguished professor emeritus was like a child drunk with joy on Christmas morning. 

“This feels soooo good,” he wrote a colleague.  “I'm a kid again. I'm in love again. When I was in my teens, I set up my first drawing table in my bedroom like a shrine, one at which I worshipped and did what I considered to be seva (Sk., for service). I feel like I'm home again, no longer suppressing an important, even crucial side of myself because — well, because literature people showed no interest in the visual arts and I had to play for 40 years by their rules. Prove myself in their terms. But now I'm retired. And I plan to USE this beautiful drawing table — a work of art in itself that cost me $230 — as a magic carpet for visual dreaming every week.”

Charles Johnson’s "Emery’s World" cartoon series was distributed weekly via email to the Johnsons’ colleagues and friends for several months. Then Johnson focused on drawings for the second Emery Jones book, The Hard Problem.  

Scientific achievement begins in childhood fascination and play and that's the kind of achievement that the Johnsons want to playfully seed in African American youth. So don't be surprised if Emery makes it happen on the mass level by working his STEM magic to make "The Adventures of Emery Jones, Boy Science Wonder," the movie!

Taming the Ox: Buddhist Reflections on Politics, Race, Culture and Spiritual Practice

In the opening essay of Taming the Ox, “The Dharma and the Artist’s Eye" (originally published in the international Review of African American Art), Charles Johnson describes how Buddhist practice can enhance the creation and appreciation of visual art and vice versa, how visual art can deepen meditative insight and egoless awareness. He says this enhancement begins in Right Mindfulness which clears up cognitive field and he quotes meditation teacher Bhikkhu Bodhi on how it happens:

“Mindfulness brings to light experience in its pure immediacy.  The Dharma and the Artist Eye essay in IRAAA included this photo by Sylvia HarrisIt reveals the object as it is before it has been plastered over with conceptual paint, overlaid with interpretations.”

With minds thus freed, artists are able to conceive ideas and see things in new ways and also render them in new ways.

Charles Johnson’s discussion of Bhuddism and art includes personal recollections — how he studied meditation and cartooning during his teens, used Buddhist teachings (the dharma) as a refuge from anger, and delved into Asian art history and theory.

He says that viewing Zen-inspired sketches and paintings by artists from the 12th to 14th centuries threw him into egoless witnessing states which were visual equivalents of mantras or satori (sudden awakening and understanding).

Charles Johnson. Photo: Mary RandlettThese art works helped Johnson see how the “beautiful” was attained in Buddhist art by “dissolving the false distinction or duality between the beautiful and the ugly.”  This occurred “before their ontological and epistemological separation (by mind, by language).”  Johnson also explains how this direct perception led him to be “open to all views and experiences; to be a verb and not a noun; to no longer ‘stick’ to anything.”

Charles Johnson came of age during the anger-stoked, polarizing tumult of late 1960s. As a young man, he was acutely aware of racial injustice and expressed it in politically-tinged cartoons.  But his political consciousness was augmented by the universal awareness that he was developing through his meditative practice.   

He concludes the “The Dharma and the Artist’s Eye” essay with thoughts about wabi-sabi — "art that provides a direct, intuitive insight into the truth" and can be much more idiosyncratic, incomplete and modest than what traditional Western notions deem as art.  Here’s his definition of that concept: Wabi (things fresh, simple and quiet) sabi (things radiating beauty with age).  "And it is through the everydayness of such an (un)remarkable art that we are blessed to experience the ordinary mind as a portal to transcendence and liberation," he explains.

Taming the Ox contains other essays on a range of topics relating to Buddhism, black America and social transformation and six short stories that are entertaining, philosophical allegories. 

The book’s title alludes to the 10 Ox Herding Pictures of 12th-century Chinese artists. The "ox" to be tamed in Taming the Ox also has been called a monkey — the restless mind. 

Aventures of Emery Jones, Boy Science Wonder: The Hard Problem

That fundamental here-and-not-here quality described in “The Dharma and the Artist’s Eye”  is one of the reasons the Emery Jones novels succeed. Kids have no graspable power, but they vibrate like hummingbirds, simultaneously Cover of Charles and Elisheba Johnson's The Hard Problemsoaking up information and spinning in their truth—making and showing, then ghosting back into their own worlds. They move, and they move on. 

Charles Johnson lives and works in a spirit of ahimsa (harmlessness to sentient beings) that demands integrity and evinces simplicity. How wonderful to put portrayal of adolescents in his sensitive hands.

The cool kid is an alien. This must be middle school.

Emery Jones and Gabby Sykes return in The Hard Problem, the second book in Charles and Elisheba Johnson’s Emery Jones series. Elementary school behind them, as the two best friends step into sixth grade, the unknown takes on otherworldly dimensions. We roll through the story with Gabby as narrator.

