William H. Johnson: Van Monroe's Reflection

My initial impression of William Johnson was that of a talented painter speaking through styles ofmodernism and expressionism, and artist that I could not relate to. After studying his work, I humblystand corrected. The longer I studied Johnson’s work, his motivation became more clear to me and Irealized that his journey is akin to mine. Although our artistic styles differ, we share a similar interest inusing the canvas as a “ time capsule” to capture culture in the African-American community.

An important relic for Johnson to add to his canvas-time-capsule came through dance. Johnson’sJitterbug  series illustrates the dance craze in Harlem during the 1940s. This vividly colored piece withsharp edges and abstract body proportions captures the spirit of the dancers from that era.“Ring Around the Rosey” reminds me of my own work titled Fired Up; both are expressionist worksthat show a view of beautiful little black girls at play. Both paintings carry emotional undertones ofself-fulfillment despite meager surroundings. Another noticeable similarity is the body structure of oursubjects. My young lady in Fired Up and the girls in Ring Around The Rosey are highlighted throughtheir distorted anatomy.

Both Johnson and I are traditionally trained in realism, though I sometimes slightly move the bar on thespectrum towards expressionism in pieces like Fired Up. Johnson abandoned the style completelyto focus on the emotion and symbolism of his subject. For me, a polar change in style is confusing, yetcompelling at the same time.

My opinion of Johnson’s most intriguing subject matter is his series of powerful religious paintingsMount Calvary I, Christ Crucified , and Come Unto Me Little Children. He is noted as being one ofthe first artists to depict a brown-skinned Jesus Christ . This brave move not only showcased his faithbut also his courage to abandon conventional illustrations of the Savior.

Venturing from the norm is a consistent theme in life of William Johnson, who once stated that he wasin search of his true identity as an artist. He did not allow tradition to compromise his growth. (If he feltlike painting a black Savior, he did!) Upon his untimely death in 1970, Johnson not only discovered hisniche through his journey but also left a wealth of knowledge behind for people like me who hope toone day find their true identity as an artist.

-- Van Monroe2011 Community Mural Project Artist

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