Illustrating his point

“A Herd Moving,” part of a traveling exhibit of 100 pieces of John Lennon’s artwork that will make a three-day stop here. At right, John and Yoko in the 1970s.

It was 1966 when Beatle John Lennon sang back up and played guitar on Paul McCartney’s “When I’m Sixty-Four.” Lennon was, at the time, 26. And, though he told Playboy in 1980, “I would never even dream of writing a song like that … there are some areas I never think about and that is one of them,” it’s impossible for us — fans, children of fans, nay-sayers or curious bystanders — not to think about it.

Because, if he was living now, Lennon would be 64.

In a weirdly prophetic twist, the superstar’s 1980 comment came just months before his murder. But, some people think Lennon knew what was coming. Even his wife, Yoko Ono, makes such a comment when referring to the “Real Love” drawings Lennon rendered for his young son, Sean. ” … Maybe on a subconscious level he knew that he was going to leave this earth sooner than most fathers do,” she recently said in a press statement.

In the Playboy interview, Lennon also mused, “The unknown is what it is. And to be frightened of it is what sends everybody scurrying around chasing dreams, illusions, wars, peace, love, hate, all that … it’s all illusion. “Unknown is what it is,” he repeated. “Accept that it’s unknown and it’s plain sailing.”

Then he left us — the fans, children of fans, nay-sayers and bemused bystanders — with a curious legacy: the puppy-love pop of early Beatles albums, the mind-altering tunes of the later years, the experimental work with the Plastic Ono Band, and the rallying cry of “Give Peace a Chance.”

Plus a little piece of his own unknown: his visual art — a portion of which will make a three-day stop in Asheville as part of the When I’m Sixty-Four tour.

“Surrealism is reality”

photo by Ben Ross
John Lennon and Yoko Ono drawing at their Greenwich Village apartment in 1972.

“People feel John is coming to their town for the first time,” professed Yoko Ono during a phone interview with Xpress last week.

“And this is something John really wanted to do anyway,” she went on to say. “As an artist he wanted this, and so there’s a warm feeling for the people.”

At first glance, Lennon’s sketches look incidental — rough-hewn doodles from a phone pad or newspaper margin. They have a crosshatched whimsy that would make them at home among the cartoons of the New Yorker, and many are accompanied by handwritten captions: “He tried to face reality” announces one, underscoring a Lennon-like character who sits on a chair perched on a cloud.

But there’s more to these than off-the-cuff scribblings — an efficiency of line, for instance, that warrants comparison to Henri Matisse’s lithographs of Polynesian models. Defined by a measured style more emotive than structurally accurate, the figures are hastily and imperfectly rendered; like many of Marc Chagall’s drawings, they’re more fluid than static.

And, like Lennon’s songs, his drawings are about peace, love and family. But the late singer’s works — though not executed on gessoed canvases — are far from uninformed. In fact, before the former Beatle was a musician, he was an art student, attending the Liverpool Art Institute from 1957 to 1960, according to press information. Lennon also wrote and illustrated three books of poetry: In His Own Write (Simon & Schuster, 1964), A Spaniard in the Works (Simon & Schuster, 1965) and Skywriting by Word of Mouth (Harper & Row, 1986).

“Surrealism had a great effect on me, because then I realized that my imagery and my mind wasn’t insanity,” he told Playboy in 1980. “That if it was insane, I belong in an exclusive club that sees the world in those terms. Surrealism to me is reality.”

Even before the Beatles disbanded, Lennon began to focus again on visual art, and in 1969, he presented his new wife, Yoko Ono, with the Bag One Portfolio, a series of drawings from their wedding, honeymoon and bed-in for peace. Bag One went on to exhibit at the London Arts Gallery in 1970, only to be closed on its second day due to the erotic nature of some of the pieces.

“Five controversial lithographs, done by Beatle John Lennon, apparently will be burned as obscene,” reported the Chicago Daily News that same year. The ensuing court case yielded comparisons between Lennon and Picasso, and the gallery manager argued, absurdly, that the pieces in question were “pornographic but not obscene,” according to the New York Times.

Three hundred copies of the drawings sold for just under $100 each, but, as Rudy Siegel, director of media relations for the current exhibit, tells it, “Some of the pieces were returned, but the majority … were either damaged beyond repair or they were never returned.”

Some of the Bag One lithographs will be included in the Asheville show, among the 100 Lennon originals to be exhibited at the Haywood Park Hotel.

The ongoing ballad of John and Yoko

There’s a photograph, taken in Liverpool in 2002, showing Yoko Ono sitting beside a statue of her late husband, who remains forever 40 years old. And yet, through their combined art and a certain degree of faith, their relationship continues to evolve. “His power has really protected me and helped me,” Ono says. “His wisdom still encourages me — it’s good. Even now, his words are very powerful.”

Words like “Imagine,” for example. Or maybe “Give peace a chance.”

“I think there are two kinds of industry — the war industry and the peace industry,” she remarks, bringing instantly to mind the famed Ono-Lennon activism of the bed-in era. “Anything to do with the peace industry, we have to let it grow.”

Suitably, the show is brimming with images of tenderness and humor. On the road in various incarnations for about 10 years, the Lennon exhibit has made about 20 stops annually, offering not only an up-close-and-personal glimpse of John the artist, but also prints and original works for sale, as well as signed albums.

And it’s always for a good cause — in Asheville, the event, sponsored by the Asheville Downtown Association, will benefit the Buncombe County Medical Society (BCMS). Founded more than 100 years ago, BCMS strives to make medical care and services available to poorer residents of Buncombe County. Funded through charitable donations and grants, the organization offers programs like Project Access, which provides physician’s care, hospitalization, radiology services and medication to low-income residents.

“The exhibits benefit local charities at each stop,” Siegel confirms by e-mail. “Anything from health-care projects like BCMS to food banks, public school teachers, AIDS projects, children’s facial surgeries, etc.”

Ono herself is known for her charitable contributions to health-care groups, such as her $1,000,000 donation to Gay Men’s Health Crisis.

“There is no cover charge — it is all donation based,” Siegel says of the show. “There is a $2 suggestion at the door, and over the course of the weekend, we are able to typically raise between $3,000-$10,000.” A portion of the sales also goes to the Spirit Foundation, founded by the Lennons in 1978 in order to channel money from the Lennon Estate to various causes.

Outliving her critics

Ono herself won’t be at the Asheville exhibit — she’ll be performing at the Patti Smith Meltdown in London on Friday, June 17. Now in her 70s, the artist and musician shows no signs of flagging, further begging the question: What would her late husband be doing if he were still around?

Likely, Ono’s career would have long since eclipsed Lennon’s. Since the new millennium, she’s released an album, had an unlikely dance-club hit (the startling remake “Every Man Has a Man Who Loves Him,” in honor of gay marriage) and initiated a peace prize for artists working in war-torn regions.

Of course, Ono was an artist in her own right long before she met Lennon. And, as any serious Beatles fan knows, that fated meeting took place at a 1966 art opening of her own work. The bond was sealed when Lennon, standing by “Painting to Hammer a Nail In” (gallery visitors were intended to complete the piece by doing a little carpentry), asked if he could indeed do just that. Ono recently told the press her reply was, “‘If you pay five shillings you can do it.'”

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About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall is the arts section editor at Mountain Xpress. She's lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs. Alli is the winner of the 2016 Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize and the author of the novel "How to Talk to Rockstars," published by Logosophia Books. Follow me @alli_marshall

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