That night, after my mom had taken the drawings out of the bottle, we passed them around, speculating. Was this the work of a famous artist we weren’t familiar with? Did we hold priceless treasure in our hands, the flippant gesture of an artist bored at sea? What was this?!
I emailed John the very night I got home.
Dear Mr. Piper,
We are strangers to each other, or were, but you should know this: I found your pencil sketches—the ones you put in a big plastic bottle and tossed in the sea!
Two hour later, he wrote back to me!
What an amazing thing to happen. It has been drifting around since November 2006! When I threw it over the side of P & O cruise ship Oceana, (but then you might know that already, I can’t really remember what I put on the notes? It was only a bit of fun and just a very long shot). I had no idea where it would end up; probably swallowed by some passing whale perhaps? So where on earth did you find it? I am so totally overcome by this event.
I live in Exeter, in the County of Devon, in the South West of England. I am retired and painting and writing full time.
This meant John’s bottle was a year and a half old, which is actually fairly old for a plastic bottle at sea. Plastic degrades pretty quickly at sea. Sadly, it is often mistaken for food by sea critters who can choke on it. So I was glad to fish out John’s bottle, since I know he didn’t want that to happen!
As we emailed more, I got to know John a little better. Turns out he was a military man, like my own grandfather. John served 30 years in the British Army, and my grandfather (whose name—you guessed it!—was also John), served 30 years in the United States Navy.
Here’s a picture of John Piper in his Army days, with buddies. John is second from the left:
Just for fun, and because I’ve always been ridiculously proud of him (not to mention his dashing good looks), here’s a picture of my own grandfather Johnnie in his Navy days:
John Piper served from 1955 (he was only 15 years old!) until 1984, when he retired from the Royal Signals as a Captain.
Once he retired, John turned his focus to his art. Of course, he’d always been an artist. Check out this snippet from his artist bio:
“Drawing and watercolour painting wildlife became something of an obsession from a very early age, and John still has a great fondness for wildlife and botanical painting. During his latter school years he exhibited in various national youth exhibitions; winning recognition for his paintings of British Birds.”
And now, all these years later:
“John has exhibited in several locations in Spain, the Balearics and Australia, also locally in various galleries and the Royal Devon & Exeter Hospital. Always travelling, he has developed a great love for Spain, Spanish culture and music, which has inspired some of his more colourful and dramatic works.”
See, for example, John’s paintings:
The theme of travel is almost always present in John’s work. This love for travel, I have begun to see, is a persistent theme among message-in-a-bottle senders. It is a passion I share with each of them. In my dream world, all the senders whose bottles I’ve found would get together in one place, and we would spend hours talking about our travels, into the night.
Speaking of travel and adventure and romance on the high seas, my favorite paintings from John are his marine paintings—particularly the ones of boats and harbors. Living in Exeter provides ample opportunity to study boats on water.
If those don’t make you nostalgic for being on the water, check your pulse!
For someone who is not a musician, John has an uncanny knack for capturing the energy of music in his paintings.
Look on John’s paintings, ye mighty, and despair:
Don’t those two make a fantastic pair?
And this one, inspired by Picasso’s “The Old Guitarist” is nothing to sneeze at either:
John loves Miles Davis. Is this tribute not magnificent?
I did ask him the big question, of course: why did he send a message in a bottle?
“The message in the bottle idea, was rather spontaneous really, I suppose I had enjoyed the classes aboard the ship, and liked the girl who was tutoring, so over the side it went! It just goes to show, what can happen when fate takes a hand.”
Indeed. I am always amazed by how much good can come of the spontaneous gesture of sending a message in a bottle.
I spoke with my mom about this bottle recently. As we recalled the details of that night, and the utter surprise we felt upon unrolling John’s sketches, she said:
“Did you ever think in your wildest dreams that you’d find artwork in a bottle? It’s just not something that crosses your mind,”
No, it didn’t cross my mind. But it did cross the Atlantic! 🙂
[All photos of John Piper’s paintings in this post are his property, and are reproduced here with his permission.]