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Why I was moved by a picture of a ruler

  • Author: Charles Wohlforth
    | Opinion
  • Updated: September 13, 2017
  • Published September 13, 2017

Lifeline. (Matt Johnson)

A folding ruler in the mud. Not much. But it radiated some mysterious meaning to me, like the mute face of a forgotten god.

With a soft voice and downcast posture, Matt Johnson told the audience at an art show opening at the Alaska Humanities Forum last week that he had placed the folding ruler in cracked mud near Ship Creek, photographed it, and framed that photograph on the wall because it had been his father's ruler.

"When it's an object made for human use, or human wear, and you're exhibiting it in the absence of humans, then the human is conspicuous in their absence," he said.

Johnson doesn't remember living with his father. His first memories are of playing in Chester Creek, on the family homestead, the land that lies west of Lake Otis Parkway near Merrill Field.

When he was 6, his mother, Gail, divorced and took him and his sister Kathy to live in Juneau. Johnson was in sixth grade, in 1972, when she died of breast cancer.

No one had told him she might die.

The family closed the house and moved Matt and Kathy to Anchorage to live with their grandparents, Earl and Mary Jane Hillstrand.

"They said, 'Let's pack up. Let's go,' " Johnson recalls. "You were left to grieve on your own. I do know my grandmother used to say, 'That psychology stuff is a bunch of nonsense.' "

As she closed the Juneau house, Mary Jane had the children divide up their mother's things. Matt was 12 and Kathy a little older.

"It seemed normal to me at the time," he told me. "Kathy got one rocking chair. I got the other rocking chair."

But then their grandfather also got sick with cancer and died. They began living in a one-room house on the tip of Homer Spit with their uncle John Hillstrand, his wife, Joan, and their five boys. Nine in all.

Water came underneath the house at high tide and snow crept in the corners of the windows. Johnson said he didn't mind.

Matt Johnson used the shoreline adjacent to Ship Creek to create photographs for the exhibit “Epicenter: Five Ways of Looking at Ship Creek” currently on display at the Alaska Humanities Forum.  (Erik Hill / Alaska Dispatch News)

"You ignore it. You don't even ignore it," he said. "I recall that time, for all the hardship, and the stuff you would prefer not to have happen, we were just carrying on. I do think, yes, I was sad, and I held that sadness for a long time."

The Hillstrands were pioneer royalty. Earl was elected to the state Legislature six times. He built Homer's original Land's End Hotel.

Matt worked there as a child, moving up to busboy, and worked on his uncle John's fishing boats. At 12, he went on an extended voyage, chopping bait by hand and climbing in the crab pots to bait them before they plunged over the side. He made $500 and bought a bike.

When Johnson was 18, he began earning a full crew share on his uncle's boats. The money put him through college. The work gave him solace.

"I like to work. Whenever I feel anxious or uneasy about something, I just do some work," he said. "It really puts my heart at ease. I think that work is the answer to many of life's problems. You've just got to keep working."

All those years his father was working, too. Paul Johnson was an ironworker. He traveled all over Alaska building giant projects — highway bridges, tall buildings, the Prudhoe Bay oil field. He would come home occasionally and take Matt and Kathy skiing.

Matt was proud of his father. He learned to build, too. He likes that feeling of looking at what you've built. He gets that when he makes a photograph, too.

"Art is a blue-collar job," he said.

Paul Johnson had earned a history degree at the University of Oregon and was a voracious reader. He led his ironworkers' union. But when Matt told him he wanted to become a builder, too, Paul said he would break his legs if he did.

Matt was at his father's side in a hospice in Las Vegas when he died of cancer in 2006. Paul apologized. He said he had done the best he could when Matt and Kathy were kids.

Matt told him he did fine. They had been happy just to see him when he visited.

Years later, Matt's stepmother called him to take whatever he wanted from his father's house in Wasilla before the rest went to charity.

Tools crammed the garage. Matt wanted all of them.

"For some reason, they struck me as powerful symbols, and I wasn't going to turn my back on them," he said.

Johnson began taking pictures of the tools in a series he called "Time and Materials." But the meaning of the photographs often remained out of reach to him.

Field Jacket. (Matt Johnson)

A photo of his father's work coat, hanging empty in space, spoke powerfully of his absence from Matt's life. But when I pointed that out, Johnson said it hadn't occurred to him.

He labored a long time to get the ruler in the mud to look just the way he wanted it, not knowing why. Only when he saw it on his computer screen did he realize that a face-like polygon seemed to balance over the number 36, the age of his mother when she died.

His life story has many multiples of three on this line — 6, 12, 36, 72 — look back at what you've just read.

Johnson felt a message was coming to him from the past.

"I'm very confident saying I don't know what it means," he said. "I don't rule out that it is just a coincidence. It's just a bunch of random stuff that happened. And I also can't rule out that it comes from somewhere unknown and I should pay attention to it."

He called the piece "Lifeline."

"There's a nothingness, especially when the people you love are gone," he said. "They are most definitely absent, and there is meaning there."

The views expressed here are the writer's and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at) Send submissions shorter than 200 words to or click here to submit via any web browser.

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