John Poon | Town and Country


By Gussie Fauntleroy

It’s early morning on a typical Monday. The town of Jackson, WY, is just beginning to yawn and blink awake as John Poon climbs the familiar steps of a commuter plane at the airport on the outskirts of town. During the three-hour flight to his job in San Francisco, he’ll grade some student papers and maybe catch up on a little reading. It’s the start of the city half of his life, the three days a week he spends as a teacher at his alma mater, the San Francisco Academy of Art College.

On Wednesday evening Poon will make the long air commute back home. On the way he’ll shake off the city energy and shed his teaching persona. As soon as he reaches Jackson, and for the next four days, he’ll be immersed in a life that is just as intense and all-absorbing as his teaching job, but fulfilling in a very different way: father to four lively children under age 6, devoted husband, and accomplished landscape painter.

Poon, who until recently lived most of his life in Northern California, describes himself as being the “center of a cyclone” in his often hectic schedule. Yet, like the surprising stillness found in the eye of a storm, the 41-year-old painter emanates a sense of calm, through both his personality and his art.

In the California landscapes for which he is best known, and the Wyoming mountain and snow scenes he’s begun to explore, Poon tends to find and express those fleeting moments of gentle and natural grace. This sense of tranquility may be manifested as slanting golden light on an autumn vineyard, or the Sunday quiet of a country road, or even a rocky coastline in the wind.


“I feel energetic when I’m painting, but I guess a common thread in my work is that I like painting quiet places,” the artist reflects. “Even if the waves are crashing, there can be a certain serenity to it.”

One source of Poon’s contentment may be the knowledge that he’s on a path that is eminently right for him, a path that first revealed itself when he was barely 7 years old. A year or so earlier, his family had moved to California from Hong Kong, where Poon was born of a Chinese father and an Irish mother, and where he lived his earliest years. In San Francisco, Poon’s mother took her young son to a museum exhibition of works by Vincent van Gogh. For Poon, the experience opened the door to a whole new world.

“There was something I can’t explain that awakened in me an innate compulsion to make pictures,” the artist recalls. “After that, only a drawing pencil and a pad seemed truly necessary. Whatever I was doing, wherever I was, I was drawing.” At first it was comic book heroes and cars, then virtually anything and everything that caught his eye.

Poon’s father, an interior designer with his own business, was enthusiastic about his son’s artistic inclination. His mother, while raising seven children, was a published poet who also encouraged Poon’s love of drawing. The art room in high school became a hang-out spot for the budding artist and his friends. Even a four-year stint in the Coast Guard following graduation presented an opportunity to paint—with the subjects, of course, being boats and water, shadows and rippling light.


“By the time I got out of the Coast Guard I knew I wanted to go to art school,” Poon relates. He studied for a time at the California College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland. Then a summer job as an illustrator for a design firm stretched into almost four years before he decided to complete his education, enrolling in the San Francisco Academy of Art College.

There, under the experienced eye of artists such as Bill Maughan and Craig Nelson, Poon took advantage of the school’s rigorous, classical approach to the teaching of drawing and painting. With Maughan, in particular, he discovered his own natural attraction to the landscape. “Before, my paintings had always been narrative, with a figure. I thought I had to tell a story,” he remembers. “So I asked Bill, ‘how do you pull it off without that?’ Bill was a mentor. My work took a big shift, and all I did after that was landscape.”

One of the first painting trips of Poon’s career was a commission to travel to North Dakota with the president of a publishing company to create paintings of several specific areas. Since then he has spent time exploring and painting in most of the western states. And he has honed his ability to perceive and express the landscape’s visual treasures through additional study with masters such as Wilson Hurley and Scott Christensen. (His friendship with Christensen resulted in another benefit as well: Poon purchased and now lives in Christensen’s former Jackson residence, complete with ready-to-use studio.)


“Scott teaches ways of seeing contrast, shapes, designs, the abstract elements,” Poon notes. “Whereas before, for example, that one little passage of light between the trees and sky and mountain might have been a smaller part of the painting. I think I see more now, and it’s part of a continual process. The next level is maybe my adventure here in Jackson.”

Poon’s first few months in Wyoming fell during winter, so the adventure has included the delight of snow scenes, something the artist rarely experienced during his years in California. And while Wyoming’s weather, for the most part, precludes painting on location until spring, Poon has a well-deserved reputation as an exceptional plein-air painter. Yet he also relishes taking his sketches and color studies into the studio to create larger works. Both types of work have earned him awards from such groups as Arts for the Parks and the Society of Western Artists.

Poon’s choice of subjects reveals an essential element of his makeup as an artist—and one that basically hasn’t changed since he was a boy. He simply has a pure and steady passion for drawing and painting. As a result, he finds scenes that capture his attention virtually everywhere.

“Sometimes I’m more interested in grandeur, and then another time I’ll want to paint an intimate image of a tree, or maybe just the base of a tree and grasses,” he explains. “I’m working on a couple of boat scenes from California right now, and in Wyoming I like the farm houses, the rustic old architecture. I like the presence of man’s creation amidst nature—that’s an interesting theme to me. And I also love straight landscape.

“For me, painting is a kind of spiritual endeavor,” he continues. “It enriches, it edifies, it makes you more sensitive. It’s hard for me to think of myself without it.”


Just as importantly, Poon believes, is the richness of his family life, his satisfaction in teaching art, his enjoyment of Jackson’s small-town envi-ronment, and exploration of Wyoming’s mountains, streams, and vast expanses—all these things combine to create the sensibility and appreciation that ultimately is expressed in his art.

“This moment is one step on a long, long journey,” he muses. “And it’s all a continuum of the same thing, which is doing what really matters to you—which is the art of life.”

Poon is represented by The Garden Gallery, Half Moon Bay, CA; Walls Fine Art Gallery, Wilmington, NC; and

Featured in May 2003