Unapologetic Piermont Artist, 78, Leaving in Search of Respect, Recognition
Artist Katherine Johnson paints a braided rug she made at her home in Piermont, N.H., on March, 13, 2014. Johnson was using fabric paint to portray fire embers. Valley News - Jennifer Hauck Purchase photo reprints »
Artist Katherine Johnson uses minerals she finds in the area to paint with. She grinds them into a powder with a bolt to make paint.
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Reflected in a window, artist Katherine Johnson paints a braided rug at her home in Piermont, N.H., on March, 13, 2014. Valley News - Jennifer Hauck Purchase photo reprints »
Mineral paintings by Katherine Johnson hang in her home in Piermont, N.H.
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Artist Katherine Johnson looks at one of her paintings at her home in Piermont, N.H., on March, 6, 2014.
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Piermont — In many ways, the former chicken farm on Route 25 has proven a perfect home for self-taught artist Katherine Johnson.
She rotates her medium every few months, and the rambling farmhouse has a place for everything — a sunny spot for painting, a “winter room” for displaying pieces depicting the season, and good eastern light for fabric art, her medium of choice this time of year.
There’s plenty of wall space for hanging prints, watercolors and quilts; the barn is perfect for stone carving; and much of her raw material comes from Eastman Brook, which crosses the property.
“This place around here is just so beautiful,” said Johnson, who takes her inspiration from nature and can hardly look at a rock or stump without seeing secret shapes inside.
But recently, the 78-year-old North Carolina native put the property on the market and started packing.
She’s headed south, either to Chapel Hill, N.C., where she has a few friends, or Northampton, Mass., where she knows no one. But that’s not the point, she said.
“I’m not going because of anybody. I’m going because of me,” she said, her Southern accent peeking through. “I always manage to meet people and make friends all the time. That doesn’t worry me.”
The move, long on her mind, is prompted partly by practicality.
“I’m getting old, and keeping this place running and trying to pay taxes is overwhelming,” she said.
But mostly, it’s about art.
“I want to go where I don’t have to apologize for being an artist,” she said.
“That’s an exaggeration,” she said, when asked about the verb. “I don’t apologize, and I don’t have to.”
But she has long felt underappreciated as an artist.
Better sales would allow her to live without constant financial worries, she said, “but respect and recognition is the main thing.”
Johnson, who dreams of life in an artsy college town, wouldn’t mind leaving winter behind. But the materials she favors are too dark for Florida, where “they use kind of carnival colors,” she said. “I want to be where my art would fit in.”
On a recent morning, she gave a tour of the White Barn Studio and Gallery, which serves as both her home and workspace. Custard, her cat, meandered on his own schedule, but Sammy, the apricot poodle she calls “the man in my life,” stayed within arm’s reach, insisting Johnson throw a ball for him every few minutes.
Her artwork fills the house, parts of which she’s brightened up with paint — the ceiling of her small bedroom is purple, her kitchen floor, neon yellow. In each room, she lingered, pointing out various pieces, her white hair sticking out above a stretchy purple headband.
Frequently, she stopped to marvel at nature itself. “I love ferns, don’t you?” she said, holding up a print she’d made with the plants. Then, pulling out a painting of Orford’s B aker Pond, “The trees in May are just so chartreuse.”
All sorts of living things appear in her work: cattle, fish, snakes, rabbits, flowers and leaves. She recently completed a large oval-shaped braided rug designed to resemble fire coals, and has just started a “counterweaving” project involving yarn, twine, thread and a coffee sack.
Johnson, who doesn’t own a camera, might make a sketch now and again, but usually she works from memory, sometimes digging back decades to scenes from her childhood. She uses whatever’s available: minerals from local rivers and copper mines; stumps she finds while rambling; old wooden doors; discarded wool blankets; scraps from rummage sales and landfills.
“Material from the unexpected, that’s a big theme in my life, going with the unexpected, always,” she said.
“It’s the only thing you can depend on.”
She tucks items away, sometimes for decades before she’s ready to use them, but always with a project in mind. In 1979, long before she started carving, she found the smooth ironstone that would become The Man from the River.
