John Lennon might be one of the most recognizable musicians in the world, but few know that his art was once compared to Pablo Picasso’s. Lennon’s traveling art exhibit, “So This Is Xmas,” opened yesterday in Ann Arbor and will continue through Sunday.

Sarah Royce
Gabe Kleer looks at a drawing by John Lennon at the “So This is Xmas” exhibit yesterday. The exhibit showcases the line-drawing talents of the late Beatle. (JEREMY CHO/Daily)

The free exhibit, located at 217 North Main St., showcases the line-drawing talents of the man who was half of pop music’s greatest songwriting team and features videos and music from the legendary Beatle. The exhibit opens just in time for the 25th anniversary of his tragic murder.

“John has a great history with Ann Arbor, and Yoko (Ono, Lennon’s widow) specifically wanted us to come to Ann Arbor to commemorate his death,” said Rudy Siegal, a planner for the exhibit. “John and Yoko had a really special time in this area.”

In 1971, Lennon made an extremely rare, post-Beatles live appearance at Crisler Arena. He and Ono played a benefit concert advocating for the release of local political activist John Sinclair, who had been sentenced to 10 years in prison for selling two joints of marijuana. Lennon performed a song called “John Sinclair,” which later appeared on his album Sometime in New York City. The Michigan Supreme Court freed Sinclair three days later.

The exhibit culls more than 100 pieces of Lennon’s artwork produced between 1968 and 1980.

“Most of the people that come to the exhibit didn’t know he was also an artist, so they are blown away by the volume of pieces we have,” Siegal said. “Usually we have (more than) 100 pieces on display, but the amount of artwork is consumable for the masses. Because it’s line-drawing, pen-and-ink sketches, even if you are the most high-falutin’ art snob, whether you are five or 85, you can enjoy it. If you’ve never been to a gallery before, you can enjoy it,” Siegal said.

Though Lennon never received much recognition for his visual art, he had a unique style that mirrored his more famous musical talents. Simple and succinct, rendered with enthusiasm and speed, Lennon’s sketches capture his complex emotions through nothing more than pen and paper.

Still, his artwork has been the subject of controversy. In 1970, London police raided a Lennon exhibition and seized some drawings depicting sex acts. Lennon’s defense team produced similar works by Pablo Picasso and argued before a magistrate court that Lennon’s work was no more obscene than Picasso’s. Some of the seized pieces are on display at “So This Is Xmas.”

Beyond their historical significance, Ono said Lennon’s art is especially important in light of recent events. “Love was the main theme,” she said in a written statement. “It was the main motivation. The main drive. I think that we need a lot of that today. And there’s a scarcity of that right now. I’d like to sort of circulate that more in the world, and I think that John’s art exhibition is good for that, too.”

In 1968, Lennon said, “If art were to redeem man, it could do so only by saving him from the seriousness of life and restoring him to an unexpected boyishness.”

So young or old, casual Lennon fan or Beatles obsessive, check out “So This Is Xmas” while you can. Although there is no cover charge, there is a suggested donation of $2, which will go to Dawn Farms, a local rehab and recovery center. Siegal urged those who enjoy the exhibit to be generous. “We are lucky enough in that we are able to raise money for various causes,” he said.

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