The route looked safe enough, but it almost killed him.
Russell Johnson was hiking the Grand Canyon with a friend in 2001 when he detoured under an overhang.
“I took a step and there was this sheer drop off. Rocks went tumbling into the water,” Johnson said. “It was scary. There was nothing beautiful about it in that moment.”
But there was a singularity that arrested his attention. He didn’t know it then, but that was something he needed to evoke in his landscape paintings. That moment has since become a touchstone.
“It’s close to what’s called ‘the sublime,’” Johnson said. “I’m trying to transport you to an experience or a place in my paintings. Often, those places are beautiful, too, but I’m trying to balance that place and that moment.”
Johnson’s paintings are a dynamic, refreshing beacon in an otherwise crowded field of Western landscapes. Refining that style, however, has a been a journey that’s been neither singular nor entirely linear.
“For a long time, I wasn’t sure what I was trying to articulate with my artwork,” Johnson said. “I needed some purpose and contextual background for what I was doing. … I needed some help.”
Growing up in Prescott, a middle child among 10, Johnson had two favorite places — his room and the great outdoors.
“I was able to get lost in the shuffle,” Johnson said. “I could kind of go missing and no one would care. Usually that meant doing artwork in my room … but I always spent a lot of time outside, too.”
In fourth grade, he caught the drawing bug. Johnson credits teachers like Mrs. Norris at Dexter School, Mrs. Chartier at Mile High Middle School, and Mr. Murphy at Prescott High School with encouraging his artwork. (Johnson’s the kind of guy who still calls his teachers “Mr.” and “Mrs.” He’s also the kind of guy who mentions the influence and support of his mom and dad at both the beginning and end of an interview. Ditto about his wife, Denise, and son, Skyler.)
“Looking back at those early years, things were more just self-exploration of identity, of who and what I was — what all of us do during those years,” Johnson said. “I started getting away from photo-realistic portrayals and got into really loose, introspective drawings.”
Johnson was 13 the first time he backpacked in the Grand Canyon, though he didn’t start drawing and painting landscapes until he was a senior in high school. This coincided with his budding interest in photography, the medium that would dominate the next few years of his artistic life.
Three vital things happened in succession. A couple months before he from graduated high school in 1999, he got a job at The Frame & I. Next, he earned an associates of arts degree from Yavapai College. Then he earned a bachelor of fine arts degree from the University of Arizona.
“I was still drawing and painting, but I was distracted by photography for four or five years,” Johnson said. “There’s a tradition of serous black-and-white landscape photography. I liked the crispness and contrast you get with it.”
His mode and subject matter had been established, but he still had yet to make a distinct mark within a medium.
The next level
During breaks from school, Johnson continued working at the Frame & I and returned full time after college. (This is the part when he mentions how supportive shop owner and artist Ida Kendall has been.) He eventually became manager and displayed his paintings, which caught the eye of noted painter Robert Knudson.
“What struck me about his work was the honesty of it, first of all,” Knudson said. “You can see his determination and commitment.”
The two struck up a friendship in part fueled by their mutual love the of the outdoors.
By this point, Johnson had thrown himself full-force into painting, but something was amiss.
“I wanted to express what I felt when I was hiking,” Johnson said. “I wanted to transport the viewer to that place and to that experience … but I realized I wasn’t communicating what I wanted to.”
He decided to go back to school at Prescott College in 2009 and enlisted Kudson’s help as his practicum supervisor (i.e. mentor).
“We went back to the basics, to what constitutes good painting,” Knudson said. “The anchor points are always the basics, and you need to go back to them periodically and renew yourself in them.”
Johnson was hesitant — He already had those skills, didn’t he? — but ultimately capitulated.
“Those exercises got me to look at structures, values, and shapes in a different way,” Johnson said. “They helped me see the abstraction of making artwork, of simplifying things down to their essentials.”
After lots of sweat and academic work — plenty of Thomas Moran — Johnson’s artwork changed in ways both tangible and intangible.
Knudson admired his commitment.
“You run into a lot of people interested in art but who don’t have the determination to see it through,” Knudson said. “Russell has seen it through.
“He loves color and he as a sense of abstraction in what he does that’s very important to his art. He has the ability to see beyond the surface of things, to get at the core of a subject, and he’s built on that.”
Seen & scene
“I’m walking by one of those things on the Courthouse Square and all of the sudden I see Russell’s work and it just slaps me in the face.”
That’s Bob Koppany. He was walking by the Phippen Museum’s “Western Art Show & Sale” in 2012.
“His paintings are vibrant. They’re alive. They’re stuff you never see,” Koppany said. “It was like seeing a Monet landscape for the first time.”
Koppany and his wife, Margi Harning, visited Johnson at The Frame & I and bought a painting. Then they bought another one. And then they bought another one. To date, they’ve purchased six and commissioned another eight — two sets of season-themed pieces.
“We try to support people in the community who are doing world class art,” said Koppany, who once commissioned two Batman pieces from comic great and late-in-life Prescott resident Dick Sprang. “Russell’s art, somehow it makes you feel how alive things are.”
Johnson said having such a patron is a rare treat.
“It’s been a great encouragement, and I’m really grateful,” Johnson said. “I’d never gotten commissions like that before.”
Moving forward, Johnson said he’ll continue to refine his style and revisit the fundamentals per Knudson’s tutelage.
“I’ve been pushing the abstract quality to give people a more dream-like experience,” Johnson said. “Now, I’m not even working from photos. That way I’m bringing my own memory to it, which includes feelings as well as details.”
And while Johnson’s branched out and experimented with different techniques and subject matter, he’s finding the familiar less-so these days.
“(This approach) has changed the way I see,” Johnson said. “Nature’s an endless source of possibilities and inspiration, and I’m connecting with it differently now than I have before — and probably differently from how I will in the future.”
The way forward may not be entirely clear, but he trusts the approach.
“There wasn’t ever a moment I thought I was on the wrong path,” Johnson said. “These are my talents, and this is what I want to do with my life.”
See more of Russell Johnson’s art at RussellJohnsonArt.Com and The Frame & I, 229 W. Gurley St., 928-445-5073. His paintings range from $300 to $14,000.
James Dungeon is a figment of his own imagination. And he likes cats. Contact him at JamesDungeonCats@Gmail.Com.
Tags: Bob Koppany, Grand Canyon. Mt. Zion, James Dungeon, landscape, painting, Phippen Museum's, Prescott College, Robert Knudson, Russell Johnson, sublime, The Frame & I, University of Arizona, Western Art Show & Sale, Yavapai College