Sunday, October 28, 2012

American Artist William H Johnson 1901-1970 - From the Deep South to New York to Europe & Back

William H. Johnson (American artist, 1901-1970) Aunt Alice, The Artist's Mother

Born in Florence, South Carolina, to mother Alice Smoot Johnson (known as “Mom Alice” or “Aunt Alice”) and father Henry Johnson. William H. Johnson was oldest of 5 children - William, Lacy, Lucy, James, and Lillian.

William H. Johnson (American artist, 1901-1970) Jim Johnson Artist's Brother 1930

Johnson was not a self-taught or outsider artist. At age 17, Johnson moved to New York City, where he supported himself by working as a cook, hotel porter, and stevedore. In September 1921, he enrolled at the School of the National Academy of Design (NAD). Between 1923-1926, during the academic year he studied with Charles W. Hawthorne at the NAD and during the summers at The Cape Cod School of Art in Provincetown, Massachusetts.

William H. Johnson (American artist, 1901-1970) Lil' Sis

In 1926, Johnson sailed to Paris to study art. He worked as a custodian to make ends meet. Over the next few years, he held exhibits in France, Germany, Luxembourg, and Belgium. In 1930, Johnson married Danish textile artist Holcha Krake. Johnson and his wife worked in countries throughout Europe; and in 1932, the couple arrived in Tunisia, where Johnson hoped to learn more about his African heritage. After a 3 month stay, they returned to Denmark via France.

William H. Johnson (American artist, 1901-1970) Mom and Dad 1944

During the next couple of years the Johnsons visited Norway and Sweden, where they continued to exhibit their art. The couple spent most of the '30s in Scandinavia, where Johnson's interest in primitivism and folk art began to have a noticeable impact on his work.

William H. Johnson (American artist, 1901-1970) Farm Couple at Well 1939-40 Print

Johnson’s bold, rough woodcuts from the 1930s, inspired by German expressionist woodcutting techniques, distinguish his prints from the work of most other American artists, who used more traditional methods of printmaking. The materials he used for making relief prints were readily available: scrap lumber or a piece of linoleum.

William H. Johnson (American artist, 1901-1970) Deep South 1940-41 Print

After he and his wife returned to the United States in 1938, Johnson continued to produce relief prints. He also began to experiment with serigraphy. While many American artists of his generation created multiple impressions of a single image, Johnson often varied the image from one impression to the next. His prints, like his paintings, reveal the development of his distinctive artistic language to express powerful narrative, emotional, and symbolic content.

William H. Johnson (American artist, 1901-1970) Early Morning Work, 1939-40 Print

Back in the US, Johnson immersed himself in the traditions of the African-American community, producing work characterized by its stunning, eloquent, folk art simplicity. Like Jacob Lawrence and Romare Bearden, Johnson began probing the black experience, drawing imagery from his rural southern childhood and from Harlem’s upbeat urban ambience. A Greenwich Village resident, he became a familiar figure on the New York art scene.

William H. Johnson (American artist, 1901-1970) Sowing 1940-42

Although Johnson enjoyed a certain degree of success as an artist in this country and abroad, financial security remained elusive. William H. Johnson taught painting for a short period of time at the Harlem Community Art Center. The Metropolitan Museum of Art included his work of black soldiers in its 1942 exhibit Artists for Victory.

William H. Johnson (American artist, 1901-1970) Breakdown 1940-41 Print

In 1943, Johnson’s wife Holcha was diagnosed with breast cancer and died the following year. From 1944 to 1946, Johnson worked as laborer in the Navy Yards in New York. Following his wife's death in 1944, Johnson's physical and mental health declined dramatically. Johnson spent his last 23 years in a state hospital on Long Island.

William H. Johnson (American artist, 1901-1970) Going to Church 1940-41 Print

By the time of his death in 1970, he had slipped into obscurity. After his death, his entire life's work was almost disposed of to save storage fees; but it was rescued by friends at the last moment. Over 1000 paintings by Johnson are now part of the collection of the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, DC.

