Collecting Southwestern Landscapes

Paintings by Laurence Sisson and Richard Iams mingle harmoniously with Native American weavings, pots, kachinas, and bronzes in the Johnstons’ living room.

By Bonnie Gangelhoff; Photos by Christiaan Blok

In 1978, Jim and Joan Johnston were living in Southern California when a friend returned from a vacation in Taos, NM, bearing an array of Native American pots. “He spent about $50 on those pots, and I teased him for spending that much money on the things,” Jim recalls. That was more than 20 years ago, before the Johnstons themselves fell in love with the art of the Southwest.

Today the couple live in Tucson, AZ, and have become serious collectors. Their shelves are filled with pots collected on forays to galleries and art shows across the Southwest, and their walls are dotted with paintings featuring the mountains, deserts, and canyons that are part of their everyday life.

The Johnstons actually purchased their first landscape paintings in the early ’70s, a time when their taste also favored traditional depictions of cowboys. But the summer after their friend returned with the pots, the couple took a driving trip from Los Angeles, CA, to Taos—a trip that changed their lives. They stopped in small towns like Jerome, AZ, and in well-known destinations like Santa Fe, NM, to visit galleries and museums. “That was where our interest in southwestern art bloomed,” Jim says. In 1990 the two native Californians moved to Tucson. The home they purchased was built to showcase art, with high cathedral ceilings and charming niches carved into the walls. “Having all those blank walls was dangerous!” Joan jokes.

The Johnstons’ dining room features furniture by Ernest Thompson and paintings by Scott Burdick and Richard Iams.

A decade later, of course, there are no blank walls—they are blanketed now with landscape paintings and Native American weavings. The Johnstons’ paintings of choice portray Arizona terrain, from the Grand Canyon in the north to the Sonoran Desert in the south. The collection is a mixture of plein-air works finished in the open air and paintings completed in the studio. It includes plein-air paintings by Arizonans Joan Marron-LaRue and Matt Smith as well as Coloradoans Carole Cooke and Ralph Oberg.

Anyone with qualms about collecting a wide variety of artworks should take stock of the Johnston home, where paintings, sculpture, artifacts, and weavings mingle in surprising harmony. One corner of the living room provides a perfect example: The eye falls first to the wall behind the sofa, with its dramatic display of rare Navajo weavings dating as far back as 1865. Below hang three southwestern land-scape paintings—two by Laurence Sisson depicting the Sangre de Cristo mountains and a third by Richard Iams portraying the Grand Canyon. An end table next to the sofa showcases Native American pots (including one by San Ildefonso potter Maria Mar-tinez), a sculpture of an Apache spirit dancer, and a kachina carved in 1930. A bronze horse by well-known sculptor Sandy Scott rests atop a diminutive Navajo weaving on a nearby glass coffee table.

Meanwhile, the living room’s fireplace [shown on the cover] is home to more objects of art. Sisson’s Stormy Sunset, which portrays a swirling pink sky, hangs over the fireplace. To each side, bookshelves display works by well-known Hopi potter Nampeyo. An alabaster turtle with droopy eyes by Native sculptor Doug Hyde sits on the fireplace ledge, adding a touch of whimsy to the scene. Although fireplaces don’t get used for warmth too much in Tucson, where winter temperatures are mild, the Johnstons use them as dramatic places to highlight paintings. In the family room, for example, Iams’ Saguaro West Sunset takes center stage. “I think we like sunsets,” Jim observes.

The family room features paintings by Doug Higgins,
James Fetherolf, and Clyde Aspevig

Three paintings and a flat-screen TV make their home on a nearby family-room wall. The paintings are by Doug Higgins, James Fetherolf, and Clyde Aspevig. What intrigues Jim and Joan about these works is their stylistic contrast, from Higgins’ loose and colorful rendition to Aspevig’s more traditional approach. Fetherolf, who died in 1994, was known for capturing the region’s raw beauty, from the great rock monoliths to the sometimes haunting desert cactus. Don’t be fooled into thinking that flat-screen TV with the dark frame is a painting: Adding a touch of humor on the day of the photo shoot, Jim and Joan popped in a videotape of the movie Blazing Saddles and hit the pause button on a western landscape scene.

In the dining room, a landscape depicting the Grand Canyon owns a prominent position over the sideboard. To the left of the work, the Johnstons have hung an elegant portrait of a young woman by Scott Burdick. The work, From the Dominican Republic, is one of the few figurative pieces in their collection. The pine sideboard, table, and chairs by New Mexico designer Ernest Thompson add a splash of color and the flavor of a Spanish hacienda to the room.

Joan Johnston didn’t grow up with original art hanging on the walls of her home. She remembers, however, being utterly fascinated by her sister’s ability to draw. Jim says he wasn’t too interested in art as a youngster, either. Sports were far more compelling. But he does recall that his mother was an accomplished amateur painter and that she was always signing up for classes in watercolor and oil painting. Her artwork hung in his childhood home, and today several of her landscape paintings are sprinkled throughout his Tucson residence. “I think that her interest ultimately had an influence on me,” he says. The Johnstons collect artwork when they visit galleries as well as art shows on various trips through the West. They’ve been traveling regularly across the region ever since their car journey from L.A. to Taos more than two decades ago.

While they keep a few of their favorite works hanging over the fireplaces, they both agree that moving other works regularly gives them a fresh take on the artwork. For example, Joan recalls that the Richard Iams painting of the Grand Canyon, now displayed in the dining room, once hung over the bed in the master bedroom. “It’s magnificent,” she says of the canvas. “But it felt cold and scary. We moved it to the dining room, and all of a sudden it seemed dramatic and exciting. Sometimes you focus on the fog rolling in over the canyon, and other times when you look at it you see sunlight on the rims.” The Johnstons hung a soft, evocative desert scene above the bed, and Joan says the new painting always makes her want to lay a blanket on the ground outside and look up at the sky. “The painting makes me feel peaceful,” she explains.

The Johnstons find that art has greatly enriched their lives and their home. For Jim it personalizes their house. He derives much enjoyment from regularly looking at the landscape works and mentally placing himself in the scene. “I particularly like mountain scenes, where I can think of standing on the river and fishing,” he says. For Joan the day-to-day experience of being surrounded by art adds life and energy to the space. As she says, “Artworks are like old friends that you are always happy to see.”

Featured in October 2002