As We Sow : Why the Great Divide

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  • Format: Hardcover
  • Copyright: 2012-03-19
  • Publisher: Textstream
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As I turned the pages and began reading this odyssey of Barry Johnston, as a veteran and artist, my interest increased, and I was pleased that I had agreed to review it. 'As We Sow' is not a book of fiction, nor a novel but an autobiography of a modern renaissance man, but a man no-less, with all his foibles, his successes, failures, fears and frustrations laid out with surgical precision in the cold reality of life's twists and turns. Viet Nam leaves an open wound Barry struggles to understand. He is empathic to the wrongs inflected on the innocent whether from war or life itself. His nature is sculpting figurative art imbued with his concerns for humanity. He joins a religious art colony in the Swiss Alps known as L'Abri where Barry argues with the founder Francis Schaeffer over interpretation of scripture and wrestles with his own spirit over the contradictions. Never at peace, he's at odds with the commercial art establishment for commissions, and he reflects on failed marriages after a near heart attack he barely survives. Barry reveals himself with honesty and a humanity which make this a compelling biography and a historical account of a representational artist, veteran and inventor.


CHAPTER 1 No Space For The Soul "God has written the world's greatest comedy, and no one is laughing." Voltaire Fate takes a spin. Barry lies prostrate on a hospital transport, waiting to be rolled to the operating room. Joe Farr, Eli Fass and Bill Dadd lean over him in austere prayer. These brothers in the faith had risen early that morning to see him through the procedure. The anesthesiologist checks his vitals as the worn artist resigns himself to whatever lies ahead. "I've been blessed," he tells his friends. "I made it this far." The heart rate and other vitals are stabile. In the waiting room, the pastor sits with his wife, Soony, who had left him a few months earlier only to return when she heard the news. The procedure will require the doctors to stop his heart, allowing him to momentarily die while hooking up a mechanical recessitator. A triple bypass requires the surgeon to suture three veils serving the outer muscles of the heart. Barry's grandfather at fifty-one, while struggling to carry his family through the Great Depression, died of a heart attack. His father at 65 had suffered and died of a massive heart attack while visiting him in Washington. Recently seized with excruciating leg cramps, he mentally worked his way through the pain, astonished how the attacks disappeared as rapidly as they came. Two weeks earlier, with no idea he had a problem, he and Eli Farr took a four-mile walk through Leakin Park. Up the big hill, he nearly passed out, assuming a collapse would have been a heart attack. After a pause and aft er cresting the precipice, a storm kicked up, forcing them to take shelter under the covered porch of the Outward Bound Headquarters, giving Barry a reprieve to finish the remaining mile. Four days earlier, in the middle of a tennis match, he was forced to stop from exhaustion. For two years, he thought it was heartburn. Apparently, every day of it was playing Russian roulette. Only a stress test revealed the problem. At 66, with one large vein almost 100% blocked and two others at 75%, a reckoning was at hand. Given his genetic propensity, one doctor told him, "Obviously, God has some further purpose for you." Just ten years earlier, his Mom had faced a similar surgery. The night before, she confided to Barry, "just between you and me, I don't think I'm going to make it." "Not to worry," he reassured her, "You'll be just fine." In her trip down the corridor to the operation room, she waved back a cheerful goodbye, saying, "Don't worry about me. I've had a wonderful life. It's been a great ride." She awoke the next morning with Barry looking down to greet her. "Mother, this is not heaven," he said. She responded, "I stand corrected." Now this accounting feels like deja vu. Time is our most precious gift. If managed with anxiety, the stress can kill us. Yet, time wasted is time gone forever. With good reason to believe all will work out, Dr. Secarus, the head of Cardiology for Sinai Hospital, is confident of the outcome. A native from British Guiana, he's the last surgeon on his team to hand stitch the sutures, connecting and bypassing the tiny arteries. In any case, Barry remains relaxed as he's transferred onto an operating table and, as the anesthesia takes effect, passes into oblivion. Rather than the events themselves, our individuality, our uniqueness, depends on our response to the events. We are all in the clutches of the unsympathetic negative influences of our times. But the abrasive mechanisms that have fostered the fruits of modern science, that have generated a negative karma against human values, oft en acerbating his efforts as an artist, now are working a miracle to save his life. His story, as an aspiring artist, really began when he arrived in Florence, Italy, thirty-seven years earlier. In those days, a great urgency seemed to overwhelm him. The real wake-up came during a visit to Fiesele, outside of Florence, featuring one of Europe's oldest archaeological treasures. His catharsis on that sunny day was not so much because of the place where he visited but the agenda presented to him by the monk who showed him around. On that day in spring, in the year 1970, to one side of the main plaza in that ancient town, Barry ascends up a long set of stairs leading up to an old Franciscan monastery, now converted into a museum. This Renaissance building, although lying in the heart of one of Italy's oldest Etruscan ruins, a birthplace of Ancient Western Rome, strangely houses one of the finest collections of Oriental art in Europe. The doors of the museum swing open, and the jovial monk offers to give him a tour through his domain of treasures. Aft er walking through the halls of tapestries, porcelain urns, and bronze figurines, the monk leads him to a particular display window facing the sunny side of the main gallery, pulls out his keys, and directs the wide-eyed visitor to close his eyes and to put out his hand. A panel door slides open and the monk is heard rummaging through his mysterious cache. Eyes shut, suddenly the young aspiring artist feels a slap in his hand and, opening his eyes, sees in his hand the hand of an ancient Egyptian mummy. The remnant is small, black and intact, starkly contrasting the white palm of his own hand. The monk grins in amusement and turns to another nearby counter from where he exchanges the mummified hand for an ancient sphere made of beige ivory. This sphere, which he calls in English 'a Thousand-layered Ball,' encloses within each layer another and then another within it and so on. Using a small wooden pointer, he aligned each delicate concentric sphere until he reaches past 25 layers to find its core. The hopeful artist studies the intricately carved details of each layer. The outer layer is a maze of gnarling dragons like worms intertwined around the surface. Two layers inside form patterns of birds and then a layer of tangled woven vines and so on. "More than a hundred years ago, our occidental brothers gave this amazing work to our Chinese mission," he says. "For more than six hundred years, this multilayered globe has drawn mediating Buddhists into the inner sanctum of the soul and into self-discovery." Intrigued, Barry feels an urgency to make peace with himself. Since being discharged from the military, he has meandered through several layers on a quest to regain some perspective or perhaps to rebuild his self-esteem. Still immersed in this soul-searching quest, peeling away the layers of his own confusion, to get to the core of his identity was a daunting challenge. Florence seems to embody everything he'll ever need as an aspiring artist, and he wants to master all of its lessons. With all its wealth of art, the city conveyed a sense of timelessness. But Florence too was overwhelming. Perhaps, if he had known the future, he would have seen his life shifting to another layer. He would have known that the best was just ahead, that he would be introduced to the great artists of Renaissance Europe such as Gilberti, della Robbia, Donatello, Michelangelo, and Gian Bologna, and that his friends would be among the finest young artists of his generation. He would have known that he would work with some of the finest artisans of Florence and study with the master artist and teacher, Nerina Simi, that he would dine at inexpensive restaurants and have endless discussions about art and the meaning of life with his peer friends, while having the time of his life.

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