Meet Michael Johnson: Art a medium for preserving history and self

| February 7, 2017

FORT WAYNE—Art has always played an important role in telling the story of any people. While those who write the history books focus on the facts of who, what, when and sometimes why, that raw data rarely captures the spirit of a time. That is not so. The artist instills his or her work with the essence of the individual creator’s spirit that has been affected by the events of the time. Thus, the work often depicts not just the event but embodies the feelings of the people—feelings that great art can preserve for the ages.

Native son Michael Johnson’s extraordinary visual creations speak to that preservation of the spirit of the times. For example, the stunning images from his collection of jazz musicians transcends representations of individual iconic players but rather embody the essence of all the greats. The kinetic and intense pianist portrait can be Thelonious Monk, Herbie Hancock, Ahmad Jamal, Robert Glasper—any historic player whose work embodies the collective ethos of the black community as expressed by the music of its time. Likewise, the trumpeter could be Miles Davis, Clifford Brown, Freddie Hubbard or Rahmlee Michael Davis or Michael Harris from Earth Wind & Fire—again, anyone who speaks to the community in a language it understands through music born of struggle and love of life. And, his hip hop portraits capture the weight of the street life from which the creators hail.

Similarly, Johnson’s representations of people speak beyond a surface portrait. A powerful portrait of a young woman in distress with two men (one, a representation of Johnson himself) tending to her, fending off the world speaks of the need for black men to see women and families as souls to be defended. Johnson said the painting was born of his own evolution as a man and maturation regarding the proper supportive and symbiotic relationship between men and women in the community.

Johnson’s work tell us about our world, who we are, from whence we came and, perhaps, where we are headed. Though it has a collective power, Johnson said his work has also been about healing, particularly on an individual basis. It has, explained, been a long journey—one on which he still is.

Art, it seems, has always been Johnson’s medium for chronicling the events in his life and in the world.

“My pops told me I was drawing and doing art before I could talk. They thought something was wrong with me because I didn’t talk,” explained Johnson.

Eventually, the family realized that there was nothing wrong with the youngster and that he was perhaps a prodigy beginning to bloom in unexpected ways. While a first grader at Weisser Park Elementary School, a teacher pulled his parents aside and told them “he really has something.” From that point on, his mother and father let him dive into his artwork.

“My parents were really supportive. It might have been a way to keep me quiet,” added Johnson with a laugh.

To say that the work was in him is a bit of an understatement. Although he studied at Clark Atlanta University and American College for Applied Arts in Atlanta, the work seemed to spring straight out of Johnson’s soul, finely crafted and already having his unmistakable individual touch even at a young age. He quickly mastered drawing, painting and photographic techniques creating a body of impressive work which he displayed in various places including public museum shows. He also began to utilize his musical skills writing songs and producing his own music through his DJ Pup Luv persona.

Having earned a stellar reputation in Fort Wayne, Johnson said he was hungry for a bigger venue and moved to Atlanta. While the big city offered more people and, in some ways, more opportunities, Johnson said his experiences brought him to a critical and harrowing crossroads.

Johnson said there definitely was an art scene in Atlanta at the time (the late 1990s and early 2000s) but it was fragment and in pockets. He said he found himself isolated and searching for direction. Those feelings triggered something unhealthy.

“Literally, I went nuts. I totally lost myself,” explained Johnson.

That led him to what he describes as a dangerous bout of depression during which he said he felt like he could become a danger to himself. During that time, he said many of his preconceptions about life, particularly about achieving success were turned upside down by the experience.

“I had to literally unlearn everything I thought I knew. I had to meditate, pray, read self-help books, talk to people who were transparent about their trials and tribulations,” said Johnson.

Conversations with a coworker on a security job introduced him to ideas that later made him reassess his spiritual life and moved him toward actively developing in that area. He also was compelled to return to his roots, the place that had nurtured him in the beginning—Fort Wayne.

“I came back home to heal. I went through depression. That was all in Atlanta. I had to come back home and be surrounded by love and less stress so I could clear my mind and find out who I was,” said Johnson.

Once back in Fort Wayne where he had a strong community and familial support system, Johnson said he began working more on art that allowed him to express what he was feeling as an individual soul. He also found solace and important lessons in the work of other artists, particularly musicians.

That was back in about 2002 or 2003, said Johnson and Fort Wayne didn’t have the spots for artist to bear it all, which he said is an essential part of self-discovery and healing.

“There were no poetry spots where people were pouring out their soul, no art spots. That’s when my fascination for soulful artists kicked in,” explained Johnson.

He said artists like Mos Def, Talib and Jill Scott helped him be more transparent as an artist and person. He said their work help rid him of the illusions he had about life and the creative process.

“I had this fantasy of what I thought it was supposed to be. Folks (like those artists) were talking about suicidal thoughts,” explained Johnson, adding that he knew he wasn’t alone in his perceptions about how difficult life sometimes can be. “It helped me to see it wasn’t just me. I thought God was playing a dirty trick on me.”

The move back and hearing the work of other artists helped Johnson to enter a period of introspection and peace. He said getting away from all of the competing voices trying to tell him what to do and who to be and from other distractions were part of the healing process. That was hard in the beginning for someone used to being in the mix all the time.

