Letters From The Sea Tower

20181113_225510 (2)The past couple of months have been pretty quiet here on the blog, and that’s mostly because I’ve been pouring all my time and energy and passion into launching an enormous new project that’s unlike anything I’ve ever undertaken before. I just began sharing it with the world this month and I’ve never been this excited about any of my other creative ventures, so I just have to make a little announcement about it here too!

So here it is: I’m going to be producing a handmade monthly subscription letter that celebrates art and literature and how it matters for the Great Battle of Our Time. I’ll fill these letters with watercolor paintings and sketches, field notes from nature or history or my travels, and illustrated poetry or quotes from my commonplace book. My dream for this project is to produce a letter that fills people with courage and creativity. And I want to make gorgeous, high-quality copies of them and personalize each one and mail them out all over the world.

I remember when I was a kid getting letters in the mail was always a festive occasion. I had a few friends who wrote me snail mail letters and I basically haunted the mailbox whenever I knew one was on the way. Sometimes I would bring the letter inside but wait a few hours to open it, just because I wanted the anticipation to last longer!

Fast-forward to today and most of my mail now is bills and bank statements and political ads and grocery store coupons for items I’m not ever going to buy. I think that might be true for most of us. And I don’t like that. So over the summer I’ve began toying with an idea for how to use to my gifts and talents and interests to revive beautiful, meaningful, and unique hard-copy mail.

Because I know: the world isn’t always a glad place. What’s around us is sometimes so dark. And I want to do some little thing to bring the wisdom and the beauty of the ages right down into mailboxes and homes in a tangible form: fresh artwork on paper you can hold and hang up on the fridge and carry around in your pocket. I want to revive beautiful, meaningful, and unique hard-copy mail. I want to give people courage, because goodness only knows we NEED it. I need it every day. So that’s why I decided to begin writing the Letters From the Sea Tower.

The inspiration for the name of this subscription comes from “The Monsters and the Critics,” an essay J.R.R. Tolkien wrote about literary criticism of Beowulf. In his essay, Tolkien tells a little allegorical story about a man who built a tower on his property. His friends and neighbors thought the tower was a waste of valuable material, but they didn’t know that the man had built it in order to be able to see the sea. My hope is that these letters will offer a similar vantage-point as the tower in that story, that in the middle of our often dreary and monotonous lives, they will be a reminder of glory and unseen reality and a fleeting glimpse of “joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.”

I don’t plan to make these letters a highlight reel or a carefully curated collection of the happy things happening in my life. Instead, I want them to be a well of stories and ideas that inspire others to take heart and remember their callings. And I want to draw out the glory from ordinary things so that others can be inspired to do the same in their own settings, no matter where they are.

IMG_20181102_213955_538 (2)Over the past two months, I’ve spent many hours getting this project ready to launch and producing the first letter. It’s printed right here in my own home on thick, 100% cotton paper and packaged in the most epic envelope, with ink stamps vintage postage stamps. So far, I’ve sent out fifty-four of these letters to giveaway winners, subscribers, and friends, and I have another twelve going out this week. In order to make the letters as accessible as possible, I’m offering subscriptions for three months, six months, or a year, and if you’re not sure if this subscription is for you, you can even purchase a one-month trial subscription for just $12 (which actually comes with two letters, since it includes the intro letter as well as the next monthly letter!) If this sounds like something you might want to be a part of, check out the subscription listing in my Etsy shop to learn more.

The project will officially begin in January 2019 when I mail out the second letter, which I’m currently creating. Afterwards, a new letter will be mailed out each month. That means this is the perfect time to subscribe if you want to be sure you don’t miss out on any of the letters! The subscription might also be a glorious and meaningful Christmas gift for friends who care about literature and the arts. Several people have already ordered gift subscriptions and I work with each one to create a unique, handwritten note explaining the subscription to the gift recipient.

Eventually, my hope is that each month I’ll be able to mail some of these letters out to people who aren’t subscribers at all and might not otherwise ever receive anything like this. The initial launch for a project like is quite costly and so I’ll need a stable subscriber base in order to be able to afford to expand the reach of the letters in this way. However, as I invite you to participate with me in the development of this project, I want to let you know my full vision for where I hope to take these Letters From the Sea Tower.

Growing Up With Tennyson: How The Text Takes Us Higher

20180924_120033When I was twelve, I had the opportunity to spend an afternoon in the legendary bookshops of the Welsh town of Hay-on-Wye. For £5, I purchased an ancient copy of Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poetry, published in 1883, nine years before his death.

What a world of wonder it opened up to me! It may have even changed my life.

