Jay J. Johnson | Natural Connections

Cougar Walk, acrylic, 17 x 21. painting, southwest art.
Cougar Walk, acrylic, 17 x 21.

By Norman Kolpas

The bell rang for recess at the Rhodes School in Marblehead, MA. All the third-graders stam-peded out to the playground. All, that is, except for one 8-year-old boy. He remained seated at his desk, pencil in hand, head bowed, painstakingly copying every cove and island in the map of Alaska he was drawing. “I imagined what it might be like there, and I was just so excited,” recalls Jay J. Johnson, thinking back to that childhood day more than 34 years ago.

That memory succinctly captures three characteristics that have made Johnson a respected wildlife artist today. It illustrates his ability to focus like a laser on the finest of details, from the way a fox’s fur seems to glow in the late afternoon light to the prickly particulars of a bush beneath which a family of quail might take shelter. It sums up his unquenchable thirst for adventure, which regularly brings him into intimate contact with the animals and environments he depicts. And, most of all, it expresses his abiding love of the natural world, a quietly burning passion that glows in each of his paintings.

Foxfire, acrylic, 20 x 24. painting, southwest art.
Foxfire, acrylic, 20 x 24.

As far back as he can remember, Johnson felt “a close connection to nature.” He saw it all around him growing up on a small peninsula that juts into Massachusetts Bay about 15 miles northeast of Boston. And he drew even closer to it at his family’s summer cottage in a remote, wooded part of Maine, where his father had grown up. “We’d go out together on walks and boat trips on the pond and rivers,” Johnson recalls. “It really inspired me.”

He needed little external inspiration to pursue art, however. “As soon as I was old enough to hold a pencil, I was drawing,” he says, a note of modesty slowing down his New England drawl. “Even in kindergarten, my drawings seemed to be a lot better and more accurate than the other kids’. All the way through grade school and high school, people were always telling me how talented I was. It got drummed into my mind. I could see that I was an artist.”

Quailsong, acrylic, 12 x 16. paitning, southwest art.
Quailsong, acrylic, 12 x 16.

Art was so much second nature to Johnson that he didn’t even consider it as a career as he grew up; he looked instead for something else that would challenge him. He studied natural history at Cornell University, taking courses in botany, biology, zoology, “and all the other  ‘ologies,’” he says. Along the way he took art courses as electives, refining his painting skills just for the pleasure of it—and to enable him to create accurate renderings of the wildlife he observed.

Observation in the wild became his obsession. During his summer vacations from college and then after graduation into his early 20s, Johnson frequently embarked on months-long solo adventures in the wild. While still a teen, he spent 76 days climbing all 48 peaks higher than 4,000 feet in New Hampshire’s White Mountains. In 1978, he walked 250 miles of the John Muir Trail in the High Sierra, from Yosemite Valley to Mt. Whitney.

Jay Johnson. southwest art.
Jay Johnson.

His most impressive feat came three years later: a 16-month-long, 10,000-mile trek by foot, bicycle, rowboat, and kayak that took him from Maine south along the Appa-lachian Trail, down river to the Gulf of Mexico, across the Mississippi Delta and south along the Texas coastline, across the desert Southwest, and finally north along the Pacific Crest Trail to the Canadian border. Whenever weather allowed, he slept on the ground beneath the stars. “The world became immediate and very real during those long hours in nature’s realm,” he says in summation. “My outlook on life would never be the same.”

Interestingly, throughout his 20s and into his early 30s Johnson didn’t paint wildlife. Regular outdoor travels and the drawings they inspired were enough to satisfy him as he supported himself by writing and photographing human-interest stories for Marblehead-area publications and doing occasional freelance illustrations for ad agencies. Grad-ually, however, he became aware of wildlife painters like Robert Bateman and Bob Kuhn, whose works were lauded by collectors, naturalists, and other artists alike.

Inspired by their works, in 1990 he completed an acrylic painting of a kit fox amid the stormy dunes of New Mexico’s White Sands National Mon-ument. “It was literally the first painting of wildlife I had done since college,” he says. The vividly lifelike piece was accepted into Wildlife: The Artist’s View, a show at the prestigious Leigh Yawkey Woodson Art Museum in Wausau, WI, which also toured museums across the nation. That success, he says, “convinced me that I could combine my loves of art and nature and animals.”

For the first time in his life, and with the wholehearted support of his wife, Lori, Johnson dedicated himself full time to art. Many more paintings have followed, along with inclusion in a steady stream of top-notch shows and exhibitions, such as the Arts for the Parks competition, the Artists of America show at Denver’s Colorado History Museum, Tulsa’s Gilcrease Museum, the Massachusetts State House in Boston, and the U.S. Embassy in Moscow.

Along the way Johnson has developed a process that brings a rare sense of realism, drama, and immediacy to his paintings. It all takes place in his home studio, where a 6-by-5-foot window looks out at wooded wetlands often visited by deer, coyotes, and raccoons. A five-disc CD player fills the room with a random selection of nature sounds—woodland birdsong, Borneo crickets, grunting walruses, desert thunderstorms, Arctic ice floes.

Johnson sorts through the extensive collection of slides he’s taken on his travels, his mind open for a certain posture or quality of light that stimulates the idea for a painting. Next comes a 3-by-5-inch pencil sketch of the overall composition, on which he spends a couple of hours “to make sure I have everything lined up the way I like it,” he says.

If Johnson is going to work in acrylic paints, as he so often does, he selects a piece of hard, quarter-inch Masonite appropriately sized to his subject, which he often depicts life-size. Using plaster, he applies a textured surface ranging in thickness from about one-fifteenth to a quarter of an inch. “I’m not trying to be a sculptor,” he explains, “but a smooth surface feels very plain and mechanical to me. The texture I apply gives the painting a more rugged feeling, like it was made or belongs outdoors.” In the foreground he sometimes glues real pebbles or gravel, which help to give finished works such as Quailsong an eerie verisimilitude. Then, layer after thin layer of paint goes on as Johnson slowly builds the picture. “When I actually start painting,” he says, “I set myself free,letting my mind take over to create colors the way I would like to see them, rather than being a slave to the exact details in the slide.” The result is a work of such surprising depth and realism that the animals often appear to be stepping right out of the paintings. But his attention to detail does not end there. He even selects a craftsman-built gold-leaf frame for each of his works, then burnishes and distresses it to make “a good little environment within which my painting will live.”

Each Johnson painting does live, bringing those who view or possess it into a more intimate relationship with the natural world. “In the day-to-day life of most people,” the artist observes, “they’re inside man-made environments. They’re kind of isolated. If that painting of mine is hanging on their wall, though, it gives them some connection to nature.”

Johnson pauses, clearly wary of making too grand a claim for his works. Drawing on memories of his many treks across mountains and nights under the stars, he continues, “Of course, I always tell people that the best thing to do is go out there into nature and have a look around for yourself.”

Photos courtesy Jay Johnson Art Studio, South Hamilton, MA; Wind River Gallery, Aspen, CO; and Maine’s Massachusetts House Gallery, Lincolnville, ME.

Featured in June 2001