When did you get your first crush? Could you even see straight? Priya, wearing that loaded label, “the new girl,” whips it on Emery, appropriating Gabby’s seat next to our hero on the first day of class at Redd Foxx Middle. Gabby’s not having it, not because she’s a romantic rival, but because she senses a fake. Gabby is by no means giving Priya the benefit of the doubt.

Gabby and Priya duke it out in the Hard ProblemDespite the adversarial set-up, I kept looking for sisterhood to crop up in the book, and was disappointed. So maybe there’s no natural sisterhood between girls and aliens that look like girls. Still, my heart stilled for a second when Gabby referred to Priya as a "heifer." Perhaps in a subsequent volume the real-life, Nigerian British math prodigy Esther Okade might befriend the young women and mine common ground!

Cal, Emery’s robot advises, “Trust the words of a poet because they spit the truth,” foretelling the pitfalls of a romance about to happen, and tipping off the reader that an independent thinking (but not conscious – that point is clearly made) robot is worth listening to. “Falling for a girl without knowing her world” is…a set-up!

As all good fiction writers do, the Johnsons put issues out there for the reader to engage and ponder. When Emery starts to break down the hard problem—a tricky definition of what scientists mean by “mind”—Gabby voices her frustration. Enough with the secret language! Bill Nye and Neil deGrasse Tyson can’t do it all, but Gabby—and the rest of us—would appreciate it if scientists would explain their work so we can connect the dots and find our place among them.

Charles Johnson, Macarthur award winner, professor emeritus, Buddhist and grandfather (of the real-life boy named Emery), seems to be having a great time marrying his love of cartooning and storytelling, and celebrating nerd respect. 

Of Johnson’s bibliography, which runs from essays on Buddhism to how-to books on drawing, this children’s series might just have the most far-reaching impact.  Science fiction has a way of sticking to a reader. Almost all genres boast a loyal following, but science fiction is sneaky in its appeal – the way it reveals the science of things as it tells its tales. Add to that the openness and honesty of books for younger readers—an element that’s pleasurable across generations—and I think we’ve got the makings of a winner. The Johnsons have stepped up with just-challenging-enough content seasoned with strong African American flavor.

Charles Johnson's drawing table in his home officeIn The Hard Problem, a longer book than its predecessor, Bending Time, Johnson’s 20 illustrations show motion and emotion well—even on the robots.  Charles Johnson loves to draw. He and Elisheba trade ideas and tasks for their collaborative publishing team, Booktrope, a Seattle start-up. One of Elisheba Johnson’s motivations is to give the world “a voice for children of color.” Throughout the series, Gabby and Emery survive bullying, write poems (one of Elisheba’s talents), and fully embrace who they are: marginalized, brilliant, curious adolescents.

The hard problem—threats to “delete humankind”—stumps these problem solvers for long enough to really get you going. How are they going to get rid of these massive robots and save the world? Enter the trickster (the Johnsons even bring in Muhammad Ali’s rope-a-dope), employed in this tale as a strategy of artificial intelligence.

Chippy Payne, the nemesis from Bending Time, has some responsibility for the problem that drives the plot, and in the story’s climax and resolution, which brings aliens, robots, kids and teachers together in the tried-and-true but always nail-biting final minutes of a sports contest.

This could be the end of the world. Emery’s parents take calls from heads of state, NASA and Stephen Hawking. Then they unplug the phone. Will the sixth graders prevail? It all goes down, of course, on the field behind the middle school.


       — Review of The Hard Problem by Toni Wynn.  Wynn is a writer and museum consultant based in Hampton VA.

Middle Passage, the 20th Anniversary edition with a new introduction by Stanley Crouch

Charles Johnson, Middle Passage book coverHailed as miraculous publishing event in 1990 — “Long after we’d stopped believe in the great American novel, along comes a spellbinding adventure story that may be just that" (Chicago Tribune) — the book did go one to win the National Book Award for fiction that year.  Think “black Moby Dick” have you have a sense of the book’s epic scale.  Think “Africanesque picaresque” and you’ll have a sense of how the book departs from from the standard adventure tale at sea to surprise in new ways — for example, by conjuring up a mythic, mysterious African people called the "Allmuseri."

“As I’d heard, they were a remarkably old people,” says the book’s protagonist, the formerly enslaved Rutherford Calhoun, about the Allmuseri.  “About them was the smell of old temples. Cities lost when Europe was embryonic. Looking at them, at their dark skin soft as black leather against knee-length gowns similar to Greek chitons, you felt they had run the full gamut of civilized choices, or played through every political and social possibility and now had nowhere to go…. A people so incapable of abstraction no two instances of ‘hot’ or ‘cold’ was the same for them, this hot porridge today being so specific, unique, and bound to the present that it had only a nominal resemblance to the hot porridge of yesterday.” 

