Born in Vance County, North Carolina, Johnny showed an interest in art from earliest days. His mother, Viola, worked and raised Johnny and his sister. She fostered his keen sensitivity and strong social conscience. She recognized his affinity for line and form when he was but three years old and she saw him trace the outline of their preacher with his finger in the air.
As a boy he would buy a 10-cent pad of typing paper and sit at a card table to draw for hours. He gives credit to teachers who encouraged him along the way; Mrs. Hughes and Ms. Hawkins in elementary school, and Mrs. Avent in high school. At the end of every school year, Johnny's parents were required to pay for his textbooks because he had drawn on every page and in every margin.
As well as art, Johnny's younger years were filled with sports and music. He listened to music for hours. He captained the basketball team at Virginia State College. He was elected to VSU's Sports Hall of Fame as a legendary point guard.
Johnny met and married Jean Blackstock in 1961. They were both teaching on the same floor and as Johnny likes to say, "I walked by her room a lot!"
A leader in social issues, Johnny has long been committed to finding common ground between black and white communities. The 'first black man' in several institutions and organizations, he brought grace, good humor and common sense to the table. We have been touched by his presence and his courage. We have learned from him. He has become one of the most beloved in the Fredericksburg community. While discussing an incident in his early life he said, "What the experience taught me is that if you don't have 'meaningful interactions' with people, the stereotype you have grown up to accept will be very much apparent, and your response to people who are different from you will be basically based on it." Johnny's entire life has been about having 'meaningful interactions'.
Johnny's professional life as a school teacher is unique. The affection that his former students hold for him is remarkable. He has taught on every level from grade school to university, as well as workshops and community classes too numerous to list. His enthusiasm and skill as a communicator was recognized by the state of Virginia as its "Teacher of the Year" in 1977. Now retired from the school system, he continues to give workshops, demonstrations, and encouragement throughout the area.
It is hard to comprehend that a man so devoted to family, students, and community could have time for his art, yet Johnny is a prolific painter. It is not farfetched to say that he has produced more than 5,000 pieces since the early 1960's. They hang in embassies, banks, hospitals and other institutions, as well as the homes of hundreds of people throughout the United States, Europe and Africa.
Artists are compelled to make art, and this is especially true of Johnny. To this day he sketches constantly; in church, at a concert, a dance recital, even watching Olga Korbut perform a gymnastic routine.
His work encompasses three major themes: Family, as expressed through his many Mother and Child and Father and Son works. Nature, particularly landscapes, trees and water. Social Commentary, with an emphasis on sports, the homeless and the less advantaged.
Of his work he writes, "Most of my inspiration comes from my love for people and the natural environment. Both subject areas are handled in similar ways. Often I use heavily textured surfaces for my paintings. Canvas, masonite, watercolor paper and illustration board serve as my supports. They usually are texured with sand, sawdust, modeling paste, gesso, rice paper and other interesting materials I can find. I use oils, alkyds, watercolors and acrylics as my painting media."
When acrylics were first introduced, Johnny discovered the medium he had been waiting for. He tells of one snowbound day when, filled with enthusiasm for acrylics, he produced more than 30 pieces. He uses the medium in various ways, at times using palette knife, brush, and great thick slabs of paint. Other times he dilutes and washes it through his work as if it were a delicate watercolor. It is not only color that fascinates him; it is form, image, and textures. This compulsion to discover the essence of his subject is made explicit in the energy one finds in studying the painting.
One finds order and familiarity in his canvas. There is much to be observed in a Johnny Johnson painting. While color fairly leaps from the canvas, there is the considered structure of form, image, and texture; the studied use of gels, mediums and fabric, the painterly stroke of the brush and the careful attention to composition and atmosphere. Each piece invites us to look again. Each piece connects us, just a bit more, to one another. We begin to see not the art, but the artist, and there we find a master.
Dan Finnegan, Potter
Kathleen Walsh, Painter