by Vivian Hua 華婷婷
(This article first ran in REDEFINE Magazine and appears under a co-publishing agreement.)
Speak to Renton-based visual artist barry johnson for any substantial amount of time, and one quickly understands why his latest catchphrase, “anything is anything,” has become an overarching mantra. As johnson explains, “Because I’m a self-taught artist, [the phrase] gives me freedom …”
“anything is anything” was the title of johnson’s first solo art show at Tacoma’s Alma Mater in August 2019, and is now the title of his weekly podcast on “the origins of myths, idioms, stories, and nonsense.” Both offer tiny glimpses into johnson’s varied interests and atraditional way of moving through traditional art spaces, which has led to an art practice that includes numerous mediums, from painting and architecture to performance and film — all with a focus on Black communities.
A Meandering Path: Anyone Can Be Anything
As a young person in Kansas, johnson had long set his sights on becoming a medic in the military. Yet life threw him an unexpected curveball; when his vision was too poor for him to see active duty, he set down those dreams. A fortuitous series of circumstances led him to Seattle and then to a brief career stint in tech and data analytics. In that role, johnson discovered that drawing provided a reprieve from the stressful day-in, day-out sludge of mathematics, and it eventually led him to creating corporate murals for in-house clients.
“I want to be doing more work that [is] representative of Black people…” johnson recalls thinking. “So I quit and started doing art.”
johnson has learned to forge his own path, dabbling in “anything” from stand-up comedy to sustainable architecture along the way. Rather than acrylic or oil paint, johnson defers to construction materials and house paint, hinting at an unconventional mode of thinking, even when johnson’s works may be ostensibly clad in a friendly package.
“I was talking to a reporter recently … and they’re like … ‘[Your paintings are] all nice and colorful,’” says johnson, “and I was like, ‘That’s not the intention. That’s just color.”
Based off of real-life friends and acquaintances, johnson’s subjects never smile — not because they are stoic, or that johnson himself is stoic — but because they offer social and political commentary on being Black in American society.
“There’s a reason you can go through and you can see all these Black and Brown men and women and people that are nonbinary that will have their faces covered up …” explains johnson. “These are times that we just have been trying to progress, and things have been taken from us.”
Some of johnson’s more emotionally-involved pieces incorporate iron oxide, a naturally disintegrating material that operates in greys and blacks, as a counterpoint to his more colorful pieces.
“I like the fact that whenever I put iron on a canvas, that, with 100% certainty, it is going to fall off of a canvas over time …” he says. “Over a certain 50, 70 years, that painting self-destructs by itself … hopefully, by the time everything’s falling off that painting, we won’t be dealing with the same problems that we’re dealing with around race right now.”
The Unauthorized Biography of a Black Man
For nearly four years, johnson has been working on a mixed-media portrait series entitled, “Being Human,” which iterates slightly every year. His 2017 portraits, for instance, featured Black faces in profile view, often cropped off the edge of the painting. December of that year marked johnson’s first time receiving major press coverage in a local publication, via Real Change News. By 2018, johnson had begun to portray subjects in full-body form, dressed in colorful clothing that blended them into similarly colored backdrops. For johnson’s first solo show in 2019, he enhanced his paintings with glass and other household sculptural materials, adding an extra layer of distance between the viewer and portraits.
“Now, it’s got to the point where all the faces are just smeared altogether, and it really has to deal with the idea that Black and Brown people have our history covered up or distorted to fit another part of this narrative,” says johnson.
johnson’s 2020 iteration features faces that are distorted and blurred. The process is intense, personal, and emotional — beginning with a fully formed image of a Black person, which johnson then deconstructs through a process of removal.
A recent large-scale mural, entitled “The Unauthorized Biography of a Black Man,” is located at Two Union Square in Downtown Seattle and features Seattle dancer and choreographer David Rue. Rue, portrayed with eyes closed, is replicated across eight different frames, which show a progression of Rue’s face being gradually deconstructed. johnson ends the piece with a James Baldwin quote, which reads, “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”
“This piece was by far [one of] the hardest pieces to make,” explains johnson. “I know [David Rue] very, very well and to paint and destroy them was hard … especially on the scale that it was.”
