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Conversations with John Henson

Today we’d like to introduce you to John Henson.

John, we appreciate you taking the time to share your story with us today. Where does your story begin?
I am a nail artist. Each art piece is made from between 5,000 and 50,000 nails and includes portraits, landscapes, abstract and desert critters. I embarked on this unique art form rather late in life, with no art training or experience. The inspiration for me came after my wife and I bought a home in the Mojave Desert just outside of Joshua Tree National Park.

We discovered a thriving creative community including here. Artists of every type, many making unusual artwork with unusual materials. Many are outsider artists, self-taught with no art training. This excited and inspired me. The first piece I tried was six feet tall and made of 23,300 nails. I wasn’t sure what I was doing and it took me six months to complete. I figured this first attempt would be a throw away. Instead, it sold and now hangs in the home of collectors in Palm Springs. My technique is constantly evolving, with at least one tweak in the process with just about every new piece I do. It was risky for me to embark on this new life challenge mid-life, taking on an unknown art form that no one else was doing. Then, once it seemed my artwork was taking off, I took the big risk of retiring three years early from my very stable and gratifying job of 32 years as a concert producer at UCLA’s Royce Hall to have more time to focus on my time-consuming artmaking. I don’t consider myself a big risk taker, but these were both leaps of faith that I am glad I took.

Can you talk to us a bit about the challenges and lessons you’ve learned along the way. Looking back would you say it’s been easy or smooth in retrospect?
Creating art with nails is an exercise in patience. Sometimes I will work for an hour and it’s hard to detect any progress in the piece I’m working on. I have bruised my thumb with a hammer more times than I could count. After ten years of hand pounding over 380,000 nails, the doctors said the chronic pain in my arm and shoulder would only get worse if I kept on going. I had to give it a rest and face the prospect of being finished as a nail artist. I gave the hammer a break and spent the next year reevaluating and experimenting in my studio. I eventually created a technique for producing the same nail art effect using a nail gun. Game changer. I am now back in the saddle, making more detailed and creative pieces than ever before.

Thanks – so what else should our readers know about your work and what you’re currently focused on?
My production studio is in West LA, but the inspiration for much of my subject matter comes from my time in the desert. Thanks in part to the recent stay at home orders, 2020 was my most productive year yet as I created twelve pieces in twelve months. The best time and place to see my nail art – and my favorite place by far to show my work – is on the Hwy 62 Open Studio Art Tour. It takes place over three weekends in October in the Mojave Desert throughout the hi-desert community just outside of Joshua Tree National Park. With over 200 artists, it has become the second-largest event of its kind in California (behind San Francisco), which is a testament to what a thriving art scene there is in this sparsely populated area. Y0u can pick up a catalog or download the mobile app and hit the road across this gorgeous desert landscape, meeting the artists and seeing their work at their studios and/or homes. 2021 will be the 20th anniversary of this beloved event, and they are considering making this a biannual event to take place every spring and fall, so check the website for updates (hwy62arttours.org). My “studio” is located on a property set among six acres of surreal boulder landscaping. Come check it out!

We all have a different way of looking at and defining success. How do you define success?
I am quite content in my life right now. I have a nice work-life balance, and my needs are met. I did not set out to become a successful artist. I had the modest goal of creating a unique and interesting piece of art for our funky Joshua Tree home and was surprised by the reaction it received by others. Now I stay busy creating art to go in other people’s home, businesses. and public spaces. The technique I use for making my nail art continues to evolve with each new piece. Every time I go to work there is a new challenge, and having those challenges provides me with ongoing satisfaction with my work. Seeing the reaction from people who see my work gives me a sense of success for what I do.

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