Yoko Ono: I Feel Invisible

by Hannah Elliot, Forbes

Yoko Ono has an exquisite aptitude for noticing things.

The first time I saw her was on Mercer Street one evening as the light started to lean over the city. Strolling from my office, I saw a small figure in black hat and long coat walking toward me. I didn’t realize it was her until we stood only a few strides away, but as we passed she looked up and smiled warmly right at me.

That Ono met and held my gaze was all the more unusual in Manhattan, where it’s often considered rude. But she seemed utterly calm in that moment on the sidewalk, like a silent watcher eager to grab the smallest sliver of connection with another as she passed.

The same quality is apparent in her new book, An Invisible Flower, out now by Chimera Library. Ono illustrated this elegant tome in 1952, when she was 19 years old, but this is the first time it has been published. Sean Lennon found the pages of pastel chalk drawings and hand-written text it in a closet one day at home and finally prevailed upon his mum to allow its dissemination.

“I really just stumbled upon a pile of sketches neatly filed away in a ziplock bags,” Lennon told me. “I think she was as surprised as I was that the drawings were made a decade before she met my father.” She has always been “a meticulous archivist,” he said; when he was quite young she’d tell him to sign and date all of his drawings.

The story is about a mysterious man named Smelty John, who is the only one to notice a certain beauty that wafts across the ocean, over the mountains and though snow-bound fields toward him. It’s a minimal and conceptual tale, easy for a child to understand but filled with an ancient sentiment.

In the postscript Ono writes that her life in post-war Japan influenced the work. While the landscape in the countryside where she had evacuated looked like a Van Gogh painting, she missed her mother’s Tokyo rose garden. It made her wistful for something just outside her grasp, she said.

“I wrote this story almost a decade before I met my Smelty John,” Ono said. “He made a gesture indicating that he smelt me in the air. And I knew immediately that he was the only one in the world I was not invisible to. He didn’t sneeze, either. And we got together for life.”

I recently asked Ono and Lennon a few more questions about the book. The most surprising thing I learned was that Ono still feels as invisible as she did when she was 19. And she considers it something to covet.

Here is more of the interview. Try listening to Yoko Ono – I’m Moving On (Ralphi Rosario Radio) and Yoko Ono – Talking To The Universe (Ralphi Rosario Mix) while you read it.

Hannah Elliott: Yoko, as you re-read this book does it seem like it was you who wrote it or is it like reading the work of someone else, since it was so long ago?
Yoko Ono: I remember what I have written. I remember about a lot of things, but especially when I found a way of doing something that I thought has not been done before. With An Invisible Flower, I was rather proud of the fact that I broke the sentences graphically to go with the story. I also thought it is nice to talk about an invisible flower.

HE: Sean, do you recognize your mother in the drawings and text, or does it seem like an earlier version of who she is today?
Sean Lennon: I think anyone familiar with her work will be surprised to see this kind of drawing. Just the fact that it’s so colorful is uncharacteristic of the style most people have seen. Having said that, there is something very Yoko about the overall tone, a sort of playful gravitas.

HE: Has the story’s meaning changed since then?
YO: I have been known as the minimal and conceptual artist for over five decades. I think I haven’t changed much.

HE: What convinced you to let this be published?
YO: Sean wanted to. He insisted. I finally thought, why not? It would have never come out, if it had relied on me only.

SL: It was certainly a risk allowing me to publish the book since I had absolutely zero experience in that area. Chimera Music did a fairly good job with her last record, Between My Head and the Sky, so I think she was willing to give Chimera Library a go at it.

HE: Did you read together when Sean was small?
SL: She is and always has been a workaholic. She did help me with my Japanese homework when I was at Columbia University. But I read to myself most of the time. The truth is I think it was difficult for her to handle being widowed, manage her estate, and focus on her work while being a single mother all at the same time. She has done an amazing job considering what little help she’s had. I remember her being very busy much of the time.

HE: What books meant something to you then? What about now?
SL: When I was very young I was obsessed with A Wrinkle In Time, and A Swiftly Tilting Planet. Then I moved onto Lord of The Rings, and eventually all the Dune books. Now my favorite author is Nabokov. Other than that I read a lot of non-fiction, mostly history and science.

YO: So many it’s hard to list them. Whenever I had a cold and stayed in bed as a child, I always asked somebody to get me a book.

HE: Who will read this book–what is its message to the world?
YO: I think it’s nice to let people know that there is an invisible part of the world. I think there are many people now who are interested in the invisible world. They will find it interesting, probably.

HE: Do you still feel invisible?
YO: Yes. Definitely.

HE: Is it wrong to feel that way?
YO: It is a nice way to keep your sanity.

The book was published in Japan last year but has recently become available in the United States. You can buy it at The Chimera Warehouse Store and Amazon.com.