Over the 45 hours that johnson worked on the temporary mural, he experienced a spectrum of difficult emotions associated with on-site harassment as well as the impacts of creating highly visible work about other Black individuals.
“I went through that, ‘Oh, people were here then gone’ phase, the ‘what if someone doesn’t like this and kills me while painting it’ [phase], and so much more,” johnson describes. “More than anything, knowing that this image is here, then gone, is the reality of so, so many Black men at the hands of senseless violence.”
Intentional Pathways Towards Change
Immediately following the death of George Floyd, johnson, like many other Black artists, saw an uptick on social media of strangers grabbing his artwork and re-posting it. He contacted many of those strangers to suggest additional steps they could take to help the cause, stressing that the moment was not specifically about him but about Black lives as a whole. True solidarity goes further.
“It’s very important — for people that truly want to be a part of change — to just take a step back and observe, and look for a moment where they can be of assistance,” johnson says.
In the past five years of his artistic career, johnson has had to adapt his expectations and standards for success; it was an eye-opening discovery to learn first-hand that the system had never been built for artists like him.
“I always thought that the way to do that as an artist was through people saying, ‘This person can make unique work and that their work is deserving of people buying it.’ I got rid of that idea very long ago,” johnson explains.
In a world where mainstream arts institutions consistently struggle to find ways to pay artists equitably, johnson, who has worked with a who’s who list of local collaborators, says he is most proud of his ability to collaborate with peers in a way that allows them artistic freedom as well as adequate compensation.
“Anytime I post anyone with a project, I’ve got money to give you,” he explains. “Even if I paint them, if the painting sold, then I would give them 30% of anything the painting sold for. Just to even use their likeness.”
“Nobody is great by accident,” adds johnson. “It has to deal with a lot of work, and in most cases, some of the greatest people we’ve seen throughout history were a product of the group that were around them.”
Following the collaborative creation of a highly-visible, large-scale Black Lives Matter mural on a roadway at Capitol Hill Occupied Protest in June 2020, johnson is now a part of the 16-member VividMatterCollective. Using their combined power, the group has given unexpected donations back to community members as well as leveraged their influence to collaborate with the City of Seattle on permanently engraving the mural into the cement. Supporting an artist, johnson says, is not about saying the right words or giving a one-time grant and throwing money their way. It’s about finding ways to elevate them, long-term.
Likewise, johnson’s latest pursuit is the study of Environmental Architecture and Design at Clover Park Technical College. He hopes to gain the tools to design buildings and create change on a more impactful scale, as the field lacks representation from the Black community, despite the abundance of current conversations around equity and reparations through land use.
“It’s always been about trying to make sure that I’m just giving back in every way possible that I can,” explains johnson, “and making sure that I’m constantly shining a light on what’s happening.”
Check out the September video interview between Vivian Hua and barry johnson (for REDEFINE) below.
Vivian Hua (華婷婷) is a writer, filmmaker, and organizer. As the Executive Director of Northwest Film Forum in Seattle and Editor-in-Chief of the interdisciplinary arts publication, REDEFINE, much of her work unifies her metaphysical interests with her belief that art can positively transform the self and society. She regularly shares stories of observations through her storytelling newsletter, RAMBLIN’ WITH VEE! and is a co-founder of the civil rights film series, “The Seventh Art Stand.” In 2018, she released her narrative short film, “Searching Skies” — which touches on the controversial topic of Syrian refugee resettlement in the United States — and plans to soon begin production on “Reckless Spirits,” a comedic Asian American series. She is passionate about researching efforts to preserve cultural space and finding ways to covertly and overtly disrupt oppressive structures.
Featured image: Iron oxide on canvas, 48″ x 36″, by barry johnson.