François-Auguste Biard, The Slave Trade, 1833, oil on canvas, 64 × 90.”  Wilberforce House Museum Collection The Middle Passage book's cover art is a detail of Auguste Francois Biard's The Slave Trade. The full reproduction of the painting is shown at right. 

In the full painting in an otherwise horrific scene, we see some of the visual tropes used by 19th century European painters to depict Africans  — the bejeweled, turbaned "black-a-moor" type (to the right, below the ship in the distance), the nubile, bare-breasted African woman concubine; and the well-dressed black man lounging near the reclining white man and smoking what appears to be an opium pipe.  

In their introduction to their book, Blacks and Blackness in the European Art of the Long 19th Century (2014), art historians Adrienne Childs and Susan Libby say that that black people figured in a style of Orientalist European art that included the African peoples of Northern Africa and the eastern Sahel as well as the people of the Near East.  

The Slave Trade painting is sharper in this black and white reproduction (detail)"Images of exotic blacks exponentially increased throughout Europe with the phenomenal popularity of nineteenth-century Orientalism….," they write.  "(The) lust for the exotic black figures functions as a linchpin in the construct of the alluring Orient by marking the space as raced. Perhaps more than any other trend, the interest in a romanticized and fantastic Orient propelled the image of the black body to center stage in nineteenth-century art and visual culture.”

Commenting on The Slave Trade painting, Adrienne Childs told IRAAA+ that the painting “is very unusual for its time. On the one hand, a graphic depiction of some of the horrors of the slave trade — on the other an exoticization of the African body. The painting clearly indicts the white traders AND the African traders. A very complex scene indeed.”

The Words and Wisdom of Charles Johnson  

Book cover, The Words and Wisdom of Charles Johnson This collection stems from a year-long, Q & A in 2011 between Charles Johnson and his friend and colleague, the poet E. Ethelbert Miller on Miller’s E-Channel blog. Johnson’s replies covered  a wide range of topics — growing up in Chicago, living in Seattle, a stint in Frisco, science and technology, the death of a parent, martial arts, poetry, movies, the blight of young black men, writing, and of course philosophy.

The spontaneity of the weekly exchange between friends reveals the warmth of Johnson’s personality and the details of his daily life as well as the formidable range of his knowledge and intellect.

More About The Ten Ox-Herding Pictures

The Ox Herding Pictures were drawn by multiple artists in 12-century China but the best known are by the Zen master Kakuan Shien who wrote poems for each. The pictures visually symbolize the seeker's search for control of the mind or Cover of Charles Johnson's Oxherding Tale bookself (the ox) and the liberation of enlightenment. 

These drawings have been studied intently by Charles Johnson who, in addition to referring to them in his Taming the Ox book title, based the concept of his novel, The Ox Herding Tale, on them.  Johnson's protagonist in this novel is an enslaved black man whose progress is comparable to the seeker in the Ox Herding Pictures.  

The cover illustration for Johnson's Ox Herding Tale novel is based on Hayward Oubre's 1947 pencil drawing, Entanglement. The original Oubre drawing (shown below) is reproduced in the article, "Overlooked but Unbowed: Hayward L. Oubre," by Jerry Langley in IRAAA, vol. 17, no 4., 2001.    

Hayward Oubre, Entanglement, 1947, pencil drawing.When Scribner was re-issuing Oxherding Tale (originally published in 1982), they sent Charles Johnson possible choices for cover art. "None of them were inspiring," he recalls. "Over dinner one night with (playwright) August Wilson, I shared the images they sent to me. And he got to work. He'd just seen Oubre's Entanglement, and suggested it for the cover because, as he said, it showed a black person struggling against something. I said, OK. I told the people at Scribner this is what I wanted for the cover. Oubre was thrilled that his art was going to be used this way, and he was especially pleased by the connection to August. Inside the book, it says, 'Many thanks to August Wilson for his indispensable help on the cover art and design'."

The following are two of the 10 images and poems in Kakuan Shien's version of The Ox Hering Pictures.  See here for all ten of Kakuan Shien's pictures, other depictions, and further information.

7. The Bull Transcended

Ox Herding Picture # 7Astride the Ox, I reach home.
I am serene. The Ox too can rest.
The dawn has come. In blissful repose,
Within my thatched dwelling
                                          I have abandoned the whip and ropes

8. Both Bull and Self Transcended

Ox Herding Picture, # 8Whip, rope, person, and Ox −
all merge in No Thing.
This heaven is so vast,
no message can stain it.
How may a snowflake exist
in a raging fire.
Here are the footprints of
the Ancestors.