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Meet Stephen Robert Johns

Today we’d like to introduce you to Stephen Robert Johns.

Hi Stephen Robert, thanks for sharing your story with us. To start, maybe you can tell our readers some of your backstory.
Throughout Grade School and High School, I have always excelled with making art. My first introduction to fine art was through my grandfather, who saw early on that I loved to draw anything and rewarded me with crayons, then pastels, sketchbooks and watercolors, and finally with small canvases and oil paints.

Along with providing me with art materials, he brought me small books on famous artists, such as Miro, Van Gough, and Matisse. Probably the most influential artist on my art was Johannes Itten. Itten was a German Bau Haus artist studying color theory. Of course at the same time, I was introduced to the other Bau Haus artists, such as Walter Gropius, whose stark and flowing geometric lined architecture inspired much of my painting. All of these artists, their books & experimenting with art materials kept me busy indoors when not outside playing with our neighbors. I attended Pacific Palisades High School, and one day in my art class, while finishing up a watercolor project for my High School art class, my teacher, Mr Elger, came up to me and asked me what my plans were once I graduated for HS. I wasn’t sure, but I knew I loved making art. He recommended that I visit Chouinard Art Institute, located in downtown Los Angeles. He suggested that I take a few of my class assignments, along with a few new watercolors and drawings, and create a portfolio…I had no idea what a portfolio was, but I rapidly copied record album jackets, using my No. 2 pencil that my mother had in the house, along with a few classic Holbein the Younger drawings from my art history book, and went to Chouinard to submit my portfolio, upon graduating from HS in 1966. The following year I was accepted at Chouinard Art Institute. Another reason I applied to Chouinard was because of Walt Disney. Walt Disney built Chouinard so his artists could complete his animated movie, Fantasia, released in 1940, with the help of LA socialite Nelly Chouinard. I loved cartooning, and the Disney characters, the colors, and the magic that magical feeling he brought out in his characters, and I always thought of myself as a cartoonist.

However, once out of HS I felt the need to learn how to be a fine art painter. Chouinard had illustration labs, but not much in the way of cartooning labs. At Chouinard, I studied with teachers who were professional artists, such as Watson Cross, Nobuyuki Hadeishi, and Mike Kanemitsu, teaching us live model drawing techniques, experimental drawing techniques, and emboldened myself and other students how to experiment with art with different materials, different sizes, which was a fantastic experience. Following Sophomore Screening, the school moved locations, from MacArthur Park Los Angeles to Villa Cabrini, an abandoned girl’s high school located in Burbank (to allow for the completion of Cal Arts in Valencia), then to Valencia CA. Once enrolled, I began to study color and math. I was weak in geometry and color. Alan Schoen, a NASA scientist, who was brought to Cal Arts to teach math to artists, is one teacher I will forever be grateful to have studied under. Another influence was learning about Buckminster Fuller in a class taught by Gene Youngblood. Fuller’s formulas for geodesic domes and the patterns created by their triangular fabric became my painting theme focus. Suddenly, I was immersed in the world of 2-D, 3-D and beyond mathematics.

Within the year, I was working on large canvases in my garage, incorporating lessons about math and color, and applying those principles learned in class and put to test on my canvases, as home studio time, which really defined my current geometric, repeat pattern painting today. My final year at Cal Arts was devoted to at home studio time, making my own large canvases and painting shades of acrylic colors combined within a geometric composition. I graduated from Cal Arts with a Bachelor’s Degree in Fine Art in 1972. And, my very first exhibition was being part of the Cal Arts Senior Show, held in the main exhibition hall of the school. Following my graduation, I entered the same paintings in the Westwood Outdoor Art Show. I took First Place in painting and second place overall. During the two-day exhibition, I also met Tamara Thomas of Fine Art Services. Tamara was the premier art rep in LA and SF. I was offered a six-painting commission for a new Security Pacific Bank in El Segundo, CA and the following year a (152) painting commission for the newly constructed Hyatt Regency, New Orleans Louisiana. I was given plans of the hotel since I had triptychs and diptychs on all floors, influenced by color samples of the walls, rugs, lighting, etc. It was a large task for a young artist, but I completed the project and very satisfied with the installation.

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?
Never! Art school was a struggle. Once I began to adjust to studying at Chouinard, the school closed its doors, fired most of their teachers, built a new school, California Institute of the Arts, one hour north of LA, in Valencia, which made for a long and dangerous commute to Valencia. It took a year to complete Cal Arts following the closure of Chouinard, which also included the Sylmar Earthquake which crumbled our temporary art school, Villa Cabrini in Burbank. Of course, this is 1970 and the draft board really wanted me to go to Viet Nam. I was lucky, my 2-s status held out until classes resumed, and once Cal Arts officially opened their doors, I was able to complete my senior year and graduate. My first studio, other than my bedroom, kitchen and garage was in WLA on National and Motor. It was a 2000 square foot high ceiling space, an old mom and pop market that turned into a storage space. Now it’s Mama’s Pizza. I rented it for $350 per month and lived and breathed the life of an artist, living within a workspace. I worked and lived there for three years before moving on. My second studio was located off of Robertson Bl and Pico Bl. I loved it and made an awful lot of art there. But I wasn’t selling a lot of art.

