Oil Painting with Erik Johnson

Where the Wind Always Howls

Where the Wind Always Howls

Fan whirring peacefully in one corner, the painter Erik Johnson moves around the studio, arranging wax paper palettes for his Monday night painting workshop. He is slender and graceful, with the reflective stillness of a Zen practitioner.  Johnson, who is a gallery artist represented by Robert Lange Studios, has been teaching workshops at Redux for “about a year,” he says.  “And I just finished up on a mural painting class at a high school.  Can you imagine doing that for a class in high school?”

I shake my head, smiling.  Johnson has the comfortable immediacy of a person who finds himself at home wherever in the world he goes, but he’s been in Charleston “about 18 years.”

I’m sitting in a plastic chair that is precisely the color of melty orange sherbet, my back to the burlap doors of the two smaller painting studios behind us; Johnson, wearing faded plaid shorts and periwinkle blue shirt, moves back and forth inside the horseshoe of folding tables, adjusting, rearranging.

He says offering this workshop has forced him to clarify his teaching.  “I almost feel sorry for my early students,” he says, laughing.

“I met some of my favorite teachers when they were teaching their first class.  I think sometimes it can make you more accessible.  Because you’re less jaded, more open, maybe.  But you say this class has clarified your teaching- what would you say are some of the core tenets to becoming a better painter?”

“Patience.  I’ve spend 200 hours on a single painting.  A lot of the work I do resembles my students’ in its early stages, but I just push on longer.  Monday night classes are three hours long, once a week, for four weeks.  And I offer an intermediate class after that for four weeks.  But the thing is, a lot of people just keep on taking workshop after workshop.  But they also need to paint on their own,” he says.  “Working on your own is how you learn what you need to ask in class, so that workshops like this are really valuable. And you can read about painting, too.  Independent study, that’s important.”

I scribble this down, then look up for more.

But Johnson shrugs, closing a drawer of paints.  “That’s about it.  You can teach technique and craft.  Experience is really what does it, what makes you a good painter.  But its most important that your art says something.  And I don’t know that you can teach that.”

“Does your work have a message?”

“Some of it.  I do different things, but I have some recurring metaphors.  Like goldfish- you know, you look at a goldfish in a bowl.  That bowl is its whole world, yet it exists in a much larger world.  We all have our own bowls, our own spheres of experience.  To me a goldfish is a perfect representative of the individual in the world.” He pulls out his ipad thoughtfully.  “I like to put them into different scenarios, these beautiful scenarios, but when you really look at it, you see there’s something there-” he shows me a photorealistic painting of an old fashioned scale, balancing a globe at one end and a fishbowl at the other.  “This one’s called The Needs of the Many.”

The Needs of the Many

The Needs of the Many

Leap

Leap

“And this one- “We Cannot Rest.”

We Cannot Rest

We Cannot Rest

“I’m a minimalist,” Johnson says.  “I usually just paint the object, maybe with a little something else.  And I work very slowly, but I like to paint the ephemeral- goldfish, fire- so in the early stages I compose my first sketch with photos.”  He puts away the ipad as the first of his students walks into the room.  He shakes her hand, greeting her warmly.  Daniela is a Brazilian biologist and the proud mother of three cats; this is her first time taking one of his workshops.  She beams, delighted to be here.

Johnson walks around the horseshoe squirting dabs of red paint onto the wax paper palette in front of each chair, talking to Daniela and I.  “So recently I was talking with some other artists about themes in their work, and this one guy said his work was about finding a home.”  He puts down the red paint and picks up yellow, making his second round.  “He says he’s looking for home still.  Would you say have a sense of home?” he says.

“My parents moved out of the house I grew up in a long time ago.  So when I go home to visit, I never experience have that deep sense of being at home, you know.  But I dream about it.  The rooms, that house.  When I’m dreaming, that house- or parts of it- is still where I live.  So I guess my sense of home doesn’t exist in the real.  I carry it in my mind.”

Daniela says that as an expat, her heart is forever in two places at once.  Wherever she goes, part of her still misses the home she’s just left.

Johnson is fascinated.  “It seems like so many people have that place they want to be.  A place that feels like home.  But I’m just here.”  He shrugs, smiling. “I’m just happy.  Although I do like to visit New York every couple of years.  I get an itch if I haven’t visited in a couple of years.  But I’d never want to live there.”

“You’re a bloom where you’re planted kind of guy.”

“I guess I am.”

You can follow Erik Johnson’s work on both Facebook and Instagram.  He likes “the videogame aspect of Instagram; I’m trying to reach that high score, that K behind my number!” and someday plans to sell sketches and drawings through social media.

On summer Mondays from 6-9, you’ll find him here at Redux, teaching patience, practicing kindness.

Do yourself a kindness and take his class.

-article by Pauline West, a novelist and writer for Redux Contemporary Art Center.  Her novel Evening’s Land recently won the Helene Wurlitzer Fellowship Award.

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