Double-shot double take: Chris Johnson follows his bliss to a place where pigs fly
You can find art all over town -- not just on gallery walls. In this series, we'll be looking at some of the local artists who serve up their work in coffeehouses and other non-gallery businesses around town.
"Follow your bliss and the universe will open doors for you where there were only walls," says Chris Johnson of Paintings by Chris Johnson, quoting writer Joseph Campbell. "There is satisfaction in completing whatever your bliss is, and that's what art has been for me," continues the man who followed his own bliss into the world of acrylics, painting peculiar -- but nonetheless wonderful -- balloon-levitated pigs onto lulling Midwestern landscapes.
Engineer-by-day Chris Johnson, who's in his mid-thirties, doesn't want to retire at 65 or 70 -- more like 58, he reckons, at which point he hopes to really dive into the artistic endeavor he started exploring a few years ago, possibly even owning his own gallery like the proprietor of Nick's Studio, a now-defunct Pearl Street gallery that Johnson always admired.
But retirement's still a ways off for Johnson, who has been a highway, bridge and drainage civil engineer for the past decade. "I work in a cube," he explains. The Texas transplant started painting in 2009 -- mostly as an escape while in graduate school at University of Colorado Denver.
The magical flying pigs have become Johnson's trademark, though that was sort of an accident. When the engineer first started getting into landscapes, he "wasn't very good," he says, so he took a few classes at the Art Students League of Denver where he "failed miserably" at painting portraits. "I quickly gave that up," he explains, "but I had all these shades of pinks and browns and all these landscape paintings. My mom loves pigs, so I put a pig on one of the landscapes and gave it to her."
The first little piggy was an immediate hit. "People wanted them, so I put pigs on holiday cards that year," says Johnson. He quickly realized there was a market for his pigs and muses, "I wonder if everybody falls into things this way."
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"Sometimes I feel pigged out," Johnson admits, before disclosing that he'd like to try something new but isn't exactly sure what that is yet. For now, Johnson continues painting pigs because he gets requests for them from people. (About half of the artist's sales come from commissioned pieces.)
"Oh, I'll probably always do pigs," he sighs.
Johnson does other animals, too -- hippos, ostriches. "People like those, so I may try more animals," says Johnson, adding that sometimes he feels like he's "learning on animals as a crutch." (We disagree.)
"When I'm doing landscapes, skies and trees -- that feels fun," Johnson continues. "I don't know how other artists make their paintings," he adds, "but I do it assembly-line style."
Say what? Johnson goes on to explain that he'll do about twenty paintings at a time, "starting with just skies for a month" before painting in twenty pigs and then creating twenty landscapes: Talk about an engineer's efficiency.
And while Johnson doesn't see it, his art definitely has both an industrial and pragmatic feel -- even the blades of grass are precisely formed -- and is strongly influenced by all the engineer-type drafting he does by day. "Engineering probably keeps me a little rigid in my detail work," he concedes.
Polkadot was the first store to display Johnson's art, and he's been there about two and a half-years. The store mostly carries prints of his paintings, which are acrylic on canvas boards. "I like acrylic because I can keep it in little Tupperware containers in Ziploc bags forever and there's no mess to clean up," the engineer says.
You can also find Johnson's work at Shops at 9th Avenue, one of Denver's premiere antique and interiors stores. At one point, Johnson's day job required extensive travel through the Midwest, which explains why his paintings hang in Blue Pomegranate, a "handmade" gallery in Omaha, and at the Phoenix Gallery, Kansas's unique and affordable gallery. "The kinds of things I paint have a farm feel, and so they are right at home, geographically, in those regions," says Johnson.
While Johnson "fell into doing art," he says, he's come to genuinely love the work. And he finds the mere fact that "a little piece of [him] is hanging on several strangers' walls" to be "kind of addicting."
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