‘Art is my life’

Edward Johnson has been through it all but he's found solace in drawing. (Photo: Chris Juhn/City College News)

By Gabe Hewitt/ghewitt@citycollegenews.com
Media Editor

While going to school in Southside Chicago when he was seven years old, Edward Johnson observed one of his classmates drawing Jaws.

“I kept looking over and thinking,’I can do that’,” he said. “So I started watching him and drew it and it turned out good.”

Growing up in Chicago in the 70s during a time when gang violence was peaking, Edward saw drawing as his only escape from the hysteria. Seeing people shooting and beating each other forced Edward to grow up faster than he wanted.

When he wasn’t being chased to and from school by gang members, he was drawing and fishing at Lake Michigan or immersing himself in Chicago’s art museums. Most days he would do both before going home because he loved art so much. Creating it, observing it, thinking about it, dreaming about it.

“I love art like a kid loves Santa,” he said.

Edward loves drawing people in particular. He’s fascinated by the human body and often draws peoples’ imperfections. He’ll ask complete strangers to strike a pose and he then draws a stick figure of them for the foundation of his pieces. The key to drawing people, he said, is getting the proportions right. If they’re done wrong, people get offended.

A lot of people aren’t comfortable in their skin and they should be.”

His workplace on the second floor of the Helland Center is often where he helps other art students. (Photo: Gabe Hewitt/City College News)
His workplace on the second floor of the Helland Center is often where he helps other art students. (Photo: Gabe Hewitt/City College News)

Even with art as a refuge, Edward still managed to fall into the same trap as the kids in his Chicago neighborhood and is no stranger to prisons. He was in and out of them several times between the 90s and mid-2000s on aggravated assault charges. If you ask him what prison was like, he’ll tell you to commit a crime and find out for yourself. He continued to draw even during his imprisonments. While drawing cartoon characters, one inmate taught him how to get his shading right with the proper techniques.

“He would give me a paper with 20 spheres on it and tell me to shade them. If I messed up one, he’d rip the paper up and draw me 30 spheres until I got it right.”

Edward came to a realization during his last sentence. He realized that the world outside prison was much better than the world inside it.

“I told myself in the mirror, ’if you go out this time, you have to go out with both feet in 100 percent,” he said. “Prison is always going to be here but the outside life will not.”

Artist on the streets

He’s been homeless over a dozen times throughout his life and continued to draw even then. He used it as a means of inspiration and created some of his best work during these times; work that was sometimes stolen.

The worst part about being homeless for him was not knowing where he would sleep every night and whether he would be safe.

He was assaulted this fall by a man who attempted to steal his laptop. Edward, who had made a vow not to engage in violence after his last prison stay, found himself waking up in a hospital the next morning with a gash on his head.

“I made it through,” he said. “You live, you learn.”

Edward used to believe that being homeless when he was younger was “cool”. To him, the uncertainty of life at that time was exhilarating. Now that he’s older and has experienced homelessness with health problems, he’ll say that he was a foolish young man for believing in that. Even in harsh winters on the streets of Chicago and Minneapolis, Edward never believed that he wouldn’t wake up every morning after sleeping outside.

“I know how to survive,” he said.

His human/animal hybrid pieces comes from his fascination with the human body and wildlife. (Submitted)
His human/animal hybrid pieces comes from his fascination with the human body and wildlife. (Submitted)

The artist among the Amish

His survival instincts show when he works. He rarely sits when he’s drawing. Standing up with his art on an easel sends a groove throughout his body. Listening to different genres of music allows him to better channel his emotions into his work. Abstract might call for some jazz while his more emotional pieces may require Marilyn Manson. He goes through various style phases with his art whether it’s abstract, architectural, cars or wildlife.

“My favorite phase is not knowing what I’m going to be drawing next,” he said.

Not knowing what was going to happen next for Edward may have led him to living with the Amish in Wisconsin after his last days in prison in 2007. He called this a period of soul-searching. A friend had been renting out acres of land to the Amish and they offered him work on their farm.

Being African American, he compared his first encounter with the Amish to seeing an alien.

“They were probably thinking, ‘ooh, it talks too’,” he said.

Living with people who lived life so much differently than he did was difficult for Edward to overcome. The communication factor was an obstacle he had to hurdle as he described himself as having diarrhea at the mouth and the Amish being more reserved.

While chopping down trees, carrying hay and doing other laborious tasks with the Amish, Edward learned a lot. Not just about the Amish, but human beings as a whole.

