“Ab Herron at Knox County Savings Bank permitted me to put two paintings a week in the front windows, and I hesitatingly put a little price tag in the corner, $35 to $40, and a few of them sold. On Saturdays I’d go down and listen to comments about them. I learned a lot about my paintings! But most of all, I kept hearing, ‘who is Vernon Johnson?’” —Remarks by Vernon P. Johnson at the Knox County Historical Society retrospective of his work, 1990
When Vernon Johnson first arrived in Mount Vernon, he was known as “Marcia Johnson’s husband.” It was a good start. Mom’s family had long ties in the community, and she was active and popular at Mount Vernon High School, where her classmates included Fred Surlas Jr., Mary Lemasters, Jared Bogardus and other members of well-known local families. Along with his new job as a graphic artist at Shellmar, Dad continued painting watercolors of India and Burma from scenes he had captured in photographs, sketches and his mind’s eye during his military service in World War II. Mom called him “Johnny,” which he was called in the Air Force when she met him and a nickname used by many of their friends.
…. “Johnny was an artist, and artists look at things a little differently,” Tom Wilson told me in 2008. “We were Pontiac dealers down on West High Street, where Ann’s dad had owned a car dealership,” Tom recalled. “Down on the next corner of Sandusky in the Levering building (later the site of Mazza’s Restaurant), Levering had a Dodge showroom. I went down there one day to get a part for a Studebaker we were working on, and I walked in the door, and there was the most gorgeous car I think I ever saw in my life. It was black, a 1948 Studebaker Commander, four door, and it had those little airplane spears on the front fender.” Raymond Loewy, a nationally recognized industrial designer, had created the stylish automobile. “And you know who bought it?” Tom said. “Vernon Johnson. That was the artist in him.”
Dad paid a tidy sum of $2160.48 “in full” for that car on November 1, 1947, according to his cancelled check.
Artistically, color theory and the technical challenge of watercolor painting motivated Vernon Johnson. “I love color. You make color work in light, lights and shadows…You’re dealing with atmosphere — a stormy day, sunlight and shadows. I noticed the other day the light on the white house of General Morgan — that would have been nothing without the sun. So fall colors here with all the maple trees…Light and dark are value contrast, light and dark. That plus the strong palette, a heavy brush sometimes, produce this sort of thing.”
“In watercolor, it’s pretty hard to improve, revise or change,” he explained. “You have to put it down and leave it. The quicker you paint the painting, the more successful it is…This is why I paint watercolors. I love the challenge of doing it and leaving them alone. But many of these didn’t turn out the way I wanted them to. I set them aside, and a month later, I’d trace them on watercolor paper and try it again, and try it again. Usually the third or fourth wasn’t any better than the first, but I ended up with several paintings of the same subject matter.”
The developing arts community in Mount Vernon also was reflecting the tension between traditional fine arts and an emerging group of commercial artists who populated entirely new post-war industries. Dad straddled both camps, given his given his education and his profession. “There was a big argument all over the country whether graphic artists were fine artists,” Winifred Sturtevant, organizer of the Mount Vernon Art League in 1948, told me in 2009. “It was about ‘illustration’ versus ‘fine art,’ and Norman Rockwell was at the center of that.”
Lamb Glass Company is one of the many 1950s-era icons of American progress that have been torn as new industries arose — and you can see more of our mid-century history in the book, including Vernon Johnson’s “Four Seasons” series, which continue on display in First Merit Bank on South Main Street in Mount Vernon….