Andrew Johnston

Stockton Street, oil, 24 x 36. painting, southwest art.
Stockton Street, oil, 24 x 36.

By Bonnie Gangelhoff

It was on his Hawaiian honeymoon in 1993 that Andrew Johnston, 31, says his great epiphany occurred. He and his new bride, Kara, ambled into a small art gallery on the Big Island where he was immediately mesmerized by what he saw landscape paintings depicting waterfalls and moonlight shimmering over the ocean. “I had never seen anything like them before or felt anything like that looking at a painting,” Johnston says. “I thought, I have to paint. I will start as soon as I get home.”

Reflecting back on the moment more than seven years ago, Johnston still doesn’t know quite what happened that day his life took a fateful turn. “Maybe it was honeymoon bliss or something,” he says jokingly. “Because now that I know more about art, I think those Hawaii paintings were probably pretty cheesy.”

Corner Market, oil, 24 x 30. painting, southwest art.
Corner Market, oil, 24 x 30

Nonetheless, when Johns-ton returned home to Denver, CO, and to his accountant’s position, he began immediately to devote nights, weekends, and every free moment to painting. His mind wandered from solving work-related mathematical conundrums to thinking about artistic problems such as how to capture the light falling on a tree in a forest. “All of sudden everything seemed so ridiculous. I actually hate math. My MBA degree came with a great struggle,” Johnston says.

By 1997 the well-paid financial analyst was still miserable, but a bright spot was that he had begun taking art classes from painter Jane Jones. Jones offered him sage advice. “She really believes that if you want to become an artist, you have to be willing to put in time and persevere. I listened to every word she said,” Johnston says. “I wanted out of my job.”

Bohemian Hangout, oil, 30 x 24. painting, southwest art.
Bohemian Hangout, oil, 30 x 24.

In October that same year his life took another momentous turn. Kara saw a job on the Internet that sounded appealing—a position at a small Oregon college. She traveled west to an interview and was offered the position. For-tunately for him, Johnson says, his wife received enough of a salary boost so that he could quit his job and paint full time.

Today Johnston, Kara, and their 16-month-old son, Alec, live in a small lumber milling town in Oregon near the California border. He couldn’t be happier and bubbles with enthusiasm about his new life. His conversation is frequently peppered with sunny “you betcha’s.” On occasion he explains, “I didn’t always sound like this,” as if to apologize for his upbeat attitude.

Inside his studio in an old two-story bungalow, windows stretch from floor to ceiling. They shed a splash of light across the space even on a typically overcast Oregon morning. On this day his studio is quiet, but he usually listens to National Public Radio or plays favorite CDs by Mark Knopfler or Beth Orten. Several paintings he is working on rest on easels. Both are San Francisco cityscapes—one a depiction of a Chinese restaurant and another a bus stop on Stockton Street.

House on the Hill, oil, 24 x 18. painting, southwest art.
House on the Hill, oil, 24 x 18.

Four galleries represent him now, and he has just opened a show at one of them. The show at The Living Gallery in Ashland, OR, features a sampling of his San Francisco cityscapes. “People come in and really are attracted to these pieces,” gallery owner Heidi Grossman says. “They seem to feel a nostalgia for San Francisco—whether they grew up there or just visited the city. One woman even commented about a familiar parking lot in the painting Urban Glow. Her grandmother used to park there when she went to Macy’s.”

Johnson frequently hears such recollections, but nostalgia is not something he is necessarily striving to convey. “I am just painting what thrills me to death,” he says.

Take the case of Bohemian Hangout, a depiction of San Francisco’s legendary City Lights bookstore. Johnston says he hadn’t heard of the Beat Generation hangout until his mother-in-law sent him a newspaper article about it. The story talked about Jack Kerouac and other Beat writers who were regulars at City Lights. Since Johnston planned to visit San Francisco on a painting trip, he decided to incorporate a stop at the North Beach bookstore. “I was entranced with the colors of the store. There’s an orange building against a blue sky on a beautiful morning. I love the shape of the building and the murals on the side of it,” he says. “But when Baby Boomers like my parents see the painting they are entranced with the history of the place. They really respond to it. I think it takes them back to their youth, and for people who once lived in San Francisco it takes them back to the city.”

That same San Francisco painting trip yielded works depicting other picturesque scenes and city neighborhoods. In Afternoon Shadows Johnston paints a Chinatown street—capturing the way boxes and fruit baskets are arranged haphazardly. He believes the colors and shapes along a typical Chinatown street are an artist’s paradise. “The area has all these complementary color schemes I couldn’t have dreamed of—red and green, yellow and purple, orange and blue,” he says.

In addition to painting city scenes, Johnston is equally attracted to small town life. “I like small towns, big towns, anywhere I can paint light,” he says. “A painting of an outhouse can be beautiful if it’s in the right light.”

In House on the Hill, he depicts the late afternoon light—an orange glow cast over a solitary Northern California seaside bungalow. A woman who bought the work told him it was reminiscent of an Edward Hopper piece. Johnston says he had to go the library to look up information about Hopper. “This was one of my favorite pieces, but I painted like this before I knew who Edward Hopper was.”

House on the Hill actually unfolded as a personal challenge, he says. It began as a game to see how he could capture the essence of a scene in the fewest brushstrokes. “Hopper has become my hero, but after the fact,” Johnston says. “When I first started painting architecture I thought no one would like it. But when I saw Hopper’s paintings I realized there are people who like this kind of artwork.”

In each new work Johns-ton is trying to convey the beauty of the everyday mo-ment. For him this can mean painting what others might consider an eyesore. “I don’t want to paint just a pretty picture. I want my work to evoke the drama and emotion in a scene,” he says. “That is what makes painting interesting to me.”

Recently he read Andrew Wyeth: A Secret Life [1998 Harperperennial Library] by Richard Merryman. One passage from the biography of the artist so impressed him that he wrote it down and tacked it to a wall in his office. He is fond of quoting Wyeth’s words: “The hardest thing for a young person is to see the romance in the surroundings of the commonplace.”

These days Johnston looks forward to exploring new landscapes for subject matter. This spring he plans a trip to Los Angeles to paint scenes around the city. “I can’t wait to paint Sunset Boulevard—the billboards, people, and buildings,” he says enthusiastically. Some of these works will be included in the upcoming Urban Landscape show in June at Tirage Gallery in Pasadena, CA.

In college, he used to laugh at professors who espoused the wisdom, “do what you love and the money will follow.” Today, Johnston says it is his mantra. Although he earns less money than he did from his accountant position, his future seems full of possibility. “I hope if there is someone out there who is despondent about his or her career and reads this article they can see how an ordinary guy can pursue his dream,” he says. “I want people to feel inspired to follow their passions and dreams.”

Photos courtesy the artist and Balantyne & Douglass Fine Art Galleries, Bend and Cannon Beach, OR; The Living Gallery, Ashland, OR; Pitzer’s of Carmel, Carmel, CA; and Tirage Gallery, Pasadena, CA.

Featured in February 2001