The Artist’s Eye: Vernon P. Johnson’s Watercolors of 1950s Small Town America

If you are a Baby Boomer…
If you grew up in America in the 1950s…
If you lived in a small town in America in the 1950s…
If you are researching that era of American art and culture…
If you are fascinated by American 1950s retro…
If you want your children and grandchildren to remember that unique time of innocence and transition…
……You’ll want to read this book.
The Artist’s Eye: Vernon P. Johnson’s Watercolors of 1950s Small Town America uses the iconic example of Mount Vernon, Ohio to document the enduring legacy of this transitional decade in which the first generation of Baby Boomers was born.  Johnson was an accomplished watercolor artist who studied under influential artists of the popular “Cleveland School” in the late 1930s and after serving in World War II, became a graphic design innovator in the burgeoning consumer packaging industry. He had a particular vision for small town America, which he illustrated in his paintings of Knox County.

In a volume that is part memoir, author Janis Johnson, the artist’s daughter and a published journalist and writer, takes us back to the 1950s using extensive family memorabilia and her father’s paintings, drawings, journals and writings.

“One of the pleasures of this book is that it fills in a chapter that has been missing from most of the art history that’s been written of the 1950s…Vernon Johnson’s watercolors bring us back to a simpler, more optimistic, more understandable world…It’s a sort of Paradise Lost.” — Henry Adams, Professor of American Art, Case Western Reserve University

See Patti Rudin Albaugh’s review

As you read this blog and the book, be sure to share your memories!
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If You Know Small Towns, See the Film ‘Nebraska’

When it comes to small towns, there’s not much difference in Nebraska and Ohio, or probably most other states. Watching Alexander Payne’s award-winning film, “Nebraska,” really brought that home. Though set in the Plains, the scenes in fictional Hawthorne, Nebraska (the real town is Plainview) reminded me of Mount Vernon in central Ohio, the subject of my father’s watercolors of the 1950s, and of his own hometown of New London about 60 miles north.Image065 In all these cases, we’re talking towns whose equivalent of Main Street extends three to four blocks from the center.

While Bruce Dern as Woody revisits his Nebraska hometown as part of a late-in-life journey, to me the most affecting part of the film was how his son David (played by Will Forte) discovers his father through their weekend road trip. When you’re an adult, you understand things that you couldn’t as a child.

The power of “Nebraska” lies in the vast black and white landscape, the perfectly flat tableau of farms stretching to infinity in all directions, and the often wordless connections between people as they move through each day. The insights arrive through observation and intuition, in the experience of the mundane activities of ordinary existence. Suddenly that flatness becomes understood as a metaphor for revealing hidden truths. A friend from California who’d visited Columbus, Ohio recently remarked how struck he was by the landscape – so flat that he could see brilliant sunsets all the way to the horizon, not obscured midway by mountains. I’d always taken that for granted.

And, according to Payne, in an interview with NPR’s Terry Gross, the “flatness” was not only about the landscape – it was also about the people. The truth is, that’s the way people are in the Midwest or the Plains states. I grew up that way – being emotional is not highly valued. People are flat and that’s ok.

Unfortunately critic David Denby’s review of “Nebraska” in The New Yorker (Nov. 18, 2013) completely missed the point and disappointingly so. While he seemed to be looking for something deep and subtle, he failed to see that the real drama was right on the surface in the ordinariness of things. He doesn’t get “flatness,” but then a lot of people don’t. The scene in which cousins, aunts and uncles sit around the living room and exchange two-word sentences  reminded me of the Sundays at our grandparents. No razzle-dazzle, just people talking, sharing what’s on their minds, with Hometown Midwestsnippets forming conversational threads; in some cases there’s meaning but in other instances they’re simply passing time together. The memorable part was not what was actually said but the portrait of simple interactions and the unsaid connections they built. Yeah, it’s fairly “flat” but that doesn’t mean that people aren’t communicating successfully.upload 082113 349

“Like many writers and filmmakers, at least earlier in your career, you want to explore the mystery of the place you’re from – those early buttons, how it haunts you,” director Alexander Payne said of his homestate of Nebraska in a New Yorker interview (Oct. 28, 2013). Payne was born and raised in Omaha and still spends part of the year there, the rest in LA. 

It must be the season for hometown reminiscences, because writer Jim Harrison reflected in a travel article in today’s New York Times about how growing up in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula left its imprint on his life and fiction. “…There’s nothing like returning to a farm with horses and chickens, and then on to a fairly remote cabin off a two-track road where when you try to sleep at night you hear a river flowing, probably the best sound on earth,” he wrote.

