I was named Morgan Burton Johnson using an old Welsh tradition for the moniker of the first born son. The thought was to perpetuate surnames by assigning the middle name of the father as a first name and the maiden name of the mother as the middle. Roma Burton Johnson was a pioneering woman in publicity, having been an editor of Seventeen Magazine and worked at RKO and MGM studios. My father, Arnold Morgan Johnson, was a free-lance photographer--trained in the style of Ansel Adams--who worked for publications such as Variety and Modern Screen. They met in the 1940s while working in the Hollywood movie industry. My nickname, joked friends of my parents, should be ‘on and on and on’. As I began to paint and canvases piled up in grade school years, this journey of creation did just that: began to go on and on and on.
As an only child with working parents, painting was a safe past time. I remember being visually intrigued by puzzles, nature photography of the sort found in National Geographic and Time-Life books, and my mother’s work on a large hooked rug that I played on in the living room. I was given a serious set of paints, mediums and an easel at age eight after usurping a paint-by-number set of my father’s. My early work was always given away as gifts for special occasions. The first public displays of my artwork occurred when I was juried into a shopping mall show for children in 1965 (Self-Portrait as a Black Child), as well as a Los Angeles County Schools art show in 1967 (Atlantis). My first sale of a painting came when I was 17: a small oil on Masonite called Sea Urchins. The painting was of two children playing at the beach. With no siblings, why not invent an extended family?
While appreciated, art was viewed as an avocation by my parents; my college training was centered on the sciences (education here). I viewed “serious” art in library art magazines while I learned in class how the eye and brain captured images. I already knew a bit about how cameras did the same. But, cameras don’t have the same emotional response to images that I do. This led me to write down those feelings and thoughts, which eventually became my poetic voice that accompanies many paintings.
Though there were historical influences and references in my art and writing early on, I was instructed by no one on how to replicate what I saw. This was by choice. My thought was: if I taught myself, my art education and subsequent output would be owing to no one. For example, I began using Pointillism in the 1970s, a decade before its resurgence. The outcome of this isolated training has meant my evolution has been much longer than most artists. This would eventually stall my career; since I wasn't associated with any particular group or art school, I missed both contacts and opportunities. (I deliberately stayed away from the ongoing Pattern and Decoration movement blossoming at UCSD while there.) Not realizing the pitfalls of remaining independent, I became what is now called an 'outsider' artist (though the styles I employed were not initially counter-cultural as are those of most outsider artists).
An Artist in the Working World
Yet, being an outsider has also served me well: it meant I didn't have to be a stereotypical artist. I’ve worked in non-art related fields during most of my career as an artist, from bartender, chef, bank teller and inventory controller to retail manager, manufacturing manager, and landscape maintenance man. I worked to support my art and painted in my free time. I didn't starve and wasn't temperamental or aloof. As a social creature, I looked for the commonality that binds us all together. I invested a soul into everything—rocks as well as animals--and attempted to capture those moments of commonness in my paintings and poems. Working in non-art related fields served me well in art: I remained organized, social, serving, and most of all, in touch with nature. And I didn’t expend precious energy doing art for someone else’s goals.
I had my first one-man show at age 23. I‘ve been involved with the inner workings of the art world, joining art organizations and dealing first hand with directors of galleries and museums. What I took away from most of those experiences is that high art in America is about money and a recognizable style and subject matter; my having an interest in many methods of painting, voices if you will, meant I was viewed as inconsistent and unsettled.
By my early thirties, it was apparent I wasn't going to let go of my multiplicity of painting interests. I still won awards for individual canvases, but was unmarketable en masse within the existing systems (gallery and museum) because of the variety of my work. This made me wonder at the time: was that such a bad thing? Where would it lead? Now I see myself as a natural product of the 20th and 21st centuries, responding to massive amounts of stimuli and information; my myriad of styles reflects that.
Theory and Conclusions
Eventually I stumbled onto the fact that my many styles could be presented as a modern example of the historical evolution of artistic voices. They depict multiple voices, like a group conversation that has multiple points of view. The turmoil and sense of exclusion I experienced as a young adult had been a refinement process. Such friction is a good thing for an artist. The abrasion hones both skills and the understanding of one's theories and goals. By my forties I understood my artwork to be an ongoing allegorical stream of my life's experiences.
I wanted people—friends—to easily obtain my work if they wanted it. So while I continued to place works in the public eye via traditional gallery and museum shows, I primarily sold my work privately in the unusual venues of home shows or in locations one finds art that’s usually not for sale (such as churches and farms). I kept my pricing in line with compensating me for materials and time, but didn’t ask it to support me.
And so, I will continue on: painting...and painting...and painting. For art is long, and one must follow their awe.
Morgan Burton Johnson