When artist Jae Johnson sized up the wall space designated for his mural at the Charlottesville-Albemarle Technical Education Center, he realized the paintable area was about two feet shorter than he anticipated. His original design just wasn’t going to fit, and he had to come up with something else—right then and there.
“I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t afraid at first,” says Johnson. “But as time went on and the prayers came in, I didn’t want it to come to an end.”
Attending public school in Virginia these days is hard work, and CATEC students’ aim is to become proficient in a chosen trade. But in Johnson’s mural, entitled “My Future,” learning is depicted as an act of magic—something bigger that we are all a part of—that is alive and abundant.
A giant red book flutters open—and from it, potential areas of mastery flow. Johnson assigned an image to represent each of the school’s programs: a chef’s hat for culinary arts; a car for auto repair; a silhouette of a trumpet player for music industry technology, and so on. And though the dimensions may have seemed like an obstacle at first, the shortened wall space led Johnson to flatten and abstract some of the images, adding a distinctive and noteworthy element to the mural. Near a baby pink hairdryer, a scissors and comb are stretched out, incorporated into the work as lines, bordering swirling color blocks. “My Choice, My School, My Future,” the CATEC motto, is displayed among some of his favorite inspirational quotes (“Ambition is the path to success. Persistence is the vehicle you arrive in.”—Bill Bradley). There is a lot of movement and energy, and a lot to look at.
The mural is part of the ongoing Charlottesville Mural Project, a program of The Bridge Progressive Arts Initiative, led by Executive Director Alan Goffinski.
“He’s a really down-to-earth guy with a long history in Charlottesville and a dynamic illustration style,” says Goffinski, about tapping Johnson to create the mural. “When I first saw his work I couldn’t help but imagine how his style might translate to large-scale.”
Johnson is a relatively new artist on the scene, known for his portraiture. He showed at New City Arts in April of 2018 with Frank Walker, his mentor and another prolific figurative artist with deep local roots. The two were connected by marriage about a decade ago, and Johnson began meeting with Walker weekly to develop his skills. Aside from refining technique, Johnson and Walker made an agreement that they would make the work they wanted to make. And that led to a level of confidence that changed things for Johnson.
“I never really did public art. I’ve always lacked self confidence, like, is this good enough? Are people gonna like it? And then I got to the point where like…I didn’t really care. As long as I liked it. I started to stand behind my own artwork and it started to feel really good.”
In the future, Johnson hopes to incorporate portraiture into a mural, and you’ll probably be able to recognize it as his work when he does. A peek at Johnson’s instagram (@skeevangogh) shows an exciting progression of technique and style. He is deeply immersed in representational culture, and finds inspiration for his portraits from the books, magazines, and comics he pores over. He admires comic book artist Frank Miller for his stark, iconic style, but takes more inspiration these days from Lee Bermejo, who uses a lot of gray and subtle colors. Johnson’s own soft yet striking approach is a nice mash-up of the more classical elements of traditional figurative work, and the graphic sharpness of comics.
Much like the magical vortex coming out of the red book in his mural, Johnson is tapped into the energy of creation, and the excitement that comes with seeing yourself get better. When asked about his process, Johnson speaks about the challenge of pacing himself while working on something that shouldn’t be rushed.
“I get really impatient with drawing,” Johnson admits. “But I’ve gotten better with taking my time, sitting on it, leaving it for a few days and coming back with new ideas or things to change. I’m always anxious to see my own final product which is…wild.”
Johnson is wholly invested in his passions, which also include collecting Vans shoes. He says he hasn’t counted them in a year, but he’s certain he has over 125 pairs. To Johnson, Vans represent the creative culture, a brand that is always original but not economically unattainable or based on limited releases. Vans recently donated thousands of dollars to civil rights funds in solidarity with Black Lives Matter, which Johnson says made him even more proud to be “a Vans guy.”
The other thing Johnson collects is plants—he thinks he has around 40 of them. They were the inspiration behind his latest mural, in the living room of his home. A tree and vines surround the words “Plant, Nurture, Grow,” and the names of his family and pets border colorful shapes. In these times of uncertainty, our communities benefit from artists like Johnson, who reminds us of the abundance that is available to us when we decide to give our passions our full attention. —Ramona Martinez