Leica Camera

Capitol Steps

Capitol Steps

My original idea for this post was to share some photos I made at the State Capitol but it expanded as I reflected on the importance of what it represents. So, this is a longer post than usual.

The first time I saw the State Capitol in Olympia was through the windshield of my Volkswagen MicroBus. We were just moving to the state where I had accepted a faculty position. Fresh out of grad school, this was a serious road trip, with two infants and everything we owned in the bus (we had shipped our books ahead) as we ventured north from Southern California, seeing friends and family in San Francisco, camping in the Redwoods, finally arriving in Washington State. As we approached Olympia we saw the popular brewery in Tumwater, and within minutes the dome of the Capitol Building came into view. We ventured on, driving north through Seattle and detouring through Everett as the Interstate was still under construction. We camped at Larrabee State Park a few nights until we found a place to live. Teresa Olbrantz was the first person I met on campus in Bellingham, and she knew of just the place for a young family to rent.

During my early years as a young artist and faculty member I focused my creative energies on teaching and working in the studio, making art, and going to museums and galleries up and down the West Coast: Vancouver, BC, Seattle, Tacoma, Portland, SF, LA, San Diego. My etchings and lithographs were included in exhibitions at The Library of Congress, The Philadelphia Print Club, The Brooklyn Museum, and around the country in community and university art galleries. At the invitation of George Tsutakawa one of my paintings was included in the Governor’s Invitational at the State Capitol in Olympia; and a few of my etchings are in the Washington State Art Collection.

In 2006 Annie and I relocated to Olympia and became involved as regular participants in events at the State Capitol, attending concerts at the Governor’s Mansion, touring the campus and viewing the art collection. Since 2017 our involvement has intensified; we have been more active in lectures, rallies, and demonstrations held at The Capitol. With the events of the past few years I came to fully realize the beauty and importance of what a state capitol represents – especially after the 2020 attack on our democracy and the horrific attack on our nation’s capitol on January 6, 2021.

One of the remarkable things about a state capitol is that it is a gathering place to voice differing points of view, a place where ideas can be presented and discussed, voiced on the steps of the capitol, argued in the legislative chambers and other buildings.

I think we can all agree, that we can disagree. We don’t always agree with some of the arguments and even some that become enacted into law. But we agree to live by those laws and work to make better laws and strive for social justice. We discuss and exchange ideas, and most importantly we express our concerns with our votes at the ballot box.

When I began attending events at the capitol I wondered how I could make a contribution beyond just being there. I’ve never been a flag-waving card-carrying member, but I do march and stand with people and causes I support. As an artist my thoughts turned to recording, documenting, and presenting the concerns of friends, neighbors, and the communities gathered to creatively express themselves.

During the pandemic we all became more cautious, concerned, and aware of the importance of paying attention to the science. Demonstrations and rallies became all the more important, especially in the face of intolerance. In Olympia rally sponsors and organizers stressed the importance of masking and social distancing, so events continued. Many of my photographs from these events are found in various posts on this website and gathered in a folder on my Flickr account.

I’ve grown to appreciate the buildings on the Capitol campus, as architecture, history, and what they represent. Last September when we were in Chicago, and we all thought we were emerging from the pandemic, I composed a series of photographs to accompany several posts documenting the “covid” years, the rallies I attended as well as solitary days of walking, mostly in deserted downtown. In hindsight we were all being overly optimistic that summer of 2021, hopeful that we were in the process of re-emerging into society and culture. I thought my emergence series would resonate with those who had also been in isolation, marking the end of the pandemic that we could all rejoice and life would return to normal.

In July, between our two trips to Chicago in 2021, we went to the Capitol to attend a rally. When we arrived we found the Capitol Steps empty, no one around. Had the event been cancelled?  We thought perhaps we’d misread the information and gone to the wrong location. But no! In our excitement to participate and be out in a safer environment with pandemic on the decline…we had missed the date by a week. Hah! We were a week early.