On one of the front pages, spotted with yellow patches of age, I found an inscription identifying the book’s first owner: “To Lilian Henderson from the Parents of the Infant School of S. Mark’s South Teddington in token of their love and appreciation of her kindness to their children. Jan 31. 1884.” How this excited me! Well over a century before, this woman had held my book in her own hands and loved it when it was new and the golden gilt edges still shone. In my imagination, I created Lilian Henderson. She had dark hair and spoke with a soft voice and wore plain white dresses edged with lace.

20180924_120137Inside her book, I found little slips of verse and a penciled list of titles with their corresponding page numbers. Lilian, I was sure, had written these. I read them over and over, and I carefully worked through her list of what I assumed were recommended titles, prepared to like each one right from the start, reading them like a prospector hunting for gold.

The other slips of paper, those with the excerpts of poetry, planted themselves in my mind and, thirteen years later, I still think of them sometimes. One piece had two neat little maxims penned with great care. I was fascinated by the appearance of the writing. The effect of the inked dip pen on the page was startling and glorious to me, and looking back now, I think my first love for old-fashioned ink lettering was kindled in me that very day.

20180924_120212On the back of this sheet, Lilian (so I like to think) had written out a quatrain from “Lady Clara Vere de Vere.” I didn’t have ready internet access at the time, so I didn’t know the origin of the verse until I discovered it myself in the poem. What fun that was! What a thrill of discovery! The text reads:

Howe’er it be, it seems to me,
’Tis only noble to be good.
Kind hearts are more than coronets,
And simple faith than Norman blood.

At the time, I had yet no notion of the tempting lures of classism and snobbery that would come to afflict me later. But I hid these lines away in my heart and they came back to me just this week to shed light and wisdom on a present struggle.

And this, after all, is why I do what I do. It’s why I love to create art out of words that have the power of truth behind them. Because when these words are duly ingested and have truly saturated our hearts, I do believe they are weapons in the good fight of everyday life. It’s as Charlotte Mason wrote in Towards A Philosophy of Education: I heard the other day of a man whose whole life had been elevated by a single inspiring (poetic) sentence which he heard as a schoolboy.” 20180924_120253

That’s real. The text can take us higher. I believe it because it happens to me.

For the rest of my stay in Great Britain, I devoured Tennyson voraciously from this historic volume. I had always enjoyed reading, and had read some of Tennyson already, but the experience of stumbling through pages of blank verse that I knew to be intended for adults was a new kind of challenge. It made me feel grown up and I was eager to rise to the occasion and demonstrate that I could enjoy this book as it was meant to be enjoyed and as thousands of other Victorian Britons (including Lilian) had, I presumed, enjoyed it.

I read the easy ones, like “The Lady of Shallot,” “The Brook,” “Alymer’s Field,” “Marianna in the South,” “Break break break,” and Lady Clare,” (not the same as Lady Clara Vere de Vere. I know, so confusing.) I tried to read “The Princess,” although I understood it not a whit. I even struggled through pages and pages of “In Memoriam.” On the plane back to the Middle East, where my family was living at the time, I tried to hide my tears over “Rizpah” and “In The Children’s Hospital.” And in a cold drizzle in the Welsh countryside, sheltering the book with my jacket, I read a poem that would affect me so much I would write about the experience later in my own first poetry collection.

20180924_120502To contemporary readers, “Enoch Arden” might seem to be trying too hard. The story of a sailor who is lost at sea and returns home after many years to find that his devoted wife has finally given him up for dead and remarried his childhood rival may not sound to us like a fresh plot or a new idea. But reading the story at twelve, still inexperienced both in life and in fiction, I was captivated by the pathos and tragedy of the characters. I was desperate for a resolution, for a happy ending, and genuinely disappointed when I realized that the loss in the story was going to be permanent, that there was not going to be any way out. However, I was able to grasp some little part of what Enoch’s character champions at the end of the story when he chooses not to reveal himself to his wife and her new husband but dies alone, blessing them with his last words and taking comfort that he will soon join their child whose death in infancy had been a great blow.

It doesn’t sound original, perhaps, but this woeful story in blank verse moved my heart so deeply and stirred me to value and adore silent, self-denying heroism, an attribute all too easily forgotten in this era of fanfare and self-promotion. “Enoch Arden” talked to me and it made me better. It talked to me because I had no smartphone to fill up my spare minutes, no little red notifications to distract me from the book in my hands and the great outdoors around me. Because of that, I made connections with words that would stick with me always, and with a woman who lived over a hundred years ago and was kind to the children of the Infant School at St. Mark’s, South Teddington.