“I have friends that have a fear of being alone. I was super scared going through that process. I didn’t know where it was taking me. But I think had to be by myself at that moment,” he said.

Eventually, he began to get back into the flow of things after a period of taking care of “Now I’m good,” he said, adding that he has a social life but still takes time to spend with just himself. “Balance.

All the while, art was there while Johnson was going through the process—especially after returning home. Being surrounded by a supportive community helped him reestablish a much-need personal relationship with his work.

“I actually say art saved my life, getting back into it. I had a disconnect from it in Atlanta,” said Johnson.

In the past few years, Johnson steadily has been stepping up his game. His work is moving in a variety of different areas, even into abstract realms, which allows him to express various aspects of himself and how he sees the world. Each style serves a purpose.

“I have several different styles. When I’m doing the abstract work, that’s actually a practice for me to let go. I try not to to think of anything. That’s just a practice for me to let go in my life,” explained Johnson.

He said letting go and working in the spirit is essential for good mental and spiritual health and growth.

“When I thought I knew everything, that’s when I was going down that dark path. I know the Creator has got me,” he said.

His figurative work is more a means of commenting.

“That’s personal stuff that I went through—things I have been through. I use figures to represent that,” he said.

The work gives him clarity.

“Art helped me with perspective. I had to learn how to see things in a different view,” said Johnson.

Johnson is poised to share that view with even larger audiences in Fort Wayne, thanks to a new gallery he has been developing at 1906 Bluffton Road, a site he says is near Quimby Village, but more a part of Foster Park Plaza. He plans to have an official opening sometime in the spring.

Johnson started searching for gallery space of his own about five or six years ago for a number of reasons.

One, he said, he needed a place to store and display his growing collection of work. He said he got tired of trying to store work in cramped apartments or garages where his art occasionally would be damaged.

Two, he said his work is growing larger with him using power tools to create some pieces and he needs a large, open space to create some of those pieces.

Three, the gallery gives him a place to help spread the healing power of art with others, particularly children.

“It’s part workshop, part display and sales, and partly a place to  teach. I’ve been teaching kids ever since I came back from Atlanta around 2002 or 2003. I would always meet them somewhere in bring in one or two pieces. I’m interested in seeing how they respond when they walk into a gallery and see a progression in the work,” said Johnson.

That he said could serve as a teaching tool itself and inspire them in their work.

As for a prophet returning home, Johnson said he has no regrets.

“I’m honestly thinking this is where i’m supposed to be. Recently it’s been feeling comfortable. For who I am and what I have, I need to be here. I don’t know what it is,” he said, not second guessing the spirit.

“Recently, I had a bunch of people who are doing their thing that I grew up with saying, ‘Man, you inspired me.’ I’ve been getting some very interesting things thrown at me,” said Johnson.

He said he’s learned a lot about himself and the world through life and wants to share that knowledge and those observations.

“Heard a sermon once that you have to go behind closed doors and do what you have to do with you and God—cry, scream, whatever. That’s they way I feel about art now. That’s your moment to get it out—with music the same thing.

“I’ve learned patience, reworking an idea and not being afraid. I personally believe you can learn valuable life lessons through your gift—whatever that gift is. I believe the Creator speaks through us.

But, one of the biggest lessons he learned by going away and returning is that you have to be comfortable with self to make it.

“What I realized is success is internal. You can be in the heart of everything but if you make bad choices and don’t know the value of work, I don’t care where you’re at, you’re not going to make it. But if you have that understanding living in backwash Michigan, you’re going to make it.

“The Internet is making it fair for the little guy. I can be anywhere now, apply those principles of success and make. I can be successful all over the world. I don’t think it’s where you’re at but what you have inside. I learned that the hard way.

‘Here, it’s a slow crawl but I think Fort Wayne is about to bubble. I don’t believe in coincidences. When I went to Atlanta it is not what it is now. The art community was in little pockets, but it was not like it is now.Now you go down there and there’s an artist district neear Clark-Atlantay. Now I’m coming back here and seeing the same thing here. I’m seeing a lot of faces, a lot of people. I know that the interest and fascination is here.  I’m starting to see more black artists. I think Fort Wayne is on the verge of tapping into some of that raw talent that we have.”

At the end of the day, art also has taught Johnson powerful spiritual lessons—particularly about faith.

“We make a living off of our gifts. There are so many opportunities out here to be creative with what you have and make a living and you’re not stuck in the norm of clocking in and making somebody else rich,” he said. “Spiritual security, it’s challenging but it builds me. It makes me more faithful. You don’t know how that bill is going to be paid then something magical happens. It’s a huge risk but I love it. I wouldn’t trade it.”

Johnson said you don’t have to have a career in art to learn from it and to be healed by it. Anyone can do some kind of art, he said.

“Accept art and explore it, not just view. Go home and try it. I don’t care if you do something on your wall or do something on your own floor. I see people get their hands dirty and say, ‘I feel good.’ There’s something powerful behind it,” said Johnson.

For more information on the art of Michael Johnson, including how to purchase it, visit https://www.art-by-michaeldjohnson.com/ or https://www.facebook.com/Johnson.Michael.D.

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Frost Illustrated is Fort Wayne's oldest weekly newspaper. Your Independent Voice in the Community, featuring news & views of African Americans since 1968.

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