Stillness surrounds Barry Johnson’s plum-hued home in south King County. While the visual artist works in his converted garage, he hears the familiar intermittent sounds of coyotes yipping, cars zooming by and the whistle of a train. He’s able to decipher those specific sounds because he hears them at 3:30 in the morning. Seven days a week, like clockwork, he begins his day working on several projects at a time while many of us are catching our final hours of rest.
“It is electrifying being in there. My studio environment is kind of like Francis Bacon,” he said, referring to the 20th-century artist as famous for the contorted emotion in his paintings as well as his unkempt workspace. “There’s a lot of chaos happening there. There’s a lot of music being played, there’s a lot of pacing and me talking to myself because I’m just trying to be able to get out whatever’s on my mind at the time.”
While Johnson is in the zone, he’s careful not to disturb his wife, Antoinette, and 4-year-old daughter, Ava, who are still snoozing. Waking up before sunrise every day speaks to his devotion to creating new works weekly, and it also mirrors early morning talks with his father.
Johnson is wrapping up a monthlong residency program with Pioneer Square’s Center on Contemporary Art (CoCA) called Storefronts UN[contained]. He’s one of a dozen artists chosen this year for the program designed to support socially engaged artists and to celebrate cultural diversity.
As part of the residency, he’s filling up a 20-by-8-foot shipping container with 15 new pieces. Leading up to the artist reception on Dec. 16, Johnson has been putting the final touches on a polychromatic carpet pinned to the wall in his garage.
Johnson’s paint-smudged fingers guide the brush into swirls using a turquoise paint called “island dream.” Once he’s done with one pigment, he grabs another small container of house paint and repeats the process. He usually uses mistint — cans of paint where the shade wasn’t correct for the customer — which he buys from the hardware store. A few feet away a gold chain surrounds a wooden chair. Johnson said when the piece is done, it will be sawed in half and surrounded by fake cash.
When asked about his work ethic, Johnson quotes painter and photographer Chuck Close who said, “Inspiration is for amateurs; the rest of us just get up and go to work.”
There are days Johnson doesn’t create anything while in his studio but he doesn’t immediately return to bed. Instead, he’ll stretch and meditate. Rather than force it, he positions himself in a place where ideas can flow. He also has hundreds of drawings and words in notebooks that could materialize into the next project.
“I’m externalizing my internal monologue,” Johnson said. “Being able to take in all of the events that are happening around the world, especially around people of color, is such an important thing.”
Johnson is a self-taught artist who was born and raised in Kansas. After graduating from Emporia State University with a degree in Business Marketing he relocated to Seattle. He worked with the American Red Cross but later moved into the tech industry, learning design and code.
He decided to become a full-time artist after becoming disillusioned with clients wanting design work that was more of the same rather than something new and different. His work is spread across several mediums, including portraits, photography, installations, sculpture and performance art.
“If I don’t execute on a piece of art and then later, someone else does it, I feel like I’ve failed the world. So I have to do it,” Johnson said. “Not in the sense of I’m manic about it but truly I think that for the first time in my life this is real work with purpose.”
Earlier this year he wrote, illustrated and self-published a children’s book titled “Oh What Wonderful Hair.” It focuses on hair positivity and the narrative that getting your hair styled is a fun activity. In the book he likens a top knot to a pineapple. He’s written a second book, which is based on a boy and clothing since fashion options for men are becoming less rigid.
Johnson is also associate editor for City Arts magazine and enjoys the experience of building up others in his field.
“I’ve always operated my life by the ‘we, not me’ mentality,” Johnson said. “I want to pick up and write about other artists, especially like the artists that aren’t getting light on them.”
As if his schedule weren’t busy enough, he also teaches art classes at area schools. In the classroom, he’s noticed the message of what kids can and can’t do is already ingrained in them, so he’s working to change it.
“I don’t teach them here’s how you draw a face. I’m like how do you interpret a face. Show me what that face looks like,” Johnson said. “Let’s go through an angry face. Watch how if I just do these with eyebrows and you can add a million different gestures to a face and like you start solving for this whole mystique around art being hard.”
His artistic influences include Jean-Michel Basquiat, Francis Bacon and Marina Abramovic. Erykah Badu is always at the forefront of his work as well. He gushes when he talks about the neo-soul singer who rose to popularity in the late ’90s. Her hit “On and On” includes the lyrics “I was born underwater with three dollars and six dimes / Yeah you might laugh ‘cause you did not do your math.”
“At a time when music was one way, she went a completely different direction. And if you look at, like, the impact that she’s even had on people, she’s doing something: Andre 3000, Common, Method Man,” Johnson said. “Think about the lyrics to ‘On and On’ and what that meant at that time. That’s an incredible song. She’s just a phenomenal human being.”
Another guiding force in Johnson’s life is his father Ira. The two talk often and don’t shy away from deep dives about the ills of society. Ira is from Arkansas, and experienced the tumultuous desegregation of the schools.
“We’ll get two to three hours deep talking about how people are just strategically getting pitted against one another. And that just increases my need to make more art,” Johnson said. “That’s why as much as I like to shine a light on people of color, I also tried to do a lot of work on unifying people as well. It’s never, like, you know, it’s never just like black white.”
The through line in his work is stripping down facades. He challenges the status quo and works to shift your perspective. His work is serious in tone but he’s having fun expressing himself.
One piece of advice from his father has carried him through life: “He said never let someone dictate your self-worth. Never.”
His raw talent coupled with persistence has served Johnson well. A “no” isn’t viewed as a dead end, rather it’s a “not yet.” His work recently appeared in the group exhibition “Bloodlines” at ArtXchange gallery. It was the culmination of three years of effort to have his work shown there. He’s able to step back now and see his progression as an artist and why the “Identity Theft” series appealed to them.
It should come as no surprise that Johnson knows which direction he’s headed in terms of his career: “Once I get to that 10-year mark I definitely want to be about 40 percent creating art and about 60 percent breaking up the way people think about art, because that’s an important thing to do.”
WHAT: CoCA Storefronts Un[contained]
WHEN: Artist reception Saturday, Dec. 16, 11:30 a.m. - 2:30 p.m.
WHERE: Third Ave. N., between Mercer and Roy St. (Lower Queen Anne)
Lisa Edge is a Staff Reporter covering arts, culture and equity. Have a story idea? She can be reached at lisae (at) realchangenews (dot) org. Twitter @NewsfromtheEdge, Facebook
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