20180923_140605I have yet to mention the Tennyson poem that has been with me the longest. Even before I bought Lilian Henderson’s book in the little Welsh shop, I had memorized one of Tennyson’s most famous pieces in school and copied it out in my best hand-writing on lined paper. I had been given the option to pick a poem to memorize, and the one I chose was “Crossing The Bar.” Yes, I chose it in part because it was shorter than many of the other options. (Although, to be fair, it’s certainly longer than “Flower In The Crannied Wall.” So there’s that.) But also, it held a strange fascination for me. I had only a vague idea of what was being conveyed, and was certainly thrown off by phrases like, “from out our bourne of Time and Place,” and “such a tide as moving seems asleep,” but I just disregarded these odd lines and stuck to what I understood.

I knew that in this poem, Tennyson compares death to a sandbar that separates a ship from the ocean, and hints at his hope of encountering God (the “Pilot”) on the other side of death. This seemed sublime to me, and while I wanted Tennyson to take a bit of a lighter tone and be a little bit more reassuring and less darkly mysterious, I was, on the whole, well satisfied with my choice. Lilian too, it seems, was a fan. “Crossing The Bar” was only poem she wrote out in its entirety and stowed away between the pages of her copy of Tennyson.

It has been something like seventeen years since then. I now know why Tennyson said, “Twilight and evening bell, / And after that the dark!” I know why he said he “hoped,” to see the Pilot, not that he “would” see Him. Like most of the great thinkers and writers in the Victorian age, Tennyson grappled with faith all throughout his life and at times seems to have been overwhelmed by doubt. But the words he wrote in honor of his friend Arthur Henry Hallam in “In Memoriam,” are perhaps equally applicable to their author:

Perplext in faith, but pure in deeds,
At last he beat his music out.
There lives more faith in honest doubt,
Believe me, than in half the creeds.

Later in his life, Tennyson wrote, “The Pilot has been on board all the while, but in the dark I have not seen him…[He is] that Divine and Unseen Who is always guiding us.” Before his death, he told his son Hallam that he wanted “Crossing The Bar” to appear at the end of all future editions of his poetry.

At last he beat his music out.

20180923_141052A few weeks ago, I set out to create a piece of art that would honor the debt I owe to Tennyson. My artistic rendition of “Crossing The Bar” is a small watercolor painting accompanied by hand-lettered dip pen calligraphy – the kind Lilian Henderson got me sold on back in the day. Thanks, Lilian, whoever you were. It took me several days to complete this piece and although my capitals are still improving, I’m pleased with how it came out. 8×10 prints just became available in my Etsy shop yesterday, so if you want to have one for your own home, click here to view the listing.

[NOTE: I’ve tried to find records of Lilian Henderson, but haven’t been successful so far. If anyone out there knows anything about her, her family, life, or connections, I’d love to hear from you!]

The Long Defeat

20180828_124002 (2)“For the Lord of the Galadhrim is accounted the wisest of the Elves of Middle-Earth, and a giver of gifts beyond the power of kings. He has dwelt in the West since the days of dawn, and I have dwelt with him years uncounted; for ere the fall of Nargothrond or Gondolin I passed over the mountains, and together through the ages of the world we have fought the long defeat.”

    [Galadriel,
          The Fellowship of the Ring]

My husband and I have been reading The Lord of the Rings out loud to each other since we got married back in May. I haven’t read the books since my sister and I took turns reading them to my little brother back in 2013, and I made my first serious Tolkien art project: this set of illustrations to go with Pippin’s Song.

20180828_124227 (2)

I remember I sunk a solid 120 hours into these and was soooo happy with them when they were finished, although I can now see a host of little flaws in them that completely evaded my untrained eye in 2013. This time around, I’ve taken the opportunity to do another project, albeit on a smaller scale than the interminable Pippin’s Song. I’ve wanted to make this one for quite some time, and although it’s far from perfect, when I finished it earlier this month, I decided immediately that it was my favorite thing I’ve ever made, primarily because of my deep love for the subject matter. (Although the silver ink accents that catch the light like dewy gossamer certainly could be a part of it).

When I first noticed this passage in which Galadriel tells Frodo that she and Celeborn have been fighting the long defeat through the ages of the world, I was struck by the haunting beauty of the phrase, but found myself wanting to know more about what Tolkien intended by putting this statement in the mouth of this wise and oh-so experienced Elven queen.