“I could see it,” she said, holding him up, his rugged features slightly glossy in the morning sun.
“The stone already has a face for me. It’s just the way it is.”
Her penchant for recycled and found items also extends to her choice of tools. A sculpture of a pigeon hawk with a small bloodied bird at its feet was carved with a meat cleaver, “because it works.” And she uses bolts to grind down rock for her the paintings she makes with minerals.
Growing up one of five children in “desperate Appalachia,” trips to museums were not part of her youth. Her father, who made essential oils, was an alcoholic, and her mother worked as a secretary to support the family, she said. “It was definitely hard, hard, hard .”
But she began drawing at an early age, making a portrait of her dad when she was 7. And she remembers the day he brought her to a man’s house in Linville, N.C. The man, whose name she doesn’t know, had carved statues of bears and people, including Molotov and Stalin, out of some kind of chalky stone.
“I just thought that was amazing he could do that, probably carving it with the most primitive of tools,” she said.
Johnson was 15 before she received her first art supplies — watercolor paint and tablets, a gift from her aunt. Late nights found her painting by lamplight in the living room.
“No one told me it was hard, so it never was,” she said.
She continued to paint and draw, and several years ago, a class led her, indirectly, to sculpture. The teacher, who was “so bad she was good,” didn’t respect watercolors, Johnson said. “Just to make her shut up, I started using oil colors.”
The experience didn’t change Johnson’s opinion of the “thick, clumpy” paint, but it did prompt her to try sculpture, she said. “I realized right away I needed more texture.”
‘She’s Just Wide Open’
Her career as a teacher took her to various parts of New England. She taught languages for a few years before marrying Donald Johnson in 1959. The couple, who had three children together, split up in 1963. Johnson returned to education, this time teaching students with special needs.
It was another unexpected twist in her life, which she calls “a series of jumping off points .”
“I just really walked into something amazing I never would have dreamed of,” she said.
She later became a master baker, working in Upper Valley restaurants, but left the field after becoming sick with Lyme disease in 1998. She returned to teaching for a short time, but again, the illness forced her to stop working. Since then, she’s focused full time on making art.
“I’m very serious about my work,” Johnson said.
She moved to Piermont 35 years ago with her youngest son, Duncan Johnson, while he was still in high school. After graduating, he studied at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, N.Y., and became a professional artist.
“He’s quite successful, unlike me,” she said, proudly ticking off a list of places he has exhibited.
Duncan Johnson, who has also worked with scrap wood at times, said his mother influenced him and his siblings as they were growing up.
She gave them a lot of space and independence, and whenever she saw them drawing, was “very encouraging of that.” She also took them to a local landfill when it was closed.
“It was an unusual family activity,” he said, laughing. “I loved it. I still do. It’s just amazing what you find at the dump, the history in it, the fact that it’s just being discarded and you can make something out of junk.”
He admires the freedom his mother has in her art, which he sees as falling between categories. Johnson, who has educated herself through magazines, galleries and museums, is not an outsider artist in the pure sense, he said, “but her work has a feel and sensibility of really good outsider folk art.”
While he’s more controlled in his approach, his mother is “just wide open,” developing different mediums and creating both abstract and realistic work, he said.
“The language she’s using, I feel a directness. It’s not self-conscious. It’s put out there without any fear.”
Katherine Johnson agrees that her work is somewhat like folk art, and said she considers it to be outsider art , “being I’m untrained.”
‘About as Much as You Can Hope for’
Johnson’s work has been displayed in a number of places, including local businesses, Tenney Memorial Library in Newbury, Vt., Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, and Vermont Institute of Natural Science.
Nonetheless, she’s dissatisfied.
“I’ve done a lot of exhibits, but not enough,” a nd the shows could have received more media attention, she said.
“A little respect would go a long way.”
Johnson doesn’t advertise, but the gallery is open in the winter by appointment and has an “open door policy” from May to November. It draws little traffic, perhaps a few people a week, she said.
Ernie Hartley, a friend who also lives in Piermont, agrees that Johnson is underappreciated. “Her artwork is very unique. I think she’s undiscovered, to be honest,” he said.
