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Datebook: Local Artist Strives For Positivity And Creativity

On a day like today, Doug Johnson would normally be busy at his job as director of the McLean County Arts Center.

But this is not a normal day, and Johnson is at home, sheltering in place. But rather than letting the enforced isolation get him down, Johnson – a well-known landscape painter – has declared himself an artist in residence.

“I have so many friends who travel far away for positions as artists in residences at art centers or museums. For most of them, they go off to some far-flung place and they have a rather solitary experience working in the studio in a different sort of landscape.”

Johnson has been dividing his hours at home, working remotely on Arts Center business and also working in his studio, creating paintings.

boat painting
Credit Doug Johnson
Johnson divides his time at home between creating new works, like this one that is still in progress, and working on MCAC business.

“And I thought, gosh, there’s really not much of a difference than their experience, with the exception that I know where everything is here.”

Johnson posted his intention to be an artist in residence on Facebook, prompting an enthusiastic response from friends.

“This was one of the most popular posts I’ve had in a long time. I think a lot of people are identifying with the idea of taking ownership of this experience and trying to turn it into something that’s really positive. This is a nice opportunity to look at my current body of work, what are the things that seem successful for me, what are the things where I have areas of growth? And then utilizing this time for some serious assessment of those opportunities.”

“It’s a hackneyed phrase, but every crisis is an opportunity.”

Johnson has stepped back from the easel to do some problem solving regarding his recent works.

“I have a tendency to walk into every painting as looking at that painting as a problem to be solved. What is the agenda that is prescribed based on the criteria I’ve established for painting it? For the last year or so, I’ve started every painting with a pallet of three colors, and then launched the composition into its value structure and its color structure, and then elaborated on the end.”

“But the problem I’m solving this week is a new painting that I’m looking at, and I’m violating all of those rules just to see if they work beyond the abstraction of those limited problems I’ve had previously.”

Outside the studio walls, Johnson is acutely aware of what is going on in the world as the coronavirus spreads. That anxiety is the same anxiety experienced by artists throughout history who have painted and sculpted to reflect the fear and rage that accompanies plagues, Johnson said. As a young artist, Johnson admitted he was influenced by artists who created in response to a plague. Works by Bruegel, Munch, and Haring reflect plagues from the Black Death to the Spanish Influenza to AIDS. Art history can give us the tools to see what lasting impact the virus could have on society, said Johnson.

Credit Doug Johnson
"Morning Hay" is a painting that Johnson has been reassessing during his residency at home.

But as serious as the situation is, Johnson said it’s vital to hold fast to one’s sense of humor when being creative.

“There’s a lot of anxiety right now. And there’s a lot of opportunity to get worried and to become insular. But one of the great things about art is that you get to share those insecurities, you get to share those anxieties and hopes and dreams and fear and put it up in a way that’s tangible for other people to connect, and hopefully have their own experience validated or explored.”

With artists busy as their own artists in residence in their own studios, there’s plenty of new works being created. Johnson doesn’t rule out the possibility of a coronavirus-themed exhibition at the McLean County Arts Center to highlight the work being created during these fraught days.

“I think that would be wonderful,” said Johnson. “And I would hope that artists are in tune to themselves in such a way that they can find some truths to share about this unique time for us.”

While the spring exhibitions at the Arts Center have been put on hold during the shelter-in-place order, there is still a possibility the annual Sugar Creek Arts Festival may take place in July.

“It is my hope that by June we might be able to have an idea for that,” Johnson explained. “We’ve extended the deadline for artists to apply because we know how fragile this time is. While we want to make plans for any sort of eventuality, being able to support the artists and present such an important community event is vital.”

“One way or another, we want to be able to serve our function: to provide community development for all of us. And our vehicle for that is the arts. Our tools for that are the artists.”

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Reporter, content producer and former All Things Considered host, Laura Kennedy is a native of the Midwest who occasionally affects an English accent just for the heck of it. Related to two U.S. presidents, Kennedy appalled her family by going into show business.