20180828_125254 (2)My curiosity was satisfied when I read The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, published in 2000. “I am a Christian,” Tolkien wrote in one of his letters, “…so that I do not expect ‘history’ to be anything but a ‘long defeat’ — though it contains (and in a legend may contain more clearly and movingly) some samples or glimpses of final victory.”

There is something immensely empowering and courage-giving in this image Tolkien has given us: this picture of a great and gracious royal couple persisting in their quiet, relentless resistance of the ever-encircling darkness. This is one hardcore power couple. And perhaps they serve as a shadow of what we also have it in our power to be — all we who are looking for a better country.

[NOTE: As of just a few minutes ago, 8×10 fine art prints of this piece are now available in my Etsy shop. Each print is hand-tipped with silver ink and shimmers just as gloriously as the original painting.]

New Things

Well, well. How to catch up after eight months of silence in the weblog world?

wedding coverI got married. To my best friend and my beloved companion. At our ceremony, my sister read from The Little Prince and we both cried like babies on the stage. My husband and I read that book together in the early days of our friendship and it’s so special to both of us.

When we were dating, we spent one hundred days apart one very long summer and I wrote a song to present to him when we were back together again. I couldn’t help drawing from Saint-Exupery: There are no shops where you can buy friends…” it began. And even today, that’s what I treasure the most about my relationship with him — we have a friendship that we took great pains to build and into which we invested many hours long before we ever thought we’d one day be one flesh. And friendship is a glue that holds tighter than any passions.

For our wedding, I created five different works of illustrated calligraphy celebrating books that were particularly meaningful to us as a couple. Sense and Sensibility and Much 20180707_185255 (2)Ado About Nothing were among them, but some of our favorites were quotes from children’s books like The Little Prince and the silly old bear.

Prints of these original paintings are now available in my Etsy shop, so that’s exciting. In other news, I’ve been working on quite a few new art projects and the shop now offers several paintings/calligraphy quotes including some from The Hobbit, Puddleglum, Robert Browning, and The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. Also, there’s two beautiful Wodehouse quotes that I’m particularly attached to.

But some of the biggest recent Etsy news from my end is that I’m now offering custom illustrated calligraphy quotes! So if you like my style but I haven’t offered the specific quote you’re dreaming about hanging on your wall, I can now make it specifically for you and it’ll be your own original work of handmade, hand-lettered art.

There are a lot of other new things in the works, but for now I’ll see you over on Etsy! Also, if you’d like to keep in touch, my instagram has been seeing a lot more action these days, so find me over there at _bryana_johnson to hear about all the new happenings, including a sweet art giveaway that I’ll be posting tomorrow.

2017 Christmas Cards

20170916_182813 (2)I have to say it. I’m a strong opponent of premature Christmas decorations and celebrations. In fact, if I go into a grocery store or department store in October and seeing tinsel and lights and elves, I try to ignore them completely, since I feel like these things spoil the grandeur of the way the Christmas season ought to spring upon us, much-awaited, with the beginning of December.

That being the case, I long debated whether to make this post at all, but I ended up deciding that it might be worth it to some people. So if you’re like me and cringe when you see Christmas things out too soon, don’t worry – I’ll keep this short.

20170916_182413Ever since I opened my Etsy shop two years ago, I’ve dreamed about designing a set of watercolor and calligraphy Christmas cards. This year, I finally had an opportunity to make that dream a reality and I spent part of the summer working on these new paintings and calligraphy pieces. I then turned this original artwork into printed cards that can be used as traditional Christmas cards or framed to be gifted or displayed as unique works of art.

And these new cards are available in my Etsy shop NOW.

So many of my favorite things about Christmas are classic and old – like the rich and beautiful carols and poems celebrating the advent of Christ. My other favorite thing about Christmas is the spirit of generosity and grace that we celebrate and attempt to extend to others during the season. This Christmas, I wanted to make art that would express both of these things and for this reason, 50% of net proceeds from any Christmas card purchases from my Etsy shop will benefit the work of Compassion International, a humanitarian aid organization serving children in poverty around the globe.

20170916_181840 (2)Although it’s only the beginning of November, I wanted to let you know about this now so that you have plenty of time to order them. Please note that these cards can be ordered in any combination you like! There is a listing in the shop for a set of three, and also individual listings. However, if you find you really like two of the designs and don’t care much for the third, you can order as many of these two cards as you like. If you send a custom order request, I can create a listing for you that will include your entire purchase in one listing and will cut down on your shipping costs. I usually respond to convos very promptly and you shouldn’t have to wait long for me to create the listing for you.

Alright, friends, that’s all. You can return to your normal routine and wait for Christmas to come at its proper time.