Text by: Ben Fullalove
Gladys Johnston: “Serving Others Well”
Why show the paintings of Gladys Johnson now in 2007, nearly twenty-five years after her death, and nineteen years after the exhibition of her works at the Glenbow Museum and other galleries in western Canada? One could offer rationales based on the interest of the works as outsider art, as a case study in amateur landscape painting and its relationship to the venerable Canadian tradition of that genre, or as an idiosyncratic example of a practice located at the intersection of popular culture and fine art. But none of these possibilities would be especially satisfactory or interesting. Instead, it is the curious, sometimes uncanny and always vibrant quality of the paintings that provides the central justification for revisiting Gladys Johnston. Simply put, the paintings are worth looking at again.
Gladys Johnston was born in 1906 in Birch Hills Saskatchewan. Her family moved to Silver Creek near Salmon Arm where they ran a dairy farm. She married Ernest Johnston in 1926 and moved with him to Cariboo country where they homesteaded for ten years. In 1944, after several other moves within British Columbia, Gladys, Ernest and their two sons settled in Salmon Arm, where Gladys was to live for the remainder of her life. Following her husband’s death in 1968, she began to write short books about her family and local history, as well as her travels, which in the 1970s and 1980s took her to England, Scotland, Germany and Japan. Johnston died in early 1983.
Like many working class people who had come of age in the difficult circumstances of life in a settler community, she was a creative and industrious individual. She helped to support her family by reading tea-leaves, selling the produce grown in her garden, and selling her paintings door to door and to tourists at local resorts. Johnston was a well-known and unusual figure in the town of Salmon Arm. She wore eccentric, brightly coloured homemade dresses and hats, and rode about town on her bicycle. Her home became a kind of informal salon where guests were entertained with tea and cookies, impromptu concerts on an out-of-tune piano, and, of course, by her paintings. These eventually covered the walls of the downstairs rooms, were stacked along the baseboards and filled the bedrooms upstairs.
Gladys Johnston’s practice as a painter stands largely outside the public world of fine art. Apart from a short painting course taken at the University of Saskatchewan when she was nineteen, and the influence of her husband (who had been both a friend and sometime pupil of the Western artist Charles Russell), she was self-trained. Although it is possible that she may have seen works by Emily Carr and the Group of Seven in the early 1940s on trips she made to Vancouver, her inspiration came principally from the nature in which she lived and from reproductions. Johnston kept scrapbooks stuffed with magazine illustrations, photographs, greeting cards and calendar images reflecting an eclectic range of subjects from popular culture, including wildlife paintings and landscapes by artists such as George McLean and Roland Gissing. These sources, along with the history and folklore of the British Columbia interior, provided Johnston with the sometimes heroic and almost mythic quality of some of her subjects.
The remarkable quality of Johnston’s work, however, is that her style is emphatically her own. Patricia Ainslie has observed that, despite Johnston’s isolation from the formal discourses of contemporary art, her paintings are arguably “modern” in their individual voice and formal innovation. Chris Cran, also a painter from Salmon Arm, and a friend of Johnston’s, has written sensitively about her as a painter: “She was able to use a full palette in a single painting without garish results. One could apply the term brilliant both to her colour and colour sense. She used hot colour in exact measure.” The pictorial space of many of her works unexpectedly collapses the conventions of perspective. A distinctive feature in many of Johnston’s paintings is the way in which individual objects and figures, while themselves rendered flat, are situated in a space of great depth. But there exists a tension within this relationship, where the space around and between such forms is itself given a palpable presence.
Johnston’s paintings are full of incident and particularity. Jewel-like pheasants stud, as if in an antique mosaic, a visionary landscape which is also a view of a real place–the orchards of the Shuswap and Mount Ida. Sheep with horns of improbable size stand sentinel above mountain torrents and under a saffron sky. Rearing grizzlies confront plaid-attired paddlers in turbulent rapids.
Above all, Johnston’s paintings are lively, even life-affirming, works full of energy and character. They are not escapist idylls or fantasies. Rather, they are the products of a specific time and place as translated through the unique voice of a singular individual. The art historian and theorist W.J.T. Mitchell notes that landscape is an inexhaustible medium whose conventions can be endlessly repeated. Landscape, says Mitchell, is boring. Gladys Johnston’s works prove that this is not necessarily so. Johnston’s paintings are made up from conventions, patterns and clichés, but they transform the familiar into images which are rich and strange.
The power of Johnston’s work is rooted in her great empathy for her subjects. This quality was expressed not only in her art but was a central aspect of her life. She was an enormously generous individual who cared deeply for her community and its landscape. For Johnston, there was little separation between her art and her life. For this reason, the epitaph carved on her grave marker – “Serving Others Well” – is a fitting tribute for both her and her work.
Ben Fullalove (Ph.D. Art History, Duke University) teaches in Liberal Studies at the Alberta College of Art and Design. His research focuses upon the construction of personal and national identities through representations of the Canadian landscape.
Gladys Johnston (1906 - 1983), a charmingly eccentric resident of Salmon Arm, British Columbia, was an essentially self-taught artist who produced a remarkable body of paintings that vividly portray the landscape in which she lived. Johnston¹s paintings are life-affirming works full of energy and character that transform the familiar into images which are rich and strange. Stride¹s exhibition “Gladys Johnston: Serving Others Well” offers a fresh look at Johnston¹s distinctive and vibrant work.