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Time: Margaret A. Johns

ART TIMES Jun, 2004

WE PARSE TIME at our peril. Focussing on minutia, we are blind to the grand design; concentrating on the individual tree, the mystery of the forest eludes us. Smug in our technical ability to measure it to the nano-second, we lose sight of time’s essential unreality, forget that it is no more than a human construct, forget that, in the end, it signifies nothing. No "thing." So enslaved and enamoured by the ingenious gadgetry of our timepieces, we have forgotten — as our ancient forebears could never forget — that it is the cessation of time that holds any real import for us. Prehistoric people may not have had atomic watches but they knew of the passage of time — measured it on such grand scales as equinoxes and eclipses, on plantings and harvestings, rather than on the picayune measurements of social or business calendars. Our early ancestors instinctively knew that something passed, but only paid it the homage of especial notice when it manifested itself in the implacably personal guise of death. Alive to the instant — the only "piece" of time any living thing ever has — they became instantly cognizant of their fellow’s final bid for time — saw clearly the difference between a living thing and a dead thing, between something in time and something out of it. All living things die. We know this. Yet the absolute finality of the "end of time" for a fellow human being still retains its cryptic mystery, its consuming dread, its certain impact on our sensibilities. And, although we are never totally free of death’s presence, we feel it most keenly when it visits someone close, someone we know, someone with whom we have shared contiguous instants — shared some "time" together. It is then that we know that time has nothing to do with years, months, days — nothing to do with hours, minutes, or seconds. It is, ultimately, only a matter of being or non-being. What is, will someday be no thing; what was, can never return; what will be will itself cease to be when it is decreed that its time has "run out." The Koran tells us we have a finite number of breaths – no more, no less. Not minutes. Breaths. A fixed number of inhalations. Death recently brought its message to me once again. I attended the memorial service of Margaret A. Johns — a woman, a mother, a wife, a scientist, a friend to many — and, as I knew her — an artist. Held in her garden in Mountainville, New York, the service — a celebration, really — reminded those present of her many roles, her many points of contact with others, her personal use of her prescribed number of breaths. By all accounts they were well spent. None of the speakers could really share Margaret with us, however. We, still entrapped in time, can no longer speak for Margaret who is now out of time. Words of relatives and friends floated on warm breezes that hinted of rain. Of necessity, the speakers — no matter how sincere, how eloquent — only communicated their own thoughts; none spoke for Margaret. But then, how could they? How fortunate, then, that in addition to being a woman, a mother, a wife, a scientist, a friend, Margaret also had the special gift of sharing herself through her art and, like all artists, instinctively knew how to thwart the web of time. The artist within her discovered the secret of communicating outside of time by learning how to fix a moment on canvas. A pastelist with an exceptional sensitivity to the richness of nature — her surrounding gardens spoke more eloquently of her closeness to itthan could any human voice — Margaret has left behind the enduring legacy of her vision of nature. Should anyone want to truly see Margaret — to learn how she lived in time — it is only necessary to spend a few moments in the presence of her paintings. Assuredly, her "selves" as woman, mother, wife, scientist, and friend have all contributed to who Margaret was in the flesh — but it is as an artist that we can all see and enjoy her in her special place out of time.

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