It's American artist Johnny Johnson's first visit to The Rock, and as we good-naturedly chide him for not making it sooner last Friday at the opening of his exhibition at the Mutual Gallery, he's quick to agree.
"It really should have been," he concedes in a voice heavy with a Southern drawl, making his North Carolina roots audibly clear as SO engages him in convo ahead of the exhibition.
Two weeks shy of turning 76, Johnson is in the island as a guest of United States Ambassador Pamela Bridgewater Awkard, an avid collector of his work (over 30 pieces by the artist's count) and who was his elementary school student in Virginia. The two have maintained a friendship that has spanned most of her adult life, and prior to bringing Johnson here, she previously hosted the artist when she served as ambassador to the West African nation of Benin.
"Art means much of my life. People are more important than art but it's been much of my life," he divulges. Johnson considers his passion the reason he became an art educator in the first instance and taught students from elementary to high school for three-plus decades. His finest hour, he believes, was spent in the classroom that was not only limited to the tweens and adolescents, but also included inmates in prisons and community college pupils as well.
"I feel a huge sense of pride and satisfaction knowing I have inspired hundreds of artist students to do exceptionally well, and I feel most of my students would probably say I did as much for them in talking with them as I did in providing skills and helping them to develop attitudes," he tells SO, and it's no idle boast. Motivated under Johnson's tutelage, his students went on to achieve artistic success on their own merits in Hollywood (Bart Daniels) and as installation artists (Stanley White) for the Olympic Games.
Born in an era when the South was racially segregated, Johnson, a graduate of Virginia State and Howard universities, is also proud of being a (still active) civil rights activist. He joined the The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) back in 1953 as a teenager after what he recalls were incidents where "some unjustified killings that were justified by the powers that be and I grew up thinking the NAACP was a need to be called upon".
Returning focus to his art, he reveals that he has drawn artistic influence from North Carolina artist Jacob Lawrence, Vincent Van Gogh, and Henry O Tanner. Though in the autumn years of life, Johnson — Johnny P, to his friends — says he still reserves time to paint in his studio, though his wife of 50 years, Emma Jean, sometimes enquires why. "I am painting because I love it," is his standard response. Judging from the rave reviews he has received from the Jamaican artists, diplomats and art enthusiasts who turned out for his exhibition, his love of art is well appreciated.