Walk into The Arts Depot in Abingdon, Virginia, look to your right, and you’ll see the colorful folk art of Nancy Johnson and her welcoming smile.
“I love the public. I’m a people person,” she says.
Walk into her studio and she’ll tell you the story that goes with each piece of artwork and in the process share a great deal of her personal story with you. Her artwork is a celebration of her African-American heritage and history. If she isn’t there, her fellow artists will be happy to share her story. “I said, ‘You don’t know my stories. They said ‘Oh yes we do. We can hear them through the walls when you tell them,” she says.
Her story’s focus is you can succeed. “I am my own challenge. Whatever it takes, I will pursue it to the fullest. The key is to believe in oneself and what you have to offer. We can’t do anything about what happened 200 years ago to our forefathers. We weren’t there and can’t go back. The only thing we can do is make sure it doesn’t happen again. Stand up and be counted.
“It’s important for future generations to know that you do have a brighter future. Take advantage of it. You owe it to yourself. I have found joy and pleasure and suffering, but that didn’t break me – it made me,” she says.
Johnson’s life presented challenges, but her mother was a role model who showed her that obstacles were meant to be conquered. Her mother lost a leg when she was 12.
“She never let it stop her. She didn’t use it as a crutch. She walked six miles to school, delivered babies all over the place and had 11 children,” Johnson says.
Her family, particularly her mother, are featured in many of Johnson’s paintings. “People ask me why I paint my mother so fair. I always say, ‘What shade would you like for me to use - brown, green, purple? My family is like a rainbow coalition.’ They just laugh when I say that,” she says.
When she talks about her family, her eyes sparkle, and you can hear the love and joy in her voice. You can see them on the walls of her studio in everyday chores like milking a cow or having fun together jumping rope. There are also quiet domestic scenes, such as a child watching her mother on the telephone or hanging laundry that she took in for 50 cents a bag. She also creates works that focus on her heritage, not just her immediate family. Those include a slave ship, the Underground Railroad, the Martin Luther King Jr. family and the migration of African-Americans to the North. Johnson’s works are in personal collections from New York to California to Spain.
Another question studio visitors ask her frequently is “What’s going on in your mind?” Her answer is “If you find out before I do, let me know and if I find out first, I’ll let you know.”
She says she never knows where a painting is going to go. “It’s just like writing for me, the next step is there before I get there. Then I put a title on it,” she says.
Her folk art is more than acrylic paint though. They are adorned with buttons, glass, wood, pencil shavings, noodles, shells, hair, glue and anything she finds - or her fellow Depot artists leave on her desk. She uses these additions to create movement, texture and action.
Her slave ship painting has a slave ship that is made from pieces that fell off the undercarriage of the caboose that is parked next to The Art Depot. Johnson crawled under it and collected the train cast offs to adorn her art. The piece depicts a crowded slave ship with clothespin people, several of whom are floating in the sea having been shot.
“Each piece of my work has a message, a purpose or makes a statement. Sometimes people smile, and sometimes tears flow down their cheeks and then I know the viewers are with me. I try to create work that affects people to the point that we come together on the same page. An artist can be someone who helps bring change or makes a dent in someone’s life. Through art we can learn to express ourselves in many ways, in a different perspective, believing ‘Yes we can,’” she says.
Before becoming a folk artist, Johnson was a nurse. Nursing school was difficult for her, but she never doubted she’d succeed. After she retired, she wanted to continue to be with the public, so she gravitated to folk art and The Arts Depot.
“The Arts Depot gladly welcomed me as a new artist in residence. I enjoy being here and appreciate very much those that made it possible. The Arts Depot exposed my work in various ways – on Facebook, in newspapers, at art shows and so much more. Without their help, it couldn’t happen. My studio friends are great artists. We communicate with each other three days a week. We share viewpoints and suggestions that may be helpful. I will miss all of them,” she says.
She’ll miss them because Johnson is planning to retire. But she’s not going to stop creating ... she’s begun to write poetry. This isn’t her first foray into writing – she’s written two books. Her first book, “The Right Prescription,” is about her experiences as a nurse. Her second book, “Raised by Flesh, Wood and Plastic,” is about her mother, Carrie Lena Hoard Hill.
Whatever task Johnson turns her hand to, it’ll reflect her sparkling personality, sharp wit, determination and open heart.
For more information, visit abingdonartsdepot.org.