William H. Johnson (American artist, 1901-1970) Folk Family 1940-41 Print

William H. Johnson (American artist, 1901-1970) I Baptize Thee 1940

William H. Johnson (American artist, 1901-1970) Sowing 1940-42

William H. Johnson (American artist, 1901-1970) Chain Gang 1939

William H. Johnson (American artist, 1901-1970) Farewell

William H. Johnson (American artist, 1901-1970) Soap Box Car Racing 1939-40

William H. Johnson (American artist, 1901-1970) Street Musicians 1939-40

William H. Johnson (American artist, 1901-1970) Cafe 1939

William H. Johnson (American artist, 1901-1970) Blind Singer 1939-40 Print

William H. Johnson (American artist, 1901-1970) Jitterbugs I

William H. Johnson (American artist, 1901-1970) Jitterbugs II 1941

William H. Johnson (American artist, 1901-1970) Jitterbugs III 1941 Print

William H. Johnson (American artist, 1901-1970) Jitterbugs V 1941-42 Print

William H. Johnson (American artist, 1901-1970) Jitterbugs

William H. Johnson (American artist, 1901-1970) Moon Over Harlem

William H. Johnson (American artist, 1901-1970) Fright c 1942 Print

William H. Johnson (American artist, 1901-1970) Off to War 1942 Print

William H. Johnson (American artist, 1901-1970) Station Stop, Red Cross Ambulance c 1942

William H. Johnson (American artist, 1901-1970) Mount Calvary

William H. Johnson (American artist, 1901-1970) Come Unto Me Little Children

William H. Johnson (American artist, 1901-1970) Three Friends 1944-45 Print

William H. Johnson (American artist, 1901-1970) Art Class 1939-40

William H. Johnson (American artist, 1901-1970) Portrait of Fletcher, 1939

William H. Johnson (American artist, 1901-1970) Art Class Model in a Yellow Chair 1939

William H. Johnson (American artist, 1901-1970) Self Portrait


Self-Taught Southern American Artist Vollis Simpson b 1919

New York Times by Scott Shane
All photos by Jeremy M. Lange
Published: April 5, 2010

Vollis Simpson 2010 at age 91 Mr. Simpson in his North Carolina workshop.

LUCAMA, N.C. — Just when you think you’ve traveled too far down Wiggins Mill Road, and you start to look for a spot to turn around, the rusting masterworks of Vollis Simpson loom into view.

Thirty feet in the air, held aloft by sturdy steel pillars, are some of Mr. Simpson’s pieces: a team of horses pulling a wagon, a metal man strumming a guitar and an airplane cum rocket ship that might have escaped from an old comic book. They are painted in a dozen colors and festooned with propellers that spin in the breeze. With every gust they creak and whir like some phantasmagoric junkyard band.

And down below, barely distinguishable in the shade of a barnlike building with “Simpson Repair Shop” painted on the front, is a gaunt man with big, gnarled hands bent over some scrap metal. It’s Mr. Simpson himself, a retired farm-equipment repairman who turned 91 in January, and who has hammered from discarded steel and aluminum a long second career as an artist.

Vollis Simpson's Workshop

Mr. Simpson, a graduate of the 11th grade and the United States Army Air Corps, is the creator of some of the most recognizable work in the genre of American homemade art by self-taught practitioners, now known by the dressed-up names of outsider art or visionary art.

He has lived to see what he thought of as a hobby for himself and quirky entertainment for the neighbors become part of a seriously regarded corner of the art world, one that generates master’s theses, museum shows and significant money.

His work, which graced a window at Bergdorf Goodman in Manhattan last Christmas, is on permanent display in Baltimore, Atlanta and Albuquerque. City people regularly find their way down Wiggins Mills Road to his place, and some of them give him $125 or more for a little nuts-and-bolts dog with a propeller for a tail. His biggest pieces have sold for many thousands, though he gives a lot away, and his only business manager is his wife, Jean, 82, who used to do the books for the repair shop.

