WALLA WALLA, Wash. -- His life as an artist has been anything but rigid or limited in scope. After starting with ceramics many years ago, he polished his painting talents in Paris and explored behavioral art therapy in New York. As of late, his creativity has channeled itself into the realm of environmental public art.
A flexible nature and pliant persona have served Kevin Johnson well in his role as a visiting assistant professor of art at Whitman. His willingness to accommodate the needs of students surfaced last spring as Rose Cullander pondered changing her major from biology-environmental studies to studio art. Cullander, now a junior, was stymied initially by conflicts with the schedule for fall semester art classes. Johnson erased that roadblock by adding a "special projects" class during his fall office hours. "It doesn't hurt to be flexible," he says. "I'm on campus a lot anyway."
His readiness to help was due, in part, to the "wonderful work" Cullander did in last spring's beginning sculpture class. "Rose is one of Whitman's dual-focus students," he says. "She loves animals, loves horses, and is taking all the prerequisite courses to get into veterinary school. At the same time, she also loves art and working in the studio."
Johnson filled his new class with three more students from the beginning sculpture class, sophomores Lindsey Case and Jon-Marc Kortsch and Walla Walla High School senior Greg Hansen. "Both Lindsey and Jon-Marc did good work last spring and were very interested in the opportunity to get back into the studio," Johnson says. In Hansen's case, by taking art classes at Whitman as part of a high school enrichment program, he hopes to bolster his application to post-secondary art schools.
"All four of these students are very self-motivated," he says. "What this (special projects) class does for them is help them get to the next level as artists. They have the chance to gain additional experience in the studio and add to their technical skills."
Each student has worked on a number of projects, including one or two primary artworks. Cullander, for example, worked with rubber and wax molds in casting the bronze pieces for a small horse sculpture. Cullander describes her sculpture as one that "explores the relationship of human manipulation to domestic animal evolution."
Now in his second year at Whitman, Johnson completed a master of fine arts degree in sculpture and environmental design at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design in 2001. He graduated summa cum laude from the University of Minnesota in 1997 with a bachelor of fine arts degree. While Johnson has yet to pursue graduate studies in art therapy, he took the necessary prerequisite courses in psychology while an undergraduate at Minnesota. As part of those studies, he completed a practicum and internship at the Wilder Foundation, working with emotionally disturbed boys in the St. Paul, Minn., public school system. He also incorporated troubled teens into an art garden project.
Following his high school graduation in the Minneapolis area in 1979, Johnson made a fitful start to his college studies, skipping between three schools in less than two years. "I finally decided that rather than study art by looking at slides in class, that I'd go to Paris and see the paintings in person," he says. He spent the next year in Paris, studying and painting on his own. He returned to live in New York City but continued to travel back and forth to France. His earliest paintings were shown in a number of Paris exhibits from 1983 through 1991.
Back in the states, Johnson continued to paint, exhibiting his works from the streets of Philadelphia and New York to the galleries of Quebec, Berlin and Goteberg, Sweden. In the mid- and late-1980s, his interest in art therapy blossomed as he ran a latchkey art program under harsh conditions at NYC's Martinique Welfare Hotel. While in New York, he also served as an assistant to internationally acclaimed artists Shieko Kubota and Nam Jun Paik, worked for an Estonian cabinetmaker, and did set design for two theater companies.
As Johnson returned to college to complete his art degrees, he shifted his time and energy into public environmental art, combining a long-time interest in the environment with a desire to make artworks more accessible to the public. In 1999, he worked on the Maria Bates Rain Garden, a neighborhood greenspace in St. Paul, Minn., that helps minimize surface runoff and limit downstream erosion and pollution. More recently, Johnson was one of the artists collaborating on Circulus, a multimedia educational installation that is part of Salmon in the City, a Seattle Arts Commission art project. By focusing on the predicament of salmon, Circulus evokes awareness of mankind's past betrayal of the environment while projecting hope for future recovery.
This semester, with his students keeping tabs on his progress, Johnson is completing a commissioned work for the new "Healing Garden" at Kadlec Medical Center in Richland, Wash. Johnson's contributions to the open-air garden include five benches fashioned from locust logs (purchased from a Mill Creek farmer) and basalt rock, with bronze appointments. He also created a trellis, comprised of two bronze panels linked at the top by a latticework of black locust beams, that provides a segue from the hospital and its chapel to the garden. "Using materials native to the area is always a good idea," he says. "I'm pleased with how the project turned out."