Molly Barnes 1999
MOLLY BARNES INTERVIEWS STEPHEN ROBERT JOHNS,
Stephen Robert Johns is a wonderful painter who covers a lot of territory in his work. In his life as well as in his paintings, he applies a strict discipline of excellence and a caring for his craft that is a joy to see in an artist today.
Stephen's paintings are pristine, yet, unlike his idol Ellsworth Kelly, he has gone from painting minimalist art, which he began while a student at Chouinard Art Institute in Los Angeles, to painting landscapes and natural settings. He particularly enjoys painting the verdant landscapes of Costa Rica, where he recently spent time. Stephen Johns grew up in Los Angeles, in a typical Southern California family, with an aerospace father and a homemaker mother. He has supported himself for years as a landscape designer to the stars and CEOs of Los Angeles. Currently, his solo show at L.A. ARTCORE is comprised of both paintings and works on paper. The works are reflective of his days at Chouinard, these paintings embodying bright, hard-edged shapes in a style reminiscent of Al Held to the more lyrical abstractions that remind one of Richard Diebenkorn's "Ocean Park" series. My favorite paintings are Johns' aerial views inspired by actual images seen from the air above Costa Rica, moments before landing. These images are rich in bright blues and greens combined and blended with abstract elements representing trees and rivers and various solid geometric shapes. The images depicted are reminiscent of final scenes in the Jerome Hellman film "At Play in the Fields of the Lord." Johns however, does not work from photographs. Instead, he paints from sketches he has drawn on "air sickness" bags, while on the plane. These drawings on bags are also included in the L.A ARTCORE exhibit. Johns' love of life, art and the beauty inherent in nature are communicated in this recent interview.
MB: When did you realize you wanted to be a fine artist?
SRJ: As a student in grammar school, my teachers pushed me to do more art. I suppose they encouraged me because my ability to draw was a little better that that of other students.
MB: Were you always the best in the class?
SRJ: Usually. In high school my art teacher referred me to Chouinard Art Institute which has since transformed into the California Institute of the Arts. My teacher suggested I send a portfolio of my work to the school. At the time I had no portfolio to send, so when I returned home from my classes, I rendered a few drawings inspired by album covers that belonged to my parents, and embellished them with paint and sent them along with class assignments, off to Chouinard. I was accepted right away with a limited scholarship.
MB: How is your nine to five job different from your painting?
SRJ: My landscape design is very similar to my painting. I usually can't stop thinking about an idea I may have an idea for a painting or a landscape design. I'll be consumed by the thought of the presentation all day and all night before 1 do it. Just as I prepared for creating a painting, the same can be said about my landscaping. I like to submit a landscape plan of what I will do for my clients, based on their esthetic needs, though often I come up with an idea that is totally unique, and sometimes completely different from what the client thought they would like. A landscape that needs to be designed, or re-designed, is really a blank canvas.
MB: Who were your early influences?
SRJ: As an art student, I loved to draw with pencil, charcoal and ink. I enjoyed doing life drawings and nudes; from this I derived a lot of enjoyment. In art school, I had weak skills in color and geometry. During my graduate year at CAL ARTS, I began doing large, minimalist, color field paintings. Color theory studies, inspired by Bauhaus artists such as Johannes Itten and Lazlo Nagy interested me particularly. However, the artists I admired and became most inspired by were Ellsworth Kelly, Frank Stella and Pablo Picasso.
MB: Who is your favorite artist today?
SRJ: Ellsworth Kelly. I like the way he works from nature, reducing form to a minimalist state. He does the same thing with color. I find that to be a pure statement.
MB: If you could own one piece of art by an artist living or dead, who would it be?
SRJ: Pablo Picasso. He delved into what an artist is thinking. People often feel he ripped off ideas from other artists; I feel he studied what other artists were doing, became inspired and applied that inspiration to his own vision as an artist. He was so unique. He didn't limit himself to only painting, printing or sculpture. He also created stage designs and worked in metal, clay-always testing his limitations, always experimenting. Similarly, he traveled all over the world, never limiting himself to one place to create his art. His inspiration came to him so effortlessly. His life was art.
MB: Do you think dialogue with other artists is necessary for artistic growth?
