Douglas Johnson lives some miles outside Coyote, one of the many wild and beautiful villages in northern New Mexico. It is a remote area where the native people still cling to traditional ways. Johnson built his tiny, stone, one-man house on the side of a steep hill, overlooking a hidden valley. The house has a cave-like atmosphere, enhanced by a huge boulder which forms the brick wall. He carries water from a stream several hundred yards below, stores his food in large Mexican pots, and he cooks on a wood stove.
There is a remarkable closeness between the way Johnson lives and the subjects he chooses for his paintings. The two have influenced and inspired one another until his life and art have been fused into a tight unity. To maintain this almost symbiotic relationship, he finds he must carefully protect his private world. He is initially wary of all strangers, so ARTlines’ first interview with him, by contributing editor Lisa Sherman, was conducted in a Santa Fe parking lot. We were later invited to his home, which we found to be both eccentric and breath-taking.
The reason we’re talking here in town, in my truck, is because everything that has been written about me has originated with interviews done up at my home and the writers always came away with stereotypes about my being a cave man, a hermit, the anti-social, primitive recluse. I’m all those things, but I’m other things as well.
You have chosen to live an isolated life. What would you like your image to be?
I have become much more worldly than I was. But have to be isolated so that I can concentrate for long periods of time without interruption. My work is very intricate, and I’m a perfectionist about it. And, similarly, I can’t live in a place where people have built strange things that are inharmonious with nature. I can take the life of the city for a little while, but it bores me because it lacks perfection and a lot of it is artless. I want to live in a place that is pure and untouched by people.
Don’t you think that’s a little idealistic?
No, I’ve done it. I bought the place and built a house in a manner that I thought was harmonious. My house comes from Chaco Canyon, which I think is the center of the world. Going to Chaco Canyon for the first time was, I think, the most important influence on my whole life. Before that I was a VISTA volunteer—to get out of the draft—and I lived and worked with the Navajos at Canyon de Chelly. That was 1965. I lived on the rim and commuted with the people down to the canyon to plant and take care of the horses. At that time, horses and wagons were used almost exclusively. Now, it’s pickup trucks. I loved the cliff dwellings there, the Mummy Cave ruin in particular. When I saw those dwellings, I decided I had to have that—it was my dream.
Do you feel some special bond with the Anasazi, the people who built those cliff dwellings?
Yes, I think it’s very important in my life. I like the way they lived within nature. I think the Southwestern landscape is fantastic beyond all other landscapes, and the Anasazi took it an extended it around their bodies. They built their homes on the landscape without destroying it or changing it. Their architecture was actually an extension of the landscape.
You asked me if I wasn’t a little idealistic. I’ve always idealized the primitive, but what I’ve been able to do is refine the primitive. I’ve meticulously taken all the best parts of the primitives I’ve known, like the Navajos, the Zapotecs, the natives in this area, and combined them.
But you do have a real romance with the past.
Yes. It all stems from living with the Navajo, and it comes out in my work, which often depicts the Navajos daily routine, into which they have incorporated into their religious life. I don’t like to separate religion from life—it should be every moment of your existence. I go down to Oaxaca every year and live for several months in a small village, Huayapan, with the Zapotecs. These Indians practice much of the same lifestyle as the Anasazi did. The houses and daily life are very similar, except that this is Mexico. I have an attraction to their culture that I can’t explain, and I don’t even want to question it. It’s just very comfortable. They don’t understand me at all, how I can make a living by painting, how I can live by myself and take care of myself. In the village, the women do everything. They pamper the man. When I’m there, I have to try and accept that.
Do you paint different subjects while you’re living in Mexico?
Up here I paint Chaco Canyon, down there I paint Monte Alban. They’re very similar. When I first went to Teotihuacan, I had the strangest feeling. When I first walked onto that main avenue there, I felt, “This is Chaco Canyon!” And it’s a whole different culture. I don’t understand it. It’s just a feeling I have. When I go to Chaco Canyon now, I think Teotihuacan.
You don’t question why you paint what you paint?
It shouldn’t have to be questioned. I should paint what flows out of me naturally, without questioning it. Though painting the subjects that I choose to paint, I find it’s a deeper way of sharing the experience and the culture. What painting has taught me is to see very, very clearly. It’s done amazing things to my visual perception. After I’ve painted all day, and I stop, and put my paints away and go outside, my vision is almost hallucinogenic. Everything takes on a depth and richness that I’ve only experienced on drugs. When I paint, I do it very intensely, starting early in the morning. I don’t even take a break.
Has your painting always been concerned with primitive subjects?
When I started painting, I was in high school, and I painted weird things, probably because I wanted a lot of attention, and painting weird things got me that. When I look at them now, I still find them weird, but technically they’re good. I’ve always been amazed at my ability to work with color without any knowledge of it. I never studied art.
|Dawn Kachina, gouache, 6.25 x 9 inches|
How were the paintings weird? What did they look like?
