March 3, 2009

Master of the Brush

Professional oil painter Hale Johnson ’60 depicts autumn images in traditional realism

It was during his service in the Army, of all places, that artist Hale Johnson ’60 started painting, with exhibitions at Fort Dix in New Jersey. “Talk about the cultural center of the Northeast!” he jokes.

Johnson, whose two stints included time outside the Berlin Wall in 1961, decided to try making a living from his art in November 1966.

“I gave myself six months,” he says, “and one thing led to another.” During one show in which he had 40 pieces, all but three sold.

“I was euphoric,” he recalls. “It just clicked. I was painting something that people wanted. My price range was something they could afford. It all worked for me.”

He has continued to succeed, working primarily with oil paints. “It’s slower, but I enjoy the time spent with each image,” he says. A traditional realist, Johnson’s palette is the colors of the Northeast United States and the British Isles. “I see something I find visually interesting,” he says, “and try to arrange it well on a two-dimensional field.”

Based in western Massachusetts for the past 36 years, he is best known for his depictions of barns and boats. Johnson likes how older structures pertain to their surroundings. “Many times those people had a sense of how to place their buildings with respect to sun and sunlight,” he says.

He particularly enjoys painting images of the Maine coastline, “simply because of the constant contest between the shore and the water.” Other favorite subjects include English landscapes and stone buildings there and in Pennsylvania, and still-lifes, such as “a hand implement on a stone wall, something that casts an interesting shadow.”

And he gravitates to images of the fall and early November. “I’m not terribly comfortable with green. Never was�I went to Ireland and that provided a challenge,” he adds with a laugh.

Despite his success, Johnson is never completely satisfied with any of his works. “If I am, why paint another?” he asks. After he’s finished with a piece, he asks himself what he could have done to make it better. “I think self doubt is part of the process,” he says. “There are frequently times when I wish I had someone on speed dial so I could ask ‘how large should I do this painting?’”

Although he numbers each of his works (he’s well past 2,000), he doesn’t know where they all have ended up. “Museums,” he suggests, “mostly in private collections�When you work through dealers as I have all my career, they tend to guard their market. I am not aware of the whereabouts of many of my works.”

But he’s aware of at least one collector with 33 of his paintings. “Some have collected me aggressively,” he says. “Some are happy with one.”

It was during his abbreviated stay at Lafayette that Johnson recognized his interest in art was more than a passing fancy. Known then by his first name, Allen (Hale was his mother’s maiden name), Johnson decided to attend the College largely because his sister had married an alumnus. Memories include favorite classes in English and geology, his love of the school colors – “When I restored an old car, I painted it maroon and white” – and a friend’s Pluto Platter, one of the original Frisbees. Though Johnson enjoyed Lafayette, it turned out to be a transition year for someone who “had no intention of being an artist” when he enrolled.

Even after he matriculated at the now defunct Newark School of Fine Arts not far from his hometown of Maplewood, N.J., Johnson did not envision his future as a full-time artist. The general curriculum included illustration, art history, photography, and graphic design. His talent for painting was not encouraged.

“The late ’50s was not a time when many artists were making a living,” he notes. “Most of the people who were teaching art were artists supplementing their income.”

He found his allegiances torn several years ago when he watched the Lafayette football team compete against the University of Massachusetts. “It really took me back,” he says.

Johnson has been through the Easton area a few times since leaving in the late ’50s. During his honeymoon – hastily arranged as he was shipping off to Europe – he drove through to show his bride.

posted in Alumni

tagged with