By Gussie Fauntleroy
Figurative painter Johanna Harmon brings a sense of nurturing to her subjects
Strong but even light illuminates Johanna Harmon’s easel, where a painting of a beautiful African woman holding a drum is in progress. In Harmon’s studio the soft light flows in from tall north windows, which at night frame the city-glow of Denver, about 20 miles north of her ridge-top home. Out western windows are the Rocky Mountains. It’s the kind of serene studio the artist would have dreamed of 20 years ago, if she had known how to take her powerful but undefined artistic impulses and form them into a clear dream.
As it was, what she understood from childhood on was that she needed to draw. She needed to express herself through art. And she may have known, on some unarticulated level, that she needed to form a deep bond with her fellow humans, as she has by using friends and strangers as models for her heartful paintings in recent years.
Harmon, who grew up in Tempe, AZ, turned to drawing at age 7 as a companion during the many hours she spent alone. While her mother was at work and her two older brothers were off in their teenage world, she would sit outside by herself and pour her energy into drawing the palm trees, houses, dogs, and cats of her neighborhood. Even then, she recalls, and with only pencil and paper as her tools, she was aware of shading and values, aware of intently trying to create a likeness of what her eyes took in.
In high school advanced-placement art classes, painting instruction was not available, but Harmon continued to build a strong foundation in drawing skills. Yet without encouragement at home, and with no role model or mentor to point her toward an art career or art school, she had no idea what to do with her gift. Instead, she found work to support herself and endured the stifling feeling of not doing what she desperately wanted to do. Until one day, in her mid-20s, when the door opened.
That door led to classrooms at the Scottsdale Artists’ School, and Harmon discovered it through a friend and artist at the design and fabrication firm where she worked as a project coordinator. “The moment I walked into the Scottsdale Artists’ School, I just knew it was where I was supposed to be. It felt like home,” she remembers, her voice quiet and warm. In the following years she took class after class and workshop after workshop, studying with such renowned artists as Dan Gerhartz, Kim English, Scott Burdick, Mark Daily, Quang Ho, and others at the Scottsdale Artists’ School, the Denver Art Students League, and the Fechin Art Institute in Taos. In 1996 she took her first painting class—instruction for which she had long been preparing by learning to see well and to draw. “I believe a painting must have sound drawing, especially when painting the figure,” she notes.
For the next few years Harmon drew and painted when she could, taking a job with more flexibility and moving with her husband, Steven, from Arizona to Colorado. In 2000 she made the decision to turn full-time to art. “I realized I couldn’t waste another minute not doing it,” she recounts. “Art was crucial to my living. I just had the sense that I couldn’t wait any longer.” She was 30. Since then her work has blossomed into a strong and compelling figurative style that ranges between representational and impressionistic. Her talent has been noticed by collectors and artist-judges, as evidenced by such awards as the William Schneider Award of Excellence at the 2003 Oil Painters of America National Juried Exhibition and the Best of Show prize at the 2001 Scottsdale Artists’ School’s Best and Brightest show.
Many of Harmon’s subjects are female, including dancers, mothers with children, and young women in contemplative poses. And although they speak of universal themes, these paintings are entirely personal for the artist. Often the models are people she knows well—neighbors and friends—or people she comes to know as she works. In either case, a real connection with her model is central to Harmon’s passion for painting. “I like to have a sense of who they are, how they carry themselves as individuals,” she explains. “It’s almost like I fall in love with them before I paint.”
Sometimes the “falling in love” is the result of qualities Harmon reads in the faces and figures of people she doesn’t know—for example, the discipline, spirit, hard physical work, and grace of dancers in the Colorado Ballet, whom she enjoys watching and painting. Other times her attention is caught by everyday folks in ordinary settings, and she watches them until she’s sure she wants to ask if they’ll model for her. “I’m not shy,” she laughs. “I stare at people. I pick them up everywhere—at the grocery store, anywhere.” She met the elegant African woman who is the subject of the work on her easel, for instance, at a real estate office she and Steven visited while buying their home. Harmon is particularly drawn to people of different ethnic backgrounds, for their physical attributes as well as the chance to learn about other cultures and other parts of the world.
Before she begins a new painting, Harmon may spend hours or days thinking through ideas, focusing her intention for the piece until it is clear. With extensive training in painting from life, she often works directly with the model for at least part of the painting, which she then may finish in the studio with the help of digital photos. In every piece, she says, she deliberately sets up challenges for herself to keep the work fresh and continue to grow as an artist. “My intention is to challenge myself beyond interpreting what I see, with complex compositions and color arrangements, focusing on edges, simplifying values, creating varied and specific shapes, capturing the passage or gradation of light, or depicting movement.”
Harmon gets to her studio before breakfast every morning and paints through the day. Her paintings portray figures who seem to embody the human qualities the artist most admires and searches for in others: a strong sense of self, intelligence, passion, approachability, affection, the willingness to work hard, and the ability to nurture. “There’s a certain set of gifts that everyone is given, and I admire people who are selfless and look beyond themselves to utilize the gift they’ve been given for the betterment of others,” she says.
One way she has used her own talent to help others is by participating in the recent Art for Education Sale and Auction in Denver, sponsored by the Public Education and Business Coalition and held at the Colorado History Museum. “I know my childhood gave me a heightened awareness of the preciousness of children, the beauty of motherhood, and the importance of nurturing and loving children,” she says. Challenging though her early life may have been, Harmon (who has no children but gives good care to her elderly cat) sees the positive side of things in the tenacious work habits she developed and in her compassion for others.
“It seems to me that the deeper I study art, the more aware I become of how personal painting really is,” she muses. “I think everyone has a certain level of vulnerability within them, but what is important is the willingness to keep forging ahead. To take that chance, that opportunity to see what you are really made of.”
Although the figure has been the focus of her art up to this point, Harmon envisions herself eventually expanding into other subjects, including landscape and still-life painting. A trip to France next year with a small group under the mentorship of painter C.W. Mundy may offer possibilities along these lines. For now, Harmon continues to find pleasure and satisfaction in painting people—and in the unexpected joys art can bring. “I think we should look at life as an adventure,” she says. “Art opens doors for me, and I find it extremely liberating that when there’s any subject that’s very exciting, I can follow it. I hope to find that I am capable of far more than I could ever dream of.”
Harmon is represented by Deloney Newkirk Fine Art, Santa Fe, NM; Meyer Gallery, Scottsdale, AZ; and www.johannaharmon.com.
Featured in November 2004