STILL, THERE’S LIFE IN MILLFORD!

The artist Lester Johnson was born in Minneapolis, Minnesota in 1919 and died in Southampton, New York in 2010.  He studied at the Minneapolis School of Art and the Art Institute of Chicago.  He moved to New York City in 1947 and then to Milford, Connecticut in 1964 after accepting a teaching position at the Yale University School of Art and Architecture.  Although he remained a figurative painter, he did adopt many of the concerns and issues shared by the abstract expressionist artists of the time.

Johnson’s work is represented in the collections of the Baltimore Museum of Art and the Art Institute of Chicago; The Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota; Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, Connecticut; the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Guggenheim Museum in New York; and the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden and the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, DC.

millford
LESTER JOHNSON
“Millford Still Life”
1965
Oil on canvas
48” x 42”
Harvard Museums/Fogg Museum of Art
Cambridge, Massachusetts

 

Thomas Lynch was born in 1948 in Detroit, Michigan.  He attended the Brother Rice High School in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan and later attended university and mortuary school, from which he graduated in 1973.  He took over his father’s funeral business in Milford, Michigan in 1974.

He has held teaching positions at Wayne State University in Detroit, the Creative Writing Program at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, and the Candler School of Theology, Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia.

Thomas Lynch’s poems and stories have appeared in The Atlantic, the New York Times and the Times of London, the New Yorker, Poetry, the Paris Review, the Los Angeles Times, the Irish Times, Esquire, Newsweek and the Washington Post.

His writing draws upon autobiographical incidents, memories and other elements of daily life.  Focusing on many of those experiences from his life outside of the literary world and on the routines of small town life in Michigan, he often transforms a local detail into a universal symbol.

Thomas Lynch still lives and works in Milford, Michigan, where he is the Funeral Director.

This is confusing, as one lives in Milford, Michigan and the other lived in Milford, Connecticut, and when they write or paint about a ‘still life in Millford’ I still don’t quite know where I am.

The paintings are in collections in both Ann Arbor, Michigan and Cambridge, Massachusetts, while the objects depicted could be from anywhere, any small town junk shop or flea market.  The poetic structures are strict, but with variations.  As are the still lives.

Johnson arranges everyday objects in each composition, incorporating expressionist paint handling while maintaining figurative content.  Lynch employs a strict eight line form – ten to twelve syllable beats to each line – but then varies the last line to surprising rhythms, wording and imagery.

 

Still Life in Milford—Oil on Canvas by Lester Johnson”

“You’re lucky to live in a town like this
with art museums and Indian food
and movie houses showing foreign films
and grad students and comely undergrads.
Years back I’d often make a half-hour trip.
It was good for my creative juices
to browse the holy books at Shaman Drum.
Still, life in Milford isn’t all that bad.

We have two trendy restaurants and a bar
well known by locals for its Coney dogs.
We have a bookshop now.  We even have
a rush hour, art fairs and bon vivants.
And a classic car show every October—
mostly muscle cars—Dodges, Chevys, Fords.
No psychic healers yet or homeopaths.
Still, life in Milford has a certain ambiance,

more Wyeth than Picasso, to be sure,
more meatloaf and potatoes than dim-sum.  Fact is,
at first I thought this Lester Johnson was
a shirttail cousin of the Johnson brothers—
long-standing members of the Chamber of Commerce
in Milford, Michigan, like me.  In fact
his only connection to these parts was
Still Life in Milford, gathering dust here

in the basement of the art museum.
His own Milford’s somewhere back east, near Yale—
the day job, teaching, he could never quit
the way that Robert Frost taught English here
and Donald Hall before the muse in them
escaped their offices in Angell Hall.
They were last seen running and maybe running still.
Life in Milford, Michigan, is similar.”

millford2
LESTER JOHNSON
“Millford Still Life”
1965
Oil on canvas
44 5/16” x 36”
University of Michigan, Museum of Art
Ann Arbor, Michigan

“I have steady work, a circle of friends
and lunch on Thursdays with the Rotary.
I have a wife, unspeakably beautiful,
a daughter and three sons, a cat, a car,
good credit, taxes and mortgage payments
and certain duties here.  Notably,
when folks get horizontal, breathless, still:
life in Milford ends.  They call.  I send a car.

Between the obsequies I play with words.
I count the sounds and syllables and rhymes.
I try to give it shape and sense, like so:
eight stanzas of eight lines apiece, let’s say
ten syllables per line or twelve.  Just words.
And if rhyming’s out of fashion, I fashion rhymes
that keep their distance, fours lines apart, like so.
Still, life in Milford keeps repeating.  Say

I’m just like Lester, just like Frost and Hall:
I covet the moment in which nothing moves
and crave the life free of life’s distractions.
A bucket of flowers on a table.
A vase to arrange the flowers in.  A small
pipe—is it?—smoldering in an ashtray to
suggest the artist and impending action.
Still Life in Milford seems a parable

on the human hunger for creation.
The flowers move from bucket to vase
like moving words at random into song—
the act of ordering is all the same—
the ordinary becomes a celebration.
Whether paper, canvas, ink or oil paints,
once finished we achieve a peace we call
Still Life in Milford.  Then we sign our names.”[i]

 


[i] Lynch, Thomas; Still Life in Milford; W. W. Norton & Company; New York, New York; 1998; pp. 134-136.

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