Like them, what I learned about my father when writing this book and about the world through his eyes while he painted carved an indelible imprint in my consciousness, values and the way I “see.” And years later, that still-evolving understanding continues to take sharper form. Happily, as part of my journey, the film “Nebraska” left me with a little more insight into that mysterious place that we know as “hometown” and of the people who populated them.

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Summer’s Peak – The Garden Cornucopia

We had a large garden in our backyard in Ohio – Dad, the artist, also had a very green thumb thanks to Grandma’s glorious gardens. We grew all kinds of summer vegetables – from tall stalks of corn to luscious tomatoes, rambling squash and much more. Nearby were apple trees and wild roses trailing on the back fence. Tomato mixIt must have been all that weeding that gave me a black thumb, but Dad’s other children caught the benefits of his patient cultivation.

Nonetheless I have abundant appreciation for summer’s abundance. Here are snapshots of the year-round twice-weekly organic farmers market about a quarter mile away from my home in Northern California and a snapshot of the produce, cheese, fresh fish and locally prepared tamales that I carried home. 

023 026 (2) 028 (2) Organic Farmers MarketMy Farm Basket

Sister Sue has a glorious garden in her backyard in North Carolina. “Wherever there’s a space and sunshine, I’ll plug in my veggies,” she says. Her naturally flowing landscaping is esthetically pleasant while inviting and support wildlife, particularly butterflies and birds, and provides a sanctuary – a place to sit and savor, to listen and observe.Sue's perennial herbs Sue's peppers, sunflowers and sageHere’s a Sue sampling:
Sue's zucchini, acorn squash, okra, tomatoes and butterfly bush

And up on the roof above his restaurant in busy Central Square in Cambridge, MA, brother Steve grows herbs in crates to flavor the distinctive offerings of the nightly culinary feasts of Rendezvous Central Square. Vernon Johnson was so proud of the artistry of his children!Steve's rooftop garden v2 Steve's rooftop garden

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It’s Summer – and That Means the County Fair

The county fair is going up next door – and I always think of hometown Ohio and the county fair of my childhood. I wrote about it previously in another blog post, but it’s a ritual that pops up on my seasonal nostalgia calendar, taking on new dimensions each time.

This year I am thinking about “simple.” I guess this is what we do at this age, think back and applaud “how simple life was back then.” Huh?? Honestly – that’s not my point! What I’m reflecting on is the innocence and wonder that aren’t diluted by life experiences (things like creaky backs, intellectual bravado and Supreme Court decisions) – instead, the one-dimensional connections of a child who sees things fairly crisply. Horse=merry-go-round. Fair=cotton candy. Razzle dazzle=fireworks. Associations like that.

(Not “fair=traffic, congestion, where am I going to park, standing in line forever, 90-degree misery, hand sanitizers after petting the animals, The Wailers one more year and another resurrection of The Kingston Trio??? and other musings of cranky adults who have temporarily forgotten what it’s like to see the world as an adventure, an experiment in each new thing.)

So this fair season, I choose to reconsider the traditional county fair. The simplicity of my childhood is comforting. And I know there are a lot of you out there who are likely on the same track. I’ll be thinking of you when the big boom sounds and connects us on July 4 at 9:45 pm outside my window (and July 3 and July 5 and July 6 and July 7 this year….) While the fireworks were a heck of a lot more spectacular when I was only 9,  I’m happy to watch the light show through my neighbors’ children’s “oh, wow!” eyes and once again connect the dots of a lifetime.

Here are some pictures I found that my father took in developing his paintings for this book. Compare these with the book photos in the other blog item. You’ll see what inspired him and how he used his vision to commemorate everyday scenes that were solid, affirming, dependable, rewarding. Today these scenes are likely hokey to children and grandchildren, but isn’t the simplicity quaint, refreshing, even relaxing?2115143-R1-E0052115143-R1-E0132115143-R1-E015

2115143-R1-E004Happy 4th 2013!!

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Good-bye, Annette, from Your Ardent Mickey Mouse Club Fans

Back in the mid-1950s, the original Mickey Mouse Club celebrities brought Hollywood sparkle to our central Ohio town of Mount Vernon. Some of them were in elementary school just like us or the teens we would soon become.Mickey Mouse Club v2In fact, we “Mouseketeers” lived on a landscape that replicated another Disney stage – Main Street USA. In our case, the real was just as iconic as the imagined.

Our mothers, actual June Cleavers, used their sewing machines to make our pale blue Mouseketeer pinafores trimmed with black rickrack. We mail-ordered Mickey Mouse ears and club T-shirts with our names emblazoned. We created our own variety shows, staged them in our basements and charged entry to our friends. “Who’s the leader of the club that’s made for you and me? M-I-C-K-E-Y-M-O-U-S-E…” – carefree dreams of stardom that the fantastic new mid-’50s TV technology brought into our modern  ranch-style homes. I was going through some mementoes the other day and found a plastic Mickey Mouse Club pin.