Hartley and his wife, Pam, often stop in to see her new work, he said. A gift from Johnson, a winter scene featuring a family of grosbeaks, hangs in their kitchen.
“She thought it would fit in well in our house, and she was right,” he said. “It’s very highly treasured here.”
Hartley recently brought Johnson an interesting chunk of wood from his woodpile.
“She could see the light in it … and bring it to a new construction for people to see,” he said. “She says she’s got a plan for it. She’s an amazing lady.”
Johnson has tried, without success, to be juried into various arts organizations. Some studios she’s contacted have suggested she “get on the waiting list,” she said, laughing. “At my age, I’m not too big on waiting lists.”
She could do more to promote herself, but she’s reluctant to create a website, Johnson said. “If you are on something like that, it opens you up to copying.”
Years ago, she went through the expensive process of having slides made, but what she really needs is someone to photograph her work so she can “get the word out.”
But despite feeling disappointed at times, she’s generally content. “I like what I do,” she often says. “I do have a good life.”
And she’s had some successes. A show in New London about local copper mines stands out.
“It generated a lot of interest and did get written up and photographed,” she said. “That’s about as much as you can hope for.”
She’s sold quite a bit of work — her carved paintings are popular, as are her nature prints, she said. The prints, on average, cost $65, and some of her larger pieces have sold for several hundred dollars. And sometimes, the people who happen upon her place make a habit of coming back.
“Even as obscure as I am, I still have collectors,” she said. “I’m very, very grateful for them. They keep me encouraged.”
They include her former husband’s son, Douglas Johnson, who lives in Utah, a man in Armonk, N.Y., and several people who live locally.
Brian and Laura Reed had recently moved to Orford when they took a drive around the area. Enticed by the antiques in Johnson’s yard, they stopped.
Her house smelled of freshly baked bread, and they were “pleasantly surprised” to see not just antiques, but “tons of her artwork,” Laura Reed said. “She offered us some bread. She was so welcoming and kind.”
The couple were quite taken with Orford and bought two mineral paintings depicting the Tillson Falls area.
Johnson and the Reeds, also Southerners, “kind of hit it off right away,” and have since become friends, Reed said.
“She has all kinds of stories, and Brian and I have learned so much from her.”
Their collection of Johnson’s work, which has grown over the years, includes a barn scene they “just fell in love with” and a painting she did of their house long before they bought it.
“We love New England,” Reed said. “Being from the South, it was always a place you just kind of dreamed about, and all of her scenes capture that.”
‘The Next Thing’
With few exceptions, Johnson enjoys all of her various projects, yet as each one nears completion, she’s “anticipating the next thing.”
Something like leaving Piermont.
“I’m packing up to get ready to go, which is sad, but that’s the way it is,” she said, her blue eyes crinkling as she smiled.
With several children and stepchildren living in Vermont, she’s leaning heavily toward Northampton. “It’s not that far away,” she said.
“I really do love my family, and I don’t want to lose contact with them.”
Colleges in that area offer a free bus system, and she’s fired up about the prospect of auditing classes. “Going to Amherst to study for an afternoon? Wow. That’s mighty, mighty rich.”
Ideally, her new place will be smaller, in a busier area, and have at least one room for displaying her work, although she won’t try to run a business again.
Duncan Johnson wishes she had moved earlier. She’s approaching 80, and it’s just hard to move at that age, he said. Still, he thinks it will be a positive change.
“She just loves to share, and I think she’s frustrated because she is kind of isolated,” he said. “I’m glad she’s finally doing it because I think she really responds to being around people.”
In addition to family and friends, Johnson will also miss her house and gardens.
On a recent morning, she looked around the kitchen, with its original 1935 cabinetry, a bouquet of dried flowers perched atop a counter. She’s made many improvements to the property over the years, including adding an artesian well and insulating the house, “things that don’t show,” she said. Otherwise, her home looks much like it did when she first bought it.
“I haven’t changed it. I didn’t want to,” she said. “It’s just got such character of its own.”
Aimee Caruso can be reached at email@example.com or 603-727-3210.