The website www.garyjohnson.com doesn’t link to the 2016 presidential candidate of the same name from the Libertarian Party, it actually belongs to Encinitas artist Gary Johnson. And based on the local man’s long list of accomplishments, in the art and music world, that feels right.
The main focus of Encinitas’ Johnson is his wildlife paintings, which have been in the most prestigious museums and auctions around the country, and won many awards including the 2005 Gold Medal Grand Prize in the Arts for the Parks Top 100’s miniature competition, at the time the highest honor one could receive for representational art in the United States. That piece was called The Silence of the Dawn.
Johnson, 63, will have new and old pieces on display this weekend (Aug. 13-14) at the 11th annual ArtWalk @ Liberty Station. He will be joined by other Encinitas artists such as Elisabeth Sullivan and Alla Tsank, among others, as over 200 artists from all over the globe will showcase pieces on every medium — including live, interactive exhibits.
Though he started painting with water color and pastel, and has done beautiful wildlife paintings with oils, some of the pieces Johnson will show at the ArtWalk were made using a unique technique that he created, which involves mixed media on handmade paper.
“There’s not that many wildlife art shows anymore, but 20 years ago wildlife art was really booming, so I would go to these shows around the country — on the East Coast, the Midwest, wherever — and there would be 200 or 300 just wildlife artists,” Johnson explained. “So how do you stand out? You make yourself look different from everyone else who is (also) painting a realistic looking animal.”
In the late 1990s, Johnson experimented with the paper for about a year, and finally came up with a process of painting on it with three different mediums. He starts with a pastel pencil, then uses about 50 or 60 layers of water color and gouache — because the mulberry and silk papers aren’t white — as well as a seal.
He then mounts the piece in a frame over a white background, which gives the painting a three-dimensional feel. Often, the frayed edges of the paper complete the unique look.
But no matter what the medium, the artist’s ability is what draws the eye most, and Johnson has a ton of it. He earned a Master of Arts degree in Painting and Drawing from Cal State Los Angeles then went on to work as the head of the art department at Scripps Clinic Torrey Pines.
Though he enjoyed his work at Scripps and was doing illustrations there, he was only using his fine art training in his off hours. But in the early to mid-1990s, computers were brought in and Johnson found himself doing less and less actual illustrations.
Johnson was around 40, had recently married his wife Florence and moved with her to the house in Encinitas where they still live to this day — with two cats, a parrot and a tortoise — and found it to be the perfect time to leave Scripps and focus on his art full-time.
“It was like a whole new stage of life,” Johnson said. “And it’s been wonderful.”
And that stage has been fruitful. Johnson decided to focus on wildlife painting, and has spent more than 20 years traveling and spending time in the outdoors, where he finds material for his painting and his music (Johnson plays a number of instruments and has released a couple of successful albums where he has blended sounds he’s recorded in nature and mixed them into ambient music).
He’s traveled to east Africa and Belize, among other exotic locales, and made his way to many of the national parks and wildlife areas in the U.S. Johnson was the Artist in Residence at the Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado and goes often to Yellowstone and Glacier National Parks as well.
While on location, Johnson will either paint right there, sketch or take pictures (he took over 10,000 photos on a trip to Kenya and Tanzania), and then combine all or some of that with original ideas to create a painting.
“You need something to remember the colors and what you are actually experiencing,” Johnson explained. “Places like that, it’s like God’s Cathedral. You’re in a place that reaches you deeply.”
That artwork has allowed him to be in all of the biggest wildlife art shows in the country — including the NatureWorks and the Southeastern Wildlife Exposition — the past couple of decades as well as museums such as Phippen Museum of Western Art (where he’s earned several awards) and the Gilcrease Museum. Other awards have come from the Bennington Center for Arts in Vermont and, in 2015, Johnson’s Tree Swallow Ballet was selected for Birds in Art, currently the nation’s most prestigious wildlife art exhibition.
Organized by the Leigh Yawkey Woodson Art Museum in Wisconsin, Birds in Art honors the top 200 pieces, picked from about 4,500 entries and Johnson’s piece — a painting of tree swallows inspired by birds he saw while canoeing on Lake Hodges — is one of just 100 picked to be on display as part of a subsequent national tour.
While Johnson has been all over the world, he finds some of his best inspiration in the local area from places like Moonlight Beach, the San Elijo Lagoon and even his own backyard, which he has designed to attract a colorful collection of birds and other creatures. He donates artwork to the Lagoon Conservancy’s annual auction and, in the early 2000s, the city commissioned him to do a painting of the lagoon, which was then given to Encinitas’ sister city in Japan.
But art aficionados don’t have to travel to Japan to see Johnson’s work, just head to the Artwalk at Liberty Station’s Ingram Plaza this weekend. The free event includes tons of art, interactive art for youngsters in the KidsWalk section, street food, beer and wine in a beautiful setting.
For more information on the ArtWalk visit www.artwalksandiego.org/libertystation or ArtWalkSD on Facebook and Twitter. As mentioned, Johnson’s art website is at www.garyjohnson.com and his music can be heard at www.resonantdrift.com and www.commongroundambient.com.
Johnson will also be showcasing his work at the La Jolla Art & Wine Festival in October.