September 16, 2019

A few minutes in the life of a gracious Yoko Ono Artist gives commencement address in Portland

So there I was, pacing the lobby of Portland’s Merrill Auditorium early Sunday afternoon, minutes away from a 17-minute encounter with a living legend, Yoko Ono.

“All right, everyone, follow me,” instructed Kathy Mills, public relations director of the Maine College of Art, whose 84 graduates were soon to receive words of peace and encouragement from the 70-year-old artist, musician and widow of John Lennon. Earlier in the year, Ono accepted the class’s invitation to deliver a rare commencement address; she also agreed to meet with the media prior to the ceremony.

A small gaggle of media people, with me somewhere in the middle, trooped through a warren of hallways and stairwells, ending up at a windowless room where the TV staff set up their cameras and turned on their floodlights. I stood about 10 feet from the press table, trying to quiet my thumping heart.

As a lifelong Beatles fan, how would I react when Ono, a witness to so much Fab Four history and to rock ‘n’ roll’s most celebrated tragedy, entered the room? What questions would I ask? Is she really the shy person many claim she is?

“Well, it’s definitely Yoko Ono,” I thought when a tiny, dignified woman dressed completely in black appeared in the doorway amid a burst of clicking cameras. She smiled, said “Good afternoon,” and sat quietly while college president Christine Vincent spoke briefly about the school and Ono’s appearance. The rest of the session belonged to Yoko, who gave opening remarks, then patiently fielded questions.

“If your interest is in making money,” she answered one query about art, “I don’t think it’s a very solid field to go into. It’s something that you have to … well, it’s a gamble in that sense.”

She seemed somewhat nervous and self-conscious. I was struck by her ageless beauty, her unwrinkled olive skin and her well-coifed brown hair. At times it was impossible to imagine her being the same longhaired woman who posed nude decades ago for a John and Yoko album cover.

Her eyes twinkled behind her trademark amber glasses as she talked about her remix album of “Walking on Thin Ice,” which recently spiraled to No. 1 on Billboard’s Dance Club chart, and her participation in the Venice Biennale, one of the world’s most prestigious international art biennials.

Sensing the session was drawing to a close, I asked one question.

“Yoko, did you and John at one time plan to buy a home in Maine?”

She broke into a grin and said, “The houses that we looked [at] were a little too large for what we were thinking. We just wanted a log house or something, just being romantic.”

Just where was the house, someone asked? Bar Harbor?

“All right, yes,” she relented with a smile, obviously long ago having forgotten her geography, but not the spirit, of her and Lennon’s memorable house-hunting junket.

As the media left the room, I approached Ono, introducing myself, shaking her doll-like hand, and having her autograph a “Think different” Macintosh computer advertisement showing her in bed with John wearing pajamas, circa 1969.

Not long afterward, Ono went onstage at the auditorium, a newly donned white scarf setting off her black outfit.

“Each artwork is an extension of a heartbeat, a life force, and a miracle to be shared with the world,” she told the graduates. She screamed a bit, evoking her strange stage appearances with John. Before returning home, she passed out silver-dollar-sized pieces of a puzzle, painted with blue sky and clouds, to be assembled 10 years hence by all the graduates. She also gave them “Imagine Peace” posters and buttons.

“What a generous, classy woman,” I murmured as I left the auditorium, emerging into the humid May air of a Portland afternoon. She did this Beatles fan proud.

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