SRJ: Absolutely. Being part of L.A. ARTCORE has been an exceptional experience, and a great opportunity. When I taught art at the Junior Arts Center at Barnsdall Park, I interacted with other artists, but on a more academic basis. When I met Lydia Takeshita, the Director of L.A. ARTCORE, I learned to communicate my feelings about art in a dialogue with other working artists. The development seemed to be a natural process, and my work began to change as a result.
MB: You were recently offered a fellowship to live and work in Costa Rica and you have said that the trip changed your life. How so?
SRJ: There is an amazing art colony there, located in a rural farming community, Ciudad Colon, about 45 minutes west of San Jose. It's run by William White, and is called The Julia and David White Artists' Colony. Being able to do my art there changed my way thinking entirely. I was introduced to many wonderful artists representing a totally different culture. These artists I met in Costa Rica were Òworld savvyÓ. The energy I found within the San Jose artistic community was phenomenal. As an artist, I was accepted into their group as one of them. When I arrived, I was pretty burned-out with my hardedge paintings. I felt I needed a change of style with my painting. I certainly didn't travel to Costa Rica to do this. Possibly, ARTCORE'S Lydia Takeshita may have felt that I needed this exposure, a change of scenery. But my art required a jolt, and I got it, experiencing the beauty of the Costa Rican landscape- especially from the air when our plane flew in; and the interaction with the local artistsÉit was all very profound.
MB: Do you believe in God?
SRJ: Yes. I have always believed in God and that the point of religion was to enforce people's perceptions of reality, enhance their society and maintain some kind of moral and social order.
MB: Did spending time with artists from Costa Rica change your own belief systems?
SRJ: Yes. The artists I met in Costa Rica affected my beliefs considerably, especially Roberto Lizano, Luis Chacon, Florencia Urbina, Mario Mafiolli and Fabio Herrera. They are members of an independent art movement called BOCARACA. They are confronted daily with there own feelings about life in Central America, as well as when traveling abroad. They paint and sculpt scenes related to everyday living, yet with such bravado and enthusiasm. Really fresh stuff!
MB: What is the BOCARACA and how do they operate?
SRJ: The BOCARACA is a select group of ten artists who live and create work in San Jose, C.R. They have been interacting over the past (15) years and are of different ages and sex. They dialogue, support and critique each other's exhibits. They are exhibiting their work on a regular basis, in local galleries, or salons, as well as in a number of museums. These artists are no strangers to world travel, with most of them showing in galleries and museums in New York, Los Angeles, Baltimore, Germany, Spain, France and Italy.
MB: We hear about the Day of the Dead. How is it celebrated in Costa Rica?
SRJ: It's a Latin American celebration, paying respect to family members and close friends who have died. Its such a big deal in Costa Rica- the costumes and the activities. It really reminds me of being back in Los Angeles. Yet, instead of focusing on skeletons, which is very common in Mexico and here in LA, the people, including children, create over sized human figures, of colorful, paper mache and wire, in which they climb inside and walk around, taking on the persona of a departed individual. It is quite a spectacle of bigger-than-life human forms, dancing and interacting.
MB: At fifty, looking forward, what do you plan for the next half
of your life?
SRJ: I plan to continue to do my art and to continue to design gardens. However, I would prefer in the future to focus more closely on my painting. It has been a large investment of my life, and I feel I have a lot to give- much more so now than I did ten years ago.
MB: What is your favorite color?
SRJ: If you had to pin me down to a favorite color, I would have to say blue. To me, blue is one of the strongest spectral colors. Inclusive to the color blue is turquoise, as well as the depth of blue-violet. Actually, now that I think about it, my favorite color is lime-green!
In summation, Stephen Robert Johns is an abstractionist who has returned to nature for his inspiration. With such dedication coupled with the obsessive need to paint, how could Johns do anything else, and why would he want to do anything but continue making beautiful paintings? Johns is one of the lucky ones, being an artist, because after all, inspiration is what the artist's life is all about.
* Molly Barnes has been an art dealer and gallery owner in Los Angeles and New York for the past forty years. She is also a writer and radio personality and recently received an award from LA ARTCORE for her outstanding contribution to the arts in Los Angeles. Molly regularly conducts a “Brown Bagger” Artist Lecture Series in NYC, at the Hotel Roger Smith, as well as ATOA (Artists Talk on Art), a NY exhibition space venue for Outside & Local artists, to be seen and heard.