The attentions of the outside world seem to befuddle him even today. When he first started making these things he calls his “windmills” 25 years ago, did he call it art?

“Didn’t call it nothing,” he said. “Just go to the junkyard and see what I could get. Went by the iron man, the boat man, the timber man. Ran by every month. If they had no use for it, I took it.”

The inspiration was in his gleanings, he said. “I’d look at a piece of metal, think of something and jump right on it.”

His cluttered yard is a recycling center on steroids. Junked air conditioners are great for fan blades. The police auction in nearby Wilson, N.C., supplies “all the bikes you want.” With an acetylene cutting torch, he can find the man or mule, hat or cat, hidden in any castoff sheet of steel.

“If he goes to the junkyard and finds 25 fans, he comes home and makes 25 whirligigs,” said Leonard Simpson, a 54-year-old television producer in Greensboro, N.C., who is one of Vollis Simpson’s three children.

His father had a cotton gin and moved buildings with mule teams, and Mr. Simpson, one of 12 children, learned to fix things before he learned to read. He joined the military, and while stationed in the Pacific during World War II made his first windmill from parts of a junked B-29 bomber, to power a giant washing machine for soldiers' clothes.

Back home, he settled into the equipment repair business, and when the oil embargo drove up fuel prices in the 1970s, he made another windmill to blow wood-heated air into his home. “My mom complained about the smoky smell so much that it didn't last long,” Leonard Simpson said.

To visit the elder Mr. Simpson on his home turf, among back roads where the abandoned tobacco barns are held up by vines, and billboards exhort drivers to repent, is to understand how naturally his art grew out of his old business.

Some years later Vollis decorated the discarded windmill and planted it in the pasture, next to the pond. Then, starting in the mid-1980s, one thing led to another, and tractor repair was gradually supplanted by whirligig construction.

“He just did it for enjoyment,” Leonard said. “People would come from Wilson and stop and point. He came to enjoy the social aspect of it, and people started coming from further and further away. Next thing you knew, people were coming from Atlanta and Richmond.”

Perhaps his biggest break came in the mid-1990s, when Rebecca Alban Hoffberger, who was preparing to open the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore, decided Mr. Simpson was just the man to provide its signature piece. She had visited him in Lucama and was attracted by the grand scale of his larger works, and by their complexity and precise engineering. She also liked his modesty.

“He’s delighted with attention, but he doesn’t need it,” she said. “My favorite artists don’t watch themselves being artists.”

She brought him up to look over the museum site at the Inner Harbor in Baltimore, and he went to work, eventually coming up with a 55-foot high, 45-foot wide, three-ton whirligig of whirligigs that now towers outside the museum. Built atop a sign pole salvaged from a gas station, topped by a bicycle rider, cats and angels, and incorporating oil filters, milkshake canisters and waffle-iron parts, it prompts incredulous grins from passing tourists and draws locals to watch its wild spinning during thunderstorms.

He painted it mostly red, white and blue and called it “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.” Unlike the pieces in his pasture it gets regular touch-ups that keep it bright.

“You put one of his freshly painted pieces, moving as he designed it, anywhere in the world, and people will stop what they’re doing and stare and smile and say, ‘Oh, my God,’ ” Ms. Hoffberger said.

“I only wish that Alexander Calder could have known him,” she added. “He would have been smitten.”

The work has taken its physical toll on Mr. Simpson, who spent two days in a hospital burn unit a few years ago after a spark from a cutting torch set his shirt on fire. His knees are so painful that “I walk like a drunk,” he said.

He credits the whirligigs with carrying him long past the 70 years or so that his father and brothers lived. But even as he puts in 10 hours in his workshop on some long, warm days, he wonders about the future of the amusement park his pasture has become.

“I guess it’ll just rust and fall down when I’m gone,” he said.

Meanwhile, though, there’s work to do: the steel man smoking a steel pipe, the horse he’s got to cut out, the bicycle wheel he mounted a month ago on a frame and forgot.

“I got to get to the supply shop and get some cogs and chains,” he said, mostly to himself.