At the same time, I was working at Barnsdall Park, located in Hollywood, and LACMA, teaching art to physically and mentally challenged children and adults. I was also teaching to gifted children. Much of my Chouinard and Cal Arts training became simplified lesson plans for these classes. I would say the toughest part of being an artist is to be shown in a gallery and get paid for making art. My devotion following art school was to make commission art. I was kept busy. However, I did not have a gallery. I was too busy to even search for a gallery, let alone create art for a show. Slides were the way an artist would get recognized, but with the development of the internet, slides were out and jpegs, websites, and social media were in. it really didn’t matter to me. Just about every slide sheet, I would send out got returned with a rejection letter. It wasn’t easy. Then, one day in 1990, gallery director Lydia Takeshita visited LACMA and observed me teaching class. We met briefly and later met at Barnsdall Park were asked to see my art. We met at her gallery, LA Artcore, located in Little Tokyo in Downtown LA, where I brought samples of my painting. I became a regular exhibitor with LA Artcore. I quit teaching, worked daily in my studio to provide new work each year, and participated in international museum and private gallery exhibitions in Japan, exhibition collaborated between LA Artcore and Japan Institutions and museums. But you could hardly exist or live off the painting sales.

Slowly I could feel myself and my art growing, getting noticed, being written about in the LA Weekly and LA Times, but still an economic and gallery struggle. The international exhibitions in Japan were terrific, and I was very happy with the response to my work. Later, following my first Japan exhibition in 1997, I met the owner of Art Front Gallery, located in Tokyo, Fram Kitagawa. Mr Kitagawa liked my art and asked me to join the gallery. I was represented by Art Front for the next 15 years. My first exhibition in Japan was a group show at the Kitakyushu Municipal Museum of Art-Ten Japanese artists and ten US artists, a two weeks show. In 1998, I was given a Fellowship to make my art in Costa Rica. LA Artcore Gallery and William White, the owner of a newly built art colony located in Ciudad Colon, collaborated on bringing ten US artists to live and work at the artist colony for two weeks up to three months. Shortly thereafter, I fell in love with Costa Rica-the culture, the nature, etc., the art colony and I have been returning yearly to create my art. It’s also where I met my wife, Dunia, who lives with me here in Ocean Park and Costa Rica.

Alright, so let’s switch gears a bit and talk business. What should we know about your work?
I am a painter. I work on various sizes of canvas and I work with masking tape, acrylic paint, and architectural tools such a compasses, rulers, although I also like to paint with watercolors on hand made paper and I also like using polyester resin (surfboard medium) and pigment on canvas. I specialize in geometric, nature-inspired compositions infused with primary and secondary colors or neutral tones of beige. During my first trip to Costa Rica in 1998, I began to draw the mountains and rivers flowing below our plane. I didn’t have my sketch book-it was with my luggage, so I went to work drawing on air sickness bags. I liked using a ballpoint on the bags while drawing the topography below, and I found a new medium for me to work with. Once in my new Costa Rican studio, I began to make paintings inspired by my drawings, there and back in Los Angeles.

During my career as a painter, geometry was my subject matter. Circle Series, Squares Series, Triangle Series were my themes. Once I began flying to Costa Rica and New York, the terrain below is what inspired me, utilizing my geometry background and incorporating it with the landscapes below- the mountain ranges and volcanos, rivers, and arroyos. During a five-hour flight, I was able to make 5-6 or more drawings. The fusion of my mathematical training in art school and the discovery of 30,000′ views of the earth came forth a new painting theme. Kind of minimal, kind of reductive, I was projecting images not often seen. 400+ drawings on bags later and I am still referring to these drawings. Certainly this was one of my prouder moments creating art.

Do you have any advice for those looking to network or find a mentor?
My mentors are various. I first was mentored at Chouinard & Cal Arts by particular teachers. Watson Cross mentored me in drawing at Chouinard, not how to draw, but how to adapt my style of drawing to a drawn object. Or Alan Schoen mentoring me in mathematics at Cal Arts. What this process taught me was a process of giving. It’s why I taught classes-to share. When I visit a gallery, I’ll ask about the artist and their background. Sometimes I’ll curate an exhibition contracted between myself and the gallery director. The selection process, based of the exhibition theme, is all about networking. Actually, just interacting with fellow artists over a bottle of wine or a coffee, whether in Japan, Costa Rica, New York or LA is what makes my life as an artist all worthwhile.

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