Creations by artist d’Elaine Johnson, 83, inspired by scuba diving

EDMONDS — More than 60 years ago, d’Elaine Johnson decided to create the life she wanted.

She could have taken over her parents’ variety store. She could have listened to the people who said women only should teach elementary school, or the official who denied her a job, saying they needed “to keep the arts masculine.”

It’s hard to believe those memories from the woman with the house on a bluff overlooking Puget Sound, whose paintings are scheduled to hang at the downtown Seattle Macy’s later this year, and who has devoted her life to creation and reflection.

At 83, d’Elaine Johnson is busier than ever. She paints five days a week, does her own framing and keeps track of her work in galleries around the world.

She likes to tell people she was born in the parking lot of the Puyallup fairgrounds. The land was once her grandfather’s farm. Her parents would bring their baby girl to their store, keeping her in makeshift playpens made from the merchandise boxes. d’Elaine went to college on art scholarships and became a teacher, self-supported by age 22.

“As much as I hated that store, it gave me a second education on how to deal with people and how to run a business,” she said.

It’s quiet on the bluff in Edmonds, where she keeps an eye on the sequoias and where guests rarely leave before the sun sets behind the Olympics. Her husband, John, was a claims adjuster who specialized in personal injury cases.

At the University of Washington, she’d needed another credit and enrolled in a dance class. John had taken the class to meet a girl. It worked. Their first conversation was about frogs. John was homesick for frog legs, a favorite dinner where he was from in Arkansas.

On their wedding night in 1956, they moved into their first little house in the Five Corners area of Edmonds. They came to know a couple with 6.5 acres on a waterfront bluff, then north of city limits. Back then that area, once a U.S. Coast Guard lookout, was considered the countryside. The man died and the woman missed city life, so the Johnsons bought the place in 1972.

d’Elaine used to love listening to the coyotes at night, before development chased off the wildlife. Later, when the upkeep got to be too much, the Johnsons sold off about half the land. John died in 2009. Today, their property is in trust for scholarships through the arts program at Edmonds Community College.

As a teacher, d’Elaine worked in public and private schools, and museums, retiring in 1978 from Roosevelt High School in Seattle. When asked if she has children, she always says, “Yes, 10,000,” meaning those she taught.

d’Elaine jokes that her marriage was spent on the road, in camping tents and military surplus hammocks. She and John liked to get outside and travel, towing behind them a little trailer studio for d’Elaine. She always brought her violin along to play as well.

Military surplus equipment was in fashion after World War II, including scuba diving gear, she said. John joined a diving club, and d’Elaine went with him.

In diving, she found “the beauty of being in flotation, seeing the motion of the seaweed and the plants,” she said. “This world had a peace that we don’t seem to get on land.”

The famed explorer Jacques Cousteau, then just starting out, came to town in the 1950s and dove with the local diving club, including d’Elaine.

At the time, Cousteau was criticized for not conforming to the culture of higher education, d’Elaine said. He didn’t have a fancy title. He did what he wanted. He told her he liked how the water inspired her art, she said.

d’Elaine kept diving until the 1980s, when the equipment was getting complicated, the lines longer and the water murkier, she said.

Her studio at home is a place of peace with natural light, a view and a fireplace. d’Elaine likes to hear the rain on the roof. When storms come, she often loses power, bringing her sleeping bag, her tea and her cat, Fiddle, into the studio to work and sleep.

Her work table is lined with antique goblets full of color pencils. Her favorite piece of equipment is “the chopper,” where she presses a lever to cut a piece of frame at a perfect and smooth 45-degree angle.

Art was her first language, she said. As a child with eye problems, she struggled to express herself in a visual way, so she created her own style. For artists who make history, “their life and who they are merge into their own handwriting,” she said. “It’s the thread that has been all the way through my life. It’s something that comes from your inner life and what you want to talk about.”

She uses photo slides and negatives to plan the layouts for galleries. Each slide bears her neat penmanship, with frame measurements down to the quarter-inch. She expects that someday, her slides and papers will go to UW for archiving.

“I try to surround myself with all of the things that inspire me,” she said, pointing to the skeleton of a lingcod mounted above a doorway. In her own words, her work combines classic symbols, ancient cultures and maritime myths. She reads two newspapers a day, and the years of watching wars, inequities and “people wanting to take down others” is in her art, too, she said.

The water isn’t like that, though. The water is universal, touching every culture, every belief system, every corner of the world, she said. She goes swimming three times a week.

She doesn’t paint on weekends, her “time out for the mind to think and breathe and solve problems.”

She misses traveling with John. The frog figurines in her studio remind her of him, though she finds contentment in this other life, a life that gets to be about her.

It’s important to keep learning and growing, she said, and to pay attention to a world that doesn’t stop changing. She likes to think her best work is yet to come.

Art, like science, she said, is about going beyond what already exists.

Rikki King: 425-339-3449; rking@heraldnet.com.

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