But on that day we found The Capitol had just re-opened to the public after being closed for much of the past two years. We found our way inside, in these grand spaces with only a few other visitors. One can’t but be in awe in these kind of neoclassic architectural spaces. The scale, and abundant use of marble is at times overwhelming; the design and pride of craftsmanship is evident in every space and detail. Throughout, there are many elements by the Tiffany Studios, including the stunning chandelier in the rotunda by Louis Comfort Tiffany!

I was told a story by a friend who used to work at the Capitol – one morning as people were arriving for the work day, they found the chandelier still swaying from some late night activities; one can only imagine. This series of photographs pays tribute to the beauty of the architecture and all it represents in our society. Like the chandelier set in motion sometime in the wee hours the night before, it swung, swayed, circled, drew an elliptical arc in the space and eventually returned to its centered place, glowing brightly, where it continues to provide light, beauty, and inspiration. 


Additionally, The Secretary of State webpage provides a history of the The Legislative Building, with architectural elevations, plans, and documentation during construction: Legislative Building

Additional images from various rallies at The Capitol and other events can be found here: Rally Album

Posted by Thomas Alix Johnston in Blog, 3 comments
Moving Water

Moving Water

When this retired surfer left southern California, I thought of San Francisco as the far north. Everything we owned was in that coral orange and ivory VW bus, two small kids, books, and a record collection. We took Highway 101 out of San Francisco, camped in the Redwoods, and finally navigated to the then new interstate highway, I-5, which we found was still under construction north of Seattle. Between Grants Pass and Seattle it was a nice ride, divided, wide, new, and smooth. It was during that beautiful time of year in the Pacific NW, August, known for long daylight hours and a special kind of light. When we approached Olympia, we saw the popular Tumwater brewery alongside the interstate. This was at a time when the slogan, It’s the Water was well known in popular culture. I have since learned that the Washington State Fishery had a hatchery at the falls next to the brewery and was a popular rest stop for travelers. 

Several years ago, I began regular visits to this roadside attraction at various times of the year, especially in the autumn when the salmon were spawning. During the summer months the Deschutes River flows gently, the complex of fish ladders is clearly visible. When the rains return the river rises steadily and forcefully cascades down a series of falls until it levels out near the old brewery. When the winter storms bring so much water that rivers reach flood stage, the interstate is occasionally closed further south because it is under several feet of water. During these torrential rains, the power of nature is stunningly on display at Tumwater Falls. 

I have assembled a few photographs taken at this location over the past years. This autumn I wanted to see what the falls look like before the rainy season returns, and I wanted to continue this series of images using the force of nature as a paintbrush. And as many of you know, I am fascinated by repeated visits to locations to better understand, see and record changes in time, of physical space and light. One element missing in this set of images is the roar of the river as it courses and winds its way to the Puget Sound.


Posted by Thomas Alix Johnston in Blog, 4 comments


…how relatively empty the streets were in Chicago, as they have been in many cities and communities.

When we returned to the northwest, we saw the pandemic numbers rising again with the newer Delta variant emerging. Like most people, we wanted to put our masks away and return to the life we knew before the pandemic. We know the world has changed, changed in so many ways. We remain cautious and optimistic and know that we can’t just abandon all the effort we have put into being sensible, cautious, and responsible or let these efforts of the past year go to waste. We bought a new series of masks and continue to exercise caution and care when around others.

We spent the summer in the Pacific Northwest; unlike the previous eighteen months, we could be outside even more and visit with vaccinated friends indoors.

We began planning a return to Chicago for September where I have been writing and editing several photos in these posts. We’ve seen new shows in spaces awakening from the past year and the beginning of a new season. Visits to some galleries take more planning with advance appointments necessary. Major institutions are open except for refreshments.

I’m including another gallery of selected photos from the past 18 months; some may be familiar to you if you look at my Flickr or Instagram accounts. Some of the photos document the changes of season and others mark my experiences specific to the pandemic.  With my next post I’ll share some new Chicago photos and images from exhibitions we’re seeing.

Thank you for taking the time to read about our activities and thoughts about this past year. We are blessed to have close friends and family who care about each other, and about the common good. Stay safe and stay tuned.


Posted by Thomas Alix Johnston in Blog, 1 comment