LIFE'S STORIES THROUGH ART
A recent showing in Enterprise was his first in more than 20 years. The public got a chance to see Johnson's art, but not an opportunity to buy it.
"My paintings are worth more than money to me," he says. So, he has a collection of a lifetime of work.
Each of Johnson's original paintings tells a unique story. Some are comedies, like his curious bear cubs up a tree.
Others are about an eastern brook trout, or the big beautiful coho salmon he hooked in 1935. "You were allowed five in that day," he says, adding that was the last day he went fishing, but that's another story.
One painted story is about the Indian Police, another's about a buffalo runner, and one includes Hereford cattle.
Another story is of the Spanish cattle in Florida cypress swamps, before they became known as Texas longhorns. It also tells how the buccaneers got their name.
Johnson has painted stories of lions on the African plain. He's traveled much of the world and carries a wealth of information.
Johnson has so many stories that he could not paint them all. His tales of oral history include his encounters with the likes of Clark Gable, when the late actor worked at Meier & Frank.
Johnson painted with action, variety and color. Many are of the American West. He included detailed background such as mountains, plants and wildlife. He knows his history because first he studied his subjects.
For instance, he'd study mountains and sketch them from different views. In his paintings of horses, he studied rodeo magazines for action. Or maybe he'd study a race scene to get the desired leg action.
"I had a helluva job figurin' out how that horse is braced on that leg with its spine twisting," he says.
Johnson followed, but did not copy his friend E.B. Quigley, Oregon's horse painter. "Don't take anybody else's work," Johnson advises, because there may be a mistake in it. Johnson is a charter member of the Oregon Society of Artists.
Johnson chose his own medium. He painted on hardboard. His earliest paintings are on the rough side, textured more like canvas. He soon switched to the smooth side.
The hardboard is tempered so it
doesn't fade or shrink like canvass. It doesn't readily absorb water, which can crack the paint, and the paint doesn't flake off.
Indeed the colors are still bright on his 50-year-old paintings. And their durability is displayed as he slaps them together, sorting through them.
Johnson's painting began at age 5. For St. Patrick's Church in Portland, he painted the lilies of the valley Â— France's national flower. By 1948 his paintings were featured in the Sunday magazine section of The Oregonian newspaper.
But by age 14, Johnson was studying engineering at Portland's Benson Polytechnic Institute. He was selected to specialize in the tool and die program, then he was assigned to do all of Benson's commercial work.
Johnson has seen a lot in his life. During World War II, he worked at the Kaiser shipyards in the St. John's district. There was a fire one day. He saw a fireman's head blown off by a firehose. That was his last day of shipbuilding.
Later he trained people at Boeing Aircraft for 85 cents an hour.
He eventually became the chief engineer for a company that installed food- processing machinery all over the world.
He perfected machinery for production. Johnson became known as a troubleshooter, able to figure out how to get a gigantic piece of machinery installed in a place where others could not imagine how to do it.
His late wife, Verda, was related to the local Zollmans. Naturally, Johnson came to Wallowa County from Portland to go hunting.
When it came time to retire, he and Verda moved to the Wallowas. She played the organ while he painted.
"Not an argument in 50 years," Johnson says. "I had everything."
Since his wife's death a few years ago, Johnson now lives alone.
Johnson has been through a lot, but he brims with optimism.
At age 3 in North Dakota, his right hand was whacked with a butcher knife when he was reaching for a piece of cake.
He hasn't been able to make a fist since. Boys will be boys, and he was picked on. But Johnson learned to fight with one hand, and he persevered.
In 1994 he learned that he had macular degeneration of his vision. He can no longer paint.
About three years ago his spleen ruptured. He was given four hours to live.
Last year he had to give up driving because of his failing eyesight. That's when he met Ronne Sands, driver of the Community Connection bus and the person who put together the display of Johnson's works.
Sands ranks Johnson's paintings with Charlie Russell's. About Johnson's engineering expertise, Sands says, "Johnny knows steel up and down and sideways."
Sands is among the people who stay close to Johnson. One of Johnson's neighborhood "angels'' is Virginia Daggett. Neighbors such give Johnson a hand with the mail and other things he cannot see.
Johnson may not be able to see as well as before, but he can hear. So, he has turned to studying voice. Johnny Cash is his favorite. He has stacks of tapes on which he has recorded music from records. He can also play the tapes and put music on discs. He has also collected a big selection of videos.
All this he does at a desk he customized into a work station where everything he needs is close at hand.
"I have a system for everything," the engineer says.