Peace through art
A popular exhibit celebrating John Lennon’s other talent returns to New Hope.
By Naila Francis
Long before he picked up a guitar, John Lennon was a doodler.
The cerebral Beatle, who spent three years at the Liverpool Art Institute before immersing himself in the music that would define his career, always loved drawing and sketching.
His line drawings, in pen, pencil or Japanese sumi ink, were the work of an impulsive creativity, bringing his philosophies, wry humor, playfulness and deep devotion to family to quick, inventive life.
Yet his rise to fame with the Beatles overshadowed that talent.
“John wanted his artwork to be shown. He was really trying to find a gallery that would accept him, but most galleries in those days just said, ‘Oh, he’s a famous musician. Whatever he does artwork-wise must be in the vein of a rocker.’ They weren’t particularly interested in showing his work,” recalls his widow, Yoko Ono. “Even if you’re an incredibly talented artist like John, it’s very difficult to share that with people who are used to you being talented in another avenue.”
Thirty-two years after his death, however, a traveling exhibit of his artwork has found enduring popularity among music and art aficionados alike. The collection of almost 100 drawings, limited-edition lithographs, serigraphs, copper etchings and lyric prints returns to New Hope this weekend as a fundraiser for FACT (Fighting AIDS Continuously Together) Bucks County.
“The Art of John Lennon,” presented by Ono and Legacy Fine Art & Productions, will be on display from Friday through Sunday at Occasions at Union Square. The “pop-up” exhibit was first brought to New Hope in 2004 and again in 2009. This time, visitors will be treated to 10 to 15 newly included works.
“The focus is to realize his career as a visual artist, which, while not as popular as his career musically with the Beatles or solo, still holds a lot of water with his fans and with the public,” says Legacy’s Rudy Siegel.
Lennon’s artwork did get some exposure in his lifetime. His drawings were used to illustrate his 1964 book “In His Own Write,” as well as “A Spaniard in the Works” the following year. Additionally, he chose several drawings from “Bag One,” a portfolio he created in 1969 depicting his wedding and honeymoon with Ono, to be produced as limited-edition lithographs and sold in several galleries.
But when the Scotland Yard confiscated the art at a London gallery in protest of some of the more-erotic images, Lennon was discouraged from showing his art for many years.
“When he passed away, I thought I’d better do this for him,” says the 80-year-old Ono, speaking by phone from Europe where she recently curated and performed at London’s Meltdown music festival. “He was very proud of his artwork and that’s why he really wanted to show people. He was very happy about his success as a musician, but he was an artist, as well.”
In 1986, she began releasing limited editions of some of his drawings before seizing upon the idea of a traveling exhibit to not only re-establish Lennon’s place as a visual artist while spreading his hopeful messages but raise funds and awareness for local charities.
Siegel recalls the first time he saw the exhibit in Portland, Maine, in 2002, before he became involved with producing and marketing the events themselves.
“I was blown away by how prolific he was as an artist and how he captured himself so often. He was able to convey where he was in his life or an emotion he had with all these little faces he drew of himself,” says Siegel. “No matter what you think of her personally or professionally, I think Yoko is really perpetuating John’s legacy and keeping it really simple.
“The overriding message of the artwork and collection is all about peace and love.”
The exhibit also shows Lennon’s evolution as an artist.
“During the early ’60s, when he was writing more pop-centric songs like ‘Drive My Car’ and ‘Love Me Do,’ his drawings were more simplistic and definitely cartoonish,” says Siegel. “As he broke from the Beatles and they split up, he got a little bit more political, a little more introspective with his songwriting and that’s similar with his drawings.”
His lyrics reveal contrasting periods, too, some of them obviously penned in haste — “They look like a doctor’s prescription,” says Siegel — while others are in reworked and edited form.
“He had an incredible sense of humor and that is showing in all of his artwork and music,” says Ono. “His work is kind of minimalist in both music and art. It’s extremely interesting that his way of creating music and art are very much of right now. It goes with the trend now.”
Ultimately, she believes the exhibit conveys a sense of joy and positivity.
“The reason I want to promote John’s work is because it’s good and it will be very interesting for people and give them encouragement and inspiration and all that together promotes world peace,” says Ono. “And I really think we will have world peace soon.”
– The Bucks County Courier Times and The Intelligencer