I painted boxes with eyeballs. We lived in San Francisco, so I painted Victorian houses that were melting like wax. I did one of houses (sic) clipped to a close line. And a lot of trains, which I painted until moving to Canyon de Chelly. Trains. . . When I was a kid, I had electric trains and I was so into them that I ran them on time tables. I would make tables, and type them up, and put all the trains on schedules. I even did the cover for the tables as a painting. It was a big Santa Fe Railroad symbol, a rising sun coming up over the mountains. It was a Southwest desert scene, and I’d never been to the Southwest. It was unconscious, and, in a way, foretelling the future. I would come to Santa Fe later. I still use the Indian cross in almost all of my work.
What was it that finally brought you to this area?
My love for trains. It stayed with me. For a year I hopped freight trains and rode them all over the Southwest. On my first trip, I hopped the Santa Fe and it went through the canyon by Mount Taylor at sunset with the sun lighting up all the red rocks like fire. It was an incredible vision that I never forgot. It felt so familiar, as if I had always been there. Later I came back to the Santa Fe area and never left.
You recently did the poster for the Santa Fe Opera. How was it different to paint something for a particular purpose, or painting a subject to approval?
They first ask me to do the Opera Festival poster last year, and, they said, paint it for this, and I said, no, that I wanted to do it another way, in a certain size, and so forth. They gave it to Fritz Scholder instead. They wanted me to illustrate a theme—like the opera house, or the stage, or the landscape around the opera house. I just couldn’t do it. I pointed out that the beautiful posters for the Chamber Music Festival had nothing to do with the chamber music. I hoped they had confidence in me so that anything I did was good enough for their opera poster. And now they’ve done that. I chose something that was regional, La Conquistadora, the symbol of Santa Fe. She’s the saint that the army brought with them on their conquest of the Southwest. I painted her and the altar that’s built around her in the cathedral. It’s very Douglas Johnson, because my subject matter is usually either landscape or Indians.
Has the success you’ve been experiencing had much effect on your work?
Artists have been able to transcend the public and what the public does to them—the competition, the rivalries, the attention, the loss of privacy, all these things that go with fame. It’s a very difficult barrier to pass. One reason that I moved up to the mountains to live in my cliff dwelling is because, up there, I’m the judge of my own work. And what happens down here, in the art world, is far away and doesn’t matter to me. I’m my own worst critic. I’m tougher on myself than anyone else. I couldn’t sleep last night because I was insecure about the outcome of the opera poster. Everybody loved it today, and people thought it was incredible. It makes me very happy to have people accept my work so enthusiastically. I’m still not completely satisfied with it and I’ll try to do better next time. I don’t trust anyone else’s judgment, but I’m glad they liked it.
So you do care about what people think about your paintings?
Oh yes, enormously. I’m more sensitive to that than to anything else in the world. I got a bad review once and it blew me away. I was depressed for weeks. I don’t read them anymore, because I take them too personally. When I paint, I paint for me, because I’m using the painting to open up parts of me. And I’m very pleased if they are accepted by other people, if they open people’s eyes. I like it when people say, that’s a Douglas Johnson cliff, or mountain, or cloud, because I’ve altered their way of perceiving that cloud. I think an artist is successful when he’s done that. People come to see the world in your style.
I get the impression that there are more people in your paintings than there were a few years ago.
Before, they were empty of people. The last two years, the work has all become populated. Concurrently, I’ve been more involved with people. When I first moved up to the mountains eight years ago, I really was a hermit and I hardly had any contact with people. I submitted myself to that so I could really devote all my energy into painting, so I could become a master. I’ve come down and immersed myself in humanity again. I got over that idea that you had to be an acetic monk to achieve anything. Painting is easier now. I feel I’ve learned my style. It’s like learning a new language, becoming fluent. There’s a lot more to learn always—new words, idioms, improving your accent, but it gets easier and easier. Now I can go to the Indian dances, and to Mexico, which is very crowded. I’m experiencing more human contact and, as a result, my paintings have become populated.
But you’re not about to move into Santa Fe, are you?
No. I’m very much into order. My house is very ordered and people upset that order. I prefer to be alone to maintain the order. If you look at my work, you’ll see that it’s ordered and precise. It’s all right to confront people in their environment, but not in mine. So I get to Santa Fe every two weeks or so, Espan͂ola more often.
What is it you like about Espan͂ola?
Everything. I love it. I know a lot of people. I can speak Spanish with them. It’s a big, warm family, and the lowriders . . . I think it’s a high art from. They’re so well crafted. The people treat them as fetishes—they’re so clean and polished. Inside, they’re all fuzzy and they have those saints on the dash. I ride around with them and speak their language, which is very gross but it’s special. It’s called Spanglish, and it’s pure slang.
Back to the primitive sources of your paintings. Do you think primitive people had, or have, access to some basic truth that we don’t have?
The more experience I have, the more I think I know, the more I find that the world gets less clear. Primitive or tribal people knew a lot of truth that technology has numbed, and I hope, through my art, I’m realizing some of this truth. Art is a very mystical thing. I may be painting something that I don’t even know consciously. Maybe, in my lifetime, I’ll realize it and my paintings will show it to me.
Lisa Sherman, Stephen Parks, July 1981