Our Featured Artist: Barbara Johnson

When you visit Tomato Head this month, you’ll be amidst a series of paintings that are full of images that are industrial and/or mechanical. But, if you’ll take a moment to consider each one and let them sink in while you sit and eat, you may find yourself asking what it is you really saw.

The collection on display this month is from the Mendelson Series composed by local artist Barb Johnson. The images are drawn from photographs that Barb took while visiting Mendelson’s Liquidation Warehouse in Dayton, Ohio. The choice to paint disconnected parts of old machinery may not strike you as an obvious choice, but Barb was captivated: “The light was coming in in such an interesting way, and there were so many things about the pieces as far as texture and color and shape that drew me to them.”

As for what draws her eye to anything she might paint, Barb says, “In so many artist statements I see this over and over again, and I would have to repeat it: light. The way the light falls on objects or changes them, their mood.  Light intrigues me. But as far as subject matter it’s hard to say. I like still life and landscape, but it’s funny when I took these photographs I thought I want to paint these things.”

As the idea for the series formed, though, an interesting thought occurred to her about the objects and the elements of life that they represented: “What got me about it was the fact that there were rows and rows of old machinery and mechanical pieces. Obviously they’re aged, and I think that someone used these for their occupation. They were productive, and now they’re just lying there to be refurbished or thrown away; and sometimes, unfortunately, that’s what happens to some people.”

And as she painted, Barb noticed a curious phenomenon: “It’s funny, I would paint them and stand back and say, wow look at that face. And I would have other people say, ‘Do you see a face in that?’ I would say, I do, do you?”

Even so, Barb isn’t interested in telling you what to see or worrying too much about it. In fact, after 15 years as a teacher, one lesson that she’s learned as well as any is that you can’t let worry about what people think destroy your creative drive: “When I taught I had general art, advanced art and Advanced Placement students – I had the whole gamut. And kids would come in and say, ‘I can’t do art.’ Unfortunately, that’s brought on by someone who says to them, ‘You’re not really an artist’. For me art isn’t about creating a thing to hang on the wall; it’s something you can do to fulfill yourself.”

“You have do it for yourself and not worry about what ‘they’ think about it. You fight the inner critic all the time. I have to tell myself, just keep going. If I feel that it’s right, that it’s working in the composition, I keep going.”

In addition to pursuing her own work Barb still teaches, but she offers private lessons now. And her experience leads her to one consistent piece of advice for anyone who is drawn to art: “Get the basics down and take those and run with them. And paint and paint and paint.”

“I have a student who says, ‘I just do this because I love it, not to put it up on a wall.’ I think that’s where we all ought to be.”

Barbara Johnson Art
Barbara Johnson Art



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