An Artist’s Awakening
“Behind him the hills are open, the sun blazes down upon fields so large as to give an unenclosed character to the landscape, the lanes are white, the hedges low and plashed, the atmosphere colourless.” In this simple line published in 1891, the 19th-century British novelist and poet Thomas Hardy changed the life of Baton Rouge artist Libby Johnson.
Where Hardy used words to paint landscapes, Johnson turned to her brushes and imagination. Born and raised in Baton Rouge, Johnson was keenly aware of the region’s varied landscape. But as an artist, it didn’t interest her at first. She preferred to paint figures. Then came Italy and its architecture, food, villages and nuances of life. Although her eyes often scanned the Italian countryside, she truly didn’t see its beauty until a 1979 train ride across northern Italy. Her eyes and thoughts were buried in Hardy’s dark novel Tess of the D’Urbervilles when she came upon a passage describing the sun-blazed fields and the dark, brooding English countryside. She went on to read of a valley where the “atmosphere beneath is languorous, and is so tinged with azure that what artists call the middle distance partakes also of that hue, while the horizon beyond is of the deepest ultramarine.” She looked up from the book and through the train window saw for the first time the beauty of the Italian landscape.
Since that awakening on the train, Johnson has created an impressive body of paintings, exploring both the Italian and South Louisiana landscapes, many of which can be found in corporate collections and museums such as the New Orleans Museum of Art, the LSU Museum of Art and the Louisiana Art & Science Museum in Baton Rouge. Her work strives to capture the drama between heavily clouded and roiling skies and dark wooded landscapes that seem menacing at first but eventually create a sense of peace.
“I immediately started exploring landscape ideas when I got home, and I am still at it,” she says, reflecting upon that special train trip. “I currently concentrate more on my home environment. The darkness and mystery of the landscape interests me more now.”
From early childhood, Johnson wanted to be an artist. “I asked for an oil painting set for my 10th birthday,” she recalls. “When I got it, I sat down to do a masterful Dutch portrait in the tradition of Rembrandt. When all I came up with was a canvas full of muddy globs of paint, I became upset, and my mother found a teacher for me. I studied with Henrietta Joseph Yoder for a good while and learned the art of painting portraits.” She later continued her studies at LSU where she received bachelor’s and master’s degrees in art. In graduate school, the acclaimed Louisiana artist and art professor Robert Warrens pushed her to be more innovative in her work. Another professor, Edward Pramuk, “helped me bust out of a color funk I was in. It worked beautifully, and I have never gone back.”
Over the years, Johnson has lived in New York; New Orleans; and Florence, Italy. During those travels, various artists past and present have influenced her work. “I learned to paint Italian landscapes by looking at those surrounding the figures in Giovanni Bellini’s work. I learned to push light by studying the paintings of George Inness. The American realist painter Janet Fish has taught me a great deal by the way she splinters light on objects and how she could turn objects into shimmering pieces of separate abstract shapes and colors. Edward Hopper is responsible for first giving me a passion for intense color.”
Yet it was a 19th-century English poet and novelist, not a painter, who inspired her to explore her art in rural landscapes of Italy and South Louisiana. “I crave the experience of other places,” she says. “But here, where there is always a sense of something unseen happening below the surface of our dark and humid environs, there is a powerful mystery found nowhere else. It fuels an unconscious, free-flowing and sustaining element in all my work.”
Unlike painters who paint what they see before them, Johnson’s landscapes are composites based on photographs of dramatic cloud formations and the way light plays on a bayou tree line. “I combine photographic images to make a new idea,” she explains. “They incorporate things that would never really be found in nature. I build composite photographs with overlays as points of departure. My paintings are all about color reactions. I have to see how colors react to one another. For instance, the light sources in the paintings are often coming from several sources to make visual sensations around the composition rather than being true to nature.” She gathers most of her images at City Park in New Orleans; around the LSU lakes in Baton Rouge; and on Avery Island, which she describes as the “most magical place on earth.”
Although Johnson works primarily in her studio, she occasionally leaves the controlled atmosphere of her studio to paint plein-air on location. “I venture into the landscape, especially when I travel in Italy and in Louisiana when the weather is good,” she says. “I make tiny paintings that have their own identity and are not studies for making larger works later in my studio. They are finished works in themselves. If you are a landscape painter, you have to get out there and feel the bugs and nature. It’s all about the smells, the humidity, the vastness of air and the difference between you and what you’re painting. You get into this meditation when you paint in the landscape. Everything becomes part of you. Those elements you are painting are acting on you at the same time.”
Even the shapes of her paintings often reflect her perceptions of nature and art. In the mid-1990s she began painting landscapes on wooden panels with arches. They reminded her of the magnificent Renaissance altar paintings so prolific in the ancient churches and cathedrals of Italy. The arched tops also reflect her view of the natural world with its “mythological dome above us in the sky.”
Sitting in her spacious studio surrounded by paintbrushes, tubes of paint, walls lined with finished and partially completed paintings and bookcases filled with books and educational videos, Johnson reflects upon her work and life as an artist: “I cannot imagine not creating art. It is part of my being.” One can only imagine what might not have been had Johnson not taken that train trip across northern Italy with Thomas Hardy and Tess of the D’Urbervilles as travel companions.
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