At John Johannsen’s Studio A Bear Could Be Somebody’s Grandmother
By Antoinette May
It’s just an ordinary street that snakes up the hill from “down town” Jackson. The building is ordinary too. Square. Brick. First a blacksmith’s stable. Then a garage. People walk right by never guessing what’s inside.
But suppose you knocked. Absently, perhaps, never guessing at the adventure waiting behind the heavy door. First an elegant, silver haired gentleman would answer. He’s the initial surprise. John Johannsen looks unlike any blacksmith or garage mechanic you’ve ever met. Then, looking past him—the big revelation. It’s a bolt—not from the blue but from the pink, purple, red and every variation there of. The explosion of color is enough to make you gasp. Is it a psychedelic Valentine or a garden gone mad?
John Johannsen’s studio, like his amazing art work, has a divine silliness to it. Beyond chic, it’s over the top—yet still comfortable. Once there, no one wants to leave. For one thing, there’s so much to see and you won’t want to miss anything. Not an easy task when the 3000 square feet are filled with vibrant madness.
“I can’t look at anything plain without wanting to paint on it,” Johannsen explains. “’Plain’ is a challenge to me. I can’t stop myself.” As a result, the place is packed with painted chairs, painted screens, painted tables, painted dressers and commodes. The artist who “never throws anything away” has also collected hats and shirts, sconces and chandeliers, scarves and gauze, Christmas trees and artificial fruit, mirrors and hanging baskets. But mostly there are flowers—flowers woven into the oriental carpets,
flowers on the walls, ceilings and tables.
In the midst of this order and chaos, genius and madness, Johannsen’s paintings are born. Looking down from his walls are bears in bonnets, prancing pigs, wise apes, frivolous felines. To call the work “decorative art” doesn’t begin to do it justice. Johannsen’s paintings lighten the spirit with their whimsy and charm.
The artist developed his singular style in 1952 while studying color and design with Rudolph Schaeffer in San Francisco. For the 17 years that Johannsen was visual merchandising manager of the elegant Saks Fifth Avenue at Grant Avenue and Maiden Lane, his store windows were truly the talk of the town. On the side, he decorated Sausalito houseboats, designed backdrops for Woodside debutantes and painted, painted, painted.
His work was shown in group shows at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Hammersmith Gallery in New York, then a one-man show at the California Palace of the Legion of Honor.
Johannsen recalls his first trip to the Sierra foothills in 1962. “Everybody was talking about this ‘Mok place,’ writing about it, going there for weekends. I drove up from San Francisco to see for myself. It was spring, roses everywhere. I thought Mokelumne Hill was the prettiest town in the world—winding streets, quaint little houses tucked away in alleys.”
The next thing Johannsen knew he’d acquired a second home, a narrow, two-story sliver of history cheek by jowl to the Leger Hotel. For years the artist divided his time between a five-room flat on Russian Hill and Mokelumne Hill. When someone made an offer he couldn’t refuse on the Main Street Victorian, he bought a vintage home on Church Street wherehe still resides.
With two partners, Johannsen opened a store—the Squirrel’s Nest—at Lake Tahoe and then another—Le Nid de L’Ecurenil (the nest of the squirrel)—in Paris, all the while maintaining his Mok Hill digs. In 1987, after 15 years, he decided: “Glamorous as this is, what I really want is to be sitting at an easel in Mokelumne Hill.” The rest is history.
Today the artist takes an active part in many community events, designing stage sets for theater groups and decorations for charity balls. He’s also responsible for the transformation of the Imperial Hotel in Amador and Daffodils in Sutter Creek. You can view his capricious canvases at both places.
Though some are joyous still-lives, most are whimsical animal portraits. “They’re really people,” Johannsen says. “I don’t paint alligators. My bears could be someone’s grandmother.”
Perhaps so. Looking from pig to cat to bear, one sees that each subject has dignity and grace. They’re gentle without being sentimental, wise creatures but also party animals. Though the subject matter is naïve it’s approached with sophistication.
The artist suspects that he was inspired subconsciously by the paintings of Gibson Girls that he saw on his grandmother’s walls as a small boy.
John Johannsen is delighted with his Sierra surroundings. “Perhaps if I hadn’t experienced San Francisco and Paris I wouldn’t be so contented here,” he speculates. “I live in a happy world. The whole day is fun whether I’m painting a pig, designing a stage set or working in my container garden. Who can ask for anything more?”
Johannsen’s work may be seen at the Add Art Gallery, 20 Main St., Jackson or viewed on their website, addart.com