This is a reprint of a piece written for the February 2016 Front Porch Fredericksburg and purposely shared now as the show is opening at Art First, Caroline St, Fredericksburg, VA for the month of June 2016.
“Anytime I mention okra to people they always wrinkle up their nose and cringe. I’ve always loved okra – no matter how it’s cooked”, said Johnny Johnson with a twinkle in his eye at the start of our interview to celebrate his 80th birthday at the end of January.
I met Johnny as he was preparing to start his new series “Homage to Okra & More” for a featured exhibit at Art First in Fredericksburg in June 2016. Six or seven years ago he began thinking of the plant as a source of materials and collecting the pods, seeds and stalks to dry. Approaching age 80 he says “I’m not going to be so presumptuous as to assume I’ll be around forever so I need to get to it ratnow (he spelled it for me) and use all these pieces and ideas I’ve been saving.”
He’s always preferred to alter the surface of paintings with “found” items like sawdust and sand and natural products to add texture and various acrylic mediums to create the styles for which he is regionally and internationally well known. With the advent of acrylics in the 1960s he found more options for textures including adding canvas scraps from finished pieces.
Anyone who’s been his student at Walker Grant and James Monroe High Schools over several decades knows his interest in new materials and processes. He reckons he’s taught somewhere between 5000 and 7000 students over his 60+ year career in art. Johnson remembers when Sherwin Williams had a very large art supply inventory and he was a regular. “I’d go buy in large quantities and share them with my students,” he said. “These days I get notices from students from 40 years ago on Facebook. I’m just very proud of the impact I appear to have had. I can often remember them if I see a picture of them.”
“Two percent of students might go on to art careers. So in arts education the real value is teaching the 98% to become good consumers and to grow up to support the arts, “he continued. His background was heavy in methods and light on art history so he learned along the way with his students. And he made a point of balancing contemporary black artists in the instruction.
I asked him what he would recommend to new artists just beginning their interests and he replied, “I was of the mind that the older we get the more inhibited and less likely to make changes. I was dead wrong to think that way. You have to always be willing to try new things.”
“The best advice I ever received was to take my love of nature to zero and keep going.” He interprets that to mean there is no subject an artist can exhaust in a lifetime. Hence his latest project taking him back to his early love of okra.
“If you become complacent you will not grow as an artist. If you keep painting you’ll be blessed for many, many years. I hope to paint until I die,” he said. “But I hope I won’t be painting the same old things,” he added with a twinkle.
You can see his work at Art First and visit www.JohnnyPJohnson.com for contact and additional information.
Sue Henderson is a member of the Fredericksburg Arts Commission and a regular participant in Johnny Johnson’s art workshop.