What was only supposed to be four months ended up being four years of work for Edward with the Amish. One night while living with the Amish, he dreamt of drawing fish. He woke up in the middle of the dream, took a lantern and went to the barn. He started drawing. He started drawing until the sun came up over the horizon. His memories of fishing in Chicago in Lake Michigan as a child became very vivid and that those memories took over his canvas. This was the moment he realized that art was his true calling.

He calls the Walter Library at the University of Minnesota is home on Sundays. (Photo: Chris Juhn/City College News)
He calls the Walter Library at the University of Minnesota is home on Sundays. (Photo: Chris Juhn/City College News)

‘It’s what I do’

Edward failed multiple art classes throughout his schooling until he came to MCTC last year to get his Associate in Fine Arts. Coming back to school ignited a drive he had for exploring the world of art. He began watching art videos with artists from around the world. He admired each individual’s techniques and wanted to blend them into his own style, figurative abstract.

Some of his pieces incorporate both his fascination of the human body and wildlife. He’s always admired animals since his childhood fishing days. His human/animal hybrid pieces have received some of the best compliments of any of his pieces.

“I like to draw things out in stick figures and see where my hand comes out,” he said. “It comes out really good because of the fundamentals that I’ve learned.”

He’s always been a teacher without the degree and has helped many aspiring artists including MCTC students get better at their passion. Like his inmate peer taught him, if someone is struggling with a certain technique, he’ll show them how to do it until they get it right. He often does this when students approach him at his usual workplace on the second floor of the Helland Center.

“It’s a natural thing. It’s what I do,” he said.

(Submitted)
(Submitted)

While teaching techniques to others, he observes them. He looks at the process of their emotions and their levels of frustration when they can’t get something done right and how they handle it. He keeps their frustration and confidence in mind when critiquing their work. Helping aspiring artists allows him to see various styles for him to admire.

Art keeps Edward sane. He jokes about being addicted to art supplies but that’s part of his love for the trade. Although he has a strong love and passion for it, it’s remained to be only a hobby for most of his life. In recent years, he’s given away ten pieces of his art to strangers. He loves seeing the look on peoples’ faces when they see it. One time on a city bus Edward noticed that a woman looked like she was having a rough day. When he presented her with a piece of his art and told her she could have it, she instantly began crying. He told her to take it home, hang it up and “just love it.”

“To see something I created bring that sort of emotion to somebody is truly amazing,” he said.

You’ll find Edward most Sundays at the Walter Library at the University of Minnesota. As soon as its doors open, he makes his way up to the second floor with his art supplies, finds a table, sets up his station and will work on his art sometimes until the library closes for the day. If he goes to the bathroom or gets coffee, upon returning, he’ll stand back and watch people stare at his art. Other times, they’ll crowd around him and ask him what he’s drawing. This is something he will never get tired of.

He compares critics to taking a shower. To him, their words slide off his body like water. He has no interest in knowing if you dislike his work.

“I like what I create and if one person don’t like it, that’s fine,” he said. “That’s what art is all about. If you like it, you like it. If you don’t, you don’t.”

Edward is a fan of bright colors. He knows from experience that bright colors can instantly change a person’s mood from sad to happy. His appreciation for bright colors stems from a childhood where he often took pictures of flowers.

“I like to watch people when they look at flowers,” he said. “They light up and seem so serene. So I tried making my art that way.”

Edward goes back-and-forth between pieces. (Photo: Gabe Hewitt/City College News)
Edward goes back-and-forth between pieces. (Photo: Gabe Hewitt/City College News)

He first had his art displayed three years ago at the Gamut Gallery in Minneapolis. At the time, drawing was still a hobby for him and selling his work was only in the back of his mind. He approached the gallery with no intention of his art being bought, but rather being displayed for others to see and getting his name out there. That excited him more than the thought of the work being purchased. He sold his first gallery art to a bartender for $150.

“I was offered a lot more for it but I didn’t want to sell it for a big profit because it meant a lot to me,” he said. “It’s not all about money all the time for me.”

Edward enjoys selling his art but his favorite part of the process is still and always will be creating it. He’ll take the feeling he gets from the creation over dollars any day. He dreams of opening up a gallery of his own one day. The idea of having his art and others’ showcased in his own space gets his blood rushing.

He often finds himself looking at his old art and seeing a major difference. Each piece is a timestamp of what he was going through at the time. He’s a lover of art and what he does. He’ll be fishing until he dies and he’ll be drawing until he dies. Art is his life.

“I am no longer emerging or aspiring,” he said. “I am an artist.”

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