My father, the artist, never purchased a store-bought card, and we always looked forward to his creations. VPJ JJ MouseketeersHere’s the front and back of a valentine he sent me during that time. Note my stylish ’50s ponytail (!) and forgive his spelling…

Annette, who died two weeks ago at age 71, was the core. She was the one we always wanted to become. Looking back, it’s a  hoot and a sigh – the innocence of those happy childhood fantasies. So good-bye Annette. You  helped us transport ourselves far beyond what we could then imagine as achievable for ourselves. We’ll never forget you!

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“Lincoln” Film, VA State Capitol and Vernon Johnson

A sketch of the Virginia State Capitol illustrates another connection between the recent “Lincoln” film and the artistic eye of Vernon Johnson. VA State Capitol v1 While several current Richmond landmarks served as historic Civil War era locations for the cinematographers, the State Capitol building “stood in” for both the U.S. Capitol and the White Houses in Steven Spielberg’s award-winning film. In fact, much of the movie was filmed in Richmond, and Virginia has shaped several new educational tours and programs for 2013 around this happy coincidence in a city that is truly an iconic and graciously preserved American history lesson.

While a previous blog post described the intersection of the artist and the film in an Ohio watercolor, Vernon Johnson also captured the imposing mood of the State Capitol building for the cover of “The 1984 Edition of the Richmond Area Weather Almanac.” He also painted several monuments, honoring Civil War military leaders, that gave rise to elegant Monument Avenue. Calvary Commander From the series, “Richmond: The Ultimate City” commissioned by a local bank in 1988, several large, framable prints of “The Calvary Commander of Monument Avenue” (Gen. J.E.B. Stuart), signed and numbered by the artist, are still available. Email for more information.

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Another “Found” Vernon Johnson Painting of Rural Ohio

Imagine browsing through a thrift shop and finding a “lost” Vernon Johnson painting with a high-class provenance – the elegant Palmer House Hotel, Chicago’s liveliest social center at the turn of the 20th century and well into it. Palmer House paintingFrom the Palmer House galleries to Saint Vincent’s Thrift Store in Columbus, Ohio, one of the hundreds of mid-century watercolors by Midwest regional artist Vernon Johnson had a very charming and — we trust — memorable ride.  The proud new 21st century owner of this autumn scene, who lives in central Ohio, instantly “loved it and put it in my cart without hesitation.” Once she saw the Palmer House information on the back of the painting, she searched for our Artist’s Eye website.

“I looked up the Palmer House in Chicago, and was shocked at the opulence,” she wrote.  “Possibly your father had a show there?” Palmer House signatureWhile we don’t know the full story, we can make some good guesses — as an art school student at the Cleveland Institute of Art, Vernon Johnson was featured in a show at The Art Institute of Chicago, and later he had many friends and business colleagues in the Midwest. No doubt one of those avenues resulted in this 1959 painting displayed in the Palmer House Galleries.

If you find another Vernon Johnson painting, dear readers, be sure to let us know!

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200th Anniversary of Virginia’s Executive Mansion

American history buffs will appreciate the many events this year to celebrate the 200th birthday of Virginia Executive’s Mansion, home of the governor on the State Capitol grounds. Virginia Executive MansionVernon Johnson’s commissioned painting of the Executive Mansion in 1987 enjoys a full-page reproduction in this impressive volume by writer and historian Mary Miley Theobald and with an introduction by novelist David Baldacci. First House: Two Centuries with Virginia’s First Families is a beautiful coffee-table book and well worth a read.

Vernon Johnson’s watercolor of the Virginia governor’s home as it was in the late 1980s was considered to be an exemplary portrait of the mansion. Having retired in Richmond, the artist was well-known for his watercolors of regional landscapes, residences and historic buildings. He was originally asked to paint this portrait of the governor’s home for the C&P Telephone Company’s 1987-1988 Greater Richmond telephone book. The watercolor was later presented to then Gov. and Mrs. Gerald L. Baliles, who were restoring the mansion.

The story of this painting is chronicled in more detail in Chapter 9, the last chapter of “The Artist’s Eye.” Johnson spent about three months studying the mansion in lighting at various times of day. He was commended by Jeannie Baliles for “capturing the elegance and stately beauty of this magnificent house.”

Several large prints of Vernon Johnson’s rendition of the Executive Mansion, signed and suitable for framing, are still available. For information, email

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