Lindsey Tyne Johnson (photo from Lindsey Tyne Johnson)
Returning from a Birthright trip to Israel in 2019, artist Lindsey Tyne Johnson was inspired. Learning the aleph-bet, she made a laser-engraved spirit board in Hebrew, but accidentally arranged the letters left to right, as they would be in English, and not right to left, as Hebrew is read. The mistake spurred her not only to create the exhibit Hebrew Spelled Backwards, which is on display at the Kamloops Art Gallery until April 1, but to explore her cultural heritage, from which she had been estranged, and learn more about Judaism.
The other, more sombre, inspiration for the Hebrew spirit board and the exhibit was, Johnson writes in a blog post, a “desire to feel closer to my brother after the events that left him homeless and his eventual passing.”
“Born with the name Liam, my brother changed his name to his chosen Hebrew name, Noah as an adult,” she writes on her website (lindseytynejohnson.com). “My mother had mentioned our Jewish ancestry to us as children, but my brother was the only person to explore it…. I can still remember it as what my mother called ‘one of his many phases’ in his late teenage years. She chalked it up to a phase, but it’s the string I use to tie memories of my brother together.”
“My brother was the first person I witnessed who explored their Jewish heritage,” Johnson told the Independent. “When he moved to Vancouver in his early 20s, he legally changed his name to his Hebrew name, Noah. He struggled a lot with his mental health, and there were times when I felt like I was losing the brother I grew up with. It was an attempt to feel closer to him that I went on Birthright and had a bat mitzvah. I wanted to remember the part of him that was happy, passionate and excited about life.
“My brother lost his life to fentanyl in 2021. It was devastating and broke my family apart,” said Johnson, who has two other siblings. “Many struggle to understand substance abuse/mental illness’s connection to generational or cyclical trauma. It’s unfair to look down upon those who might suffer from those things. I try my best to advocate for the destigmatization of mental illness where I can, though I’ve had to be careful not to let others’ ideas also negatively affect my mental health.”
While not a large exhibit, Hebrew Spelled Backwards is powerful, thought-provoking in a serious way, but also using humour. For the exhibit’s images, Johnson explains on her website, “The sandy colour palette was chosen as a tribute to the desert, a significant location in Jewish history and culture. I use digital media to blend traditional Jewish motifs with modern techniques, creating a dynamic visual experience.”
Johnson said, “Like many artists, my process is sporadic and requires a particular head space to create something I’m happy with. I often have ideas for pieces while doing mundane daily activities; if I don’t write them down, they’re lost forever. I practise a lot of sequential art, which is usually silly comics about everyday life, but they’re generally never seen by other humans. My style reflects the graphic novels I like to consume. I can’t help but be inspired by artists like Craig Thompson and Marjane Satrapi, both visually and thematically. My dream is to produce a graphic novel one day.”
The Hebrew Spelled Backwards exhibit comprises not only Johnson’s artwork, but her voice. Each picture has a QR code and viewers can hear Johnson give explanations of the Hebrew words and some context for the images, making the exhibit more accessible and inclusive. The illustrations variously include Jewish symbols and/or Hebrew text, supernatural elements, pop art iconography (a Warholesque can of Birthright’s Instant Bat-Mitzvah, for example) and current topics of concern, like rapper Ye’s antisemitic comments, poignantly drawn as a short series of cellphone text messages from a mom to her child that ends with the child asking, “mum, why is ye mad at us?” This is one of the works that, as the exhibit description reads, “examines the complexities of identifying as Jewish and the fear and uncertainty that often come with it.”
“I have a couple of fears about identifying myself as Jewish,” Johnson told the Independent. “Initially, when diving into Jewish culture and Judaism as a religion, I was afraid people might not think I was ‘Jewish enough,’ since only one of my parents has Jewish ancestry. My siblings and I were raised without Jewish traditions or education…. Having a bat mitzvah really helped with that fear, though. I’m also grateful that I’ve never really encountered anyone from the Jewish communities I’ve belonged to that has made me feel that way.
“The other part of that fear was that people would think differently of me or assume certain tropes or ideologies about me if I publicly identified myself as Jewish. This is an unfortunate reality I’ve experienced, even if subtly. Most commonly, people think I’m OK with antisemitic jokes or jokes that involve the Holocaust. It’s an exhausting thing to experience.”
Putting together the exhibit has allowed Johnson not only to explore her fears, but also her own biases.
“Creating these pieces required me to reflect on the experiences of people like Batsheva Dueck (aka Cynical Duchess, a modest fashion content creator) or more conservative Jews, who experience more assumptions made about them based on their dress or religious beliefs,” she said. “Since working on this exhibition, I’ve been more sensitive to times when I’ve excused antisemitic values expressed by my peers or acquaintances. When I lived in Brooklyn, I lived with someone who spoke quite negatively about Hasidic communities. This has been an excellent opportunity to witness my biases and encourage others to reflect on their biases or assumptions, too.
“It’s also allowed me to tie other pieces of my identity together,” she continued. “I’ve been able to connect my Irish ancestry with my Jewish ancestry, for example. It has given me a sense of wholeness or completeness and I’ve accepted that I can be many things all at the same time and I’ve accepted that that’s OK. We all contain multitudes.”
Johnson went to Ireland this past summer to visit where her Ashkenazi family moved to in the 19th century, and “to visit the Irish Jewish Museum and Waterford treasures.”
“I was probably in the fourth grade when my mother talked to my siblings and me about it,” said Johnson of first learning about her Jewish heritage. “It was after I had come home and talked about how we were learning about World War II at school. It was surreal to hear my mother, an immigrant from England, talk about a side of our ancestry that had never really been discussed before. I didn’t understand what it meant at the time.”
Johnson herself has lived many places. She was born in Edmonton in 1993, but her family moved to Saskatchewan and then Prince George, B.C., shortly after.
“I spent most of my youth in Prince George but moved to Dawson City, Yukon, as soon as I could save up enough money to attend the Yukon School of Visual Arts,” she said. “Yukon SOVA is a one-year foundational arts program. Still, I decided to stay in the Yukon upon completion and remained in the territory for about five years before I moved to Brooklyn in 2018. I was in Brooklyn for only half a year before moving to Kamloops to be closer to my family, but it made a lasting impression. Going from a territory of 35,000 people to my neighbourhood in Williamsburg with four times that amount was dizzying.”
Johnson said she loves the Kamloops Jewish community. “I joined shortly after moving to Kamloops from Brooklyn and felt incredibly welcomed,” she said. “The [Okanagan Jewish Community Centre] president, Heidi Coleman, is a huge inspiration and comfort to me. It’s pretty relaxed in terms of how often we have gatherings. We don’t have a synagogue or a place to meet, so we usually celebrate holidays at someone’s house. The ‘younger’ (20 to 30 years old) of us have a close bond, and I often have a group of us over for various holidays, too.”
Johnson is currently in her third year at Thompson Rivers University, where she is doing a bachelor’s in criminology. “I’m most interested in victimology,” she said. “I think Canada and most of the world fail victims of crime to an astronomical degree. It’s wild to think about how much attention we give criminals without considering how we could better support the survivor or victims of their crimes.”
Artistically, she is planning a piece that more specifically honours her brother Noah. “I want to educate the general public about how the consequences of generational or cyclical trauma can lead to mental health struggles like substance abuse,” she said. “I would like to highlight that it’s not specifically someone’s ‘fault’ for struggling the way they do.”