David Johns | New Expressions

A Couple[1992], Acrylic, 32 x 42.,painting, southwest art.
A Couple[1992], Acrylic, 32 x 42.

By Lynn Pyne

Navajo artist David Johns felt like he was dreaming the night his one-man exhibition opened on the French Riviera earlier this year. The crowd included Prince Albert of Monaco, who spent an hour questioning Johns about his abstract paintings and their cultural and spiritual significance. The prince reminisced about a road trip in America in the 1960s, along Route 66, that took the royal family through Johns’ hometown of Winslow, AZ.

This spurred Johns’ own memories  of herding sheep on the Navajo reservation near Winslow, of his early plans to become a painter. “I was told that I have a talent and to take care of it and make good use of it,” he says. “I was told that having a talent is very beautiful, and it can take you a lot of places and you can meet a lot of people. It was an honor for me to meet Prince Albert.”

Within the Four [1998], Acrylic, 60 x 48.,painting, southwest art.
Within the Four [1998], Acrylic, 60 x 48.

The exhibition, which opened in January, made newspaper headlines in Monaco and France and then traveled to the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, and to Grenoble, France. Johns was praised as a seer with a remarkable artistic gift.

In Europe, however, as in America, people initially were surprised to see a Native American artist creating abstract art. They had expected to see traditional, realistic depictions of Native people and desert lands. The European audiences asked many questions, but enthusiastically, and Johns returned to Arizona with a strengthened resolve to follow his own vision, even if it is not always understood or appreciated.

He also gained inspiration from touring renowned European museums, modern galleries, and villages in the French countryside that reminded him of masterworks by Cézanne and van Gogh. Like Johns, the European masters remained true to their artistic and cultural traditions while daring to express themselves in a different style.

Pose III [1995], Acrylic, 45 x 35.,painting, southwest art.
Pose III [1995], Acrylic, 45 x 35.

“I hope my abstractions are ways for viewers to feel the essence of my inner self, not to get caught up in the distractions of outer appearances,” Johns says. “It is not the form that touches our deepest longings but rather the story my images evoke. This is the ultimate impact of my art.”

Earlier in his career Johns became known for his skill in figurative painting, but the works always contained strong elements of the abstraction that would eventually claim his undivided attention. A 1982 portrait on the cover of the book David Johns: On the Trail of Beauty [1991 Snailspace Publishing, Inc.] by Lois Essary Jacka and photographer Jerry Jacka realistically depicts a Navajo medicine man with a lined face and piercing gaze—but the face is surrounded by abstracted forms and Navajo symbols in bold, flowing colors.

Abstract elements are evident, too, in Johns’ celebrated 1,600-square-foot mural that covers the domed ceiling at Concord Place, a European Renaissance-style building in Phoenix. The 1988 mural represents the artist’s own heritage and that of other North American Indian tribes, including significant historical figures and images from sacred legends. Floating geometric designs and symbols are woven into the composition. Because of the circular design, which makes the images appear as if they were on a wheel, even the realistic elements seem abstract when viewed upside down or sideways.

untitled [1997], Acrylic, 54 x 72.,painting, southwest art.
untitled [1997], Acrylic, 54 x 72.

Today Johns focuses more on abstract contemporary art, which he says is most meaningful to him. Through the years, he discovered that when he painted realistically, he was compelled to begin painting with a plan in mind and then to follow a prescribed procedure and techniques to complete the image. To him though not necessarily to other painters, he is careful to point out—realism seemed analytical and restrictive. Abstract work, on the other hand, permitted him to express emotions and spontaneity. “The abstracts that I do come from the soul.” He thumps a hand on his chest near his heart. “From here.”

When Johns begins a painting, he approaches the canvas without any preconceived ideas. “I just start working on it,” he says. “Abstraction is exciting, just like dreaming. It all depends on what kind of day it is or what kind of light comes through your studio or something you’ve thought about that goes through your mind. I just dream and meditate about the problem of the empty canvas. You must lock everything out and just be within yourself otherwise you can’t concentrate and get that true intuitive thought that you get from your soul. By visualizing with your emotion, your sensibility comes out in the artwork.”

Moment in Pause [1999], Acrylic, 48 x 72.,painting, southwest art.
Moment in Pause [1999], Acrylic, 48 x 72.

What does he mean by sensibility? “Sensibility is like a bridge, a messenger, between the artist’s mind and the canvas. Your brain tells your hand how to use the brush—there is a bridge that is the sensibility. Once that emotion is brought onto the canvas … it kind of bounces off … to the viewer. Creativity flows from the artist to the artwork to the viewer.”

Johns’ belief in and respect for Navajo philosophy, stories, and symbolism are essential ingredients in such meditative, intuitive outpourings of the soul. In his artist’s statement, Johns notes, “The essence of what I am is a spiritual being. … Everything I am and do I hope comes from a place of harmony. If my mind, body, and spirit are in balance, then I can produce an image which reflects my truth.”

The result is that Johns’ paintings contain levels of meaning beyond those that can be appreciated by the art world in general. For instance, it is part of Johns’ culture and his essence to respect the four basic colors created by light—white, blue, yellow, and black—which, to the Navajo people, represent various things: the times of day, the four directions, the four precious stones, the four seasons, and four stages of life. As Johns paints, he is aware of the significance and the stories that relate to colors he is using. Such things are private, sacred, and so not discussed, but they have deep meaning for Johns as he creates.

David Johns (right) with his daughter, Wahleah Johns, and Prince Albert of Monaco. photo, southwest art.
David Johns (right) with his daughter, Wahleah Johns, and Prince Albert of Monaco.

Most, if not all, of Johns’ work is inspired in some way by Native American culture, particularly stories and beliefs about nature. Light and colors are a part of nature, as is air, water, matter, and space. “You can see all kinds of forms, lines, and shapes it’s out there. All you have to do is look around you,” Johns says.

His process of creation involves a synthesis of cultural beliefs, emotions, observations, art training, and intuition. Working primarily in acrylics but also sometimes in oils, pastels, and etchings, Johns seeks to transcend the realism of an object and capture its essence.

“From a metaphysical standpoint, your intuitive faculty of sensing the inherent qualities of things is what dominates your creative instinct—whatever you would put on canvas,” Johns says. “Creation is not something you would copy as observed fact right in front of you. It is something you create new from your heart and your mind.”

It is similar, he says, to something that happens when Navajo people take part in traditional ceremonies. “You don’t see the songs or stories or prayers, you just hear them,” he says. “But you visualize what’s happening. You have to put your mind and your whole self back … at the beginning of time.” He says a painting creates the same effect on the observer when it captures the essence of an object.

Only the strip of blue sky along the top of one of his paintings could be called remotely realistic, but somehow in a tumble of textured geometric shapes in red, blue, tan, black, and gray, the artist conveys a sense of the depth and vastness of the Painted Desert near his home. With slashing lines and fanned-out colors, his painting Shawl Dancer [see page 8] evokes the twirling movements and energy of dancers in motion. They are “alive and moving, just like the air and wind and plants,” Johns says. “Nature is like that.”

Such are the visions that come, as Johns says, from the innermost chambers of the soul.

Photos courtesy the artist and Lovena Ohl Gallery, Scottsdale, AZ, and Turquoise Tortoise Gallery, Sedona, AZ.

Featured in August 1999