London based artist Ben Johnson was born in Llandudno, Wales in 1946 and studied at the Royal College of Art. As one of the finest painters of structures and light of our time, Johnson is best known for his paintings based on architectural spaces (some almost forensically accurate, others heavily manipulated) and his large-scale, intricately detailed cityscape paintings, which include panoramas of Hong Kong, Zürich, Jerusalem, Liverpool and, most recently, his view of London which was completed as part of a residency at the National Gallery, London, in 2010. Heavily influenced by Renaissance painters and the work of artists such as Piero della Francesca and Vermeer, he also draws inspiration from Kandinsky, Tatlin and the Bauhaus.
His first solo exhibition was at the Wickesham Gallery, New York, in 1969 immediately after graduating from the Royal College. Over the past 46 years he has exhibited widely in galleries and museums across the world, including the Institute of Contemporary Arts, London; the Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool; the Art Institute of Chicago; Kunsthalle Tübingen; and the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid. For more check out the interview below and visit his website www.benjohnsonartist.com.
How would you describe yourself in one sentence?
I am an obsessive and committed painter.
Whom do you look up to?
All the other artists who have worked with the ambition to advance their own output by never accepting compromise and always seeking a better answer to questions that drive them forward. People that are constantly finding new questions to answers. People that work within their society and recognize our interdependence and hope for harmony.
Are there any personalities that have contributed to your successful career path?
My parents, their weaknesses and strengths. My teachers who helped a dyslexic and academic write-off and encouraged alternative skills, Libraries ,poets and musicians, craftspeople, designers ,Museums, Buddhism, architects, and people that care about others before themselves, my wife and children.
How did your art career start?
I left school aged 14 and went straight to art school. Here I developed my passion for making things, turning raw materials into something else, sometimes something practical and sometimes something just for the sake of experimenting but always something that could be shared and shown.
What was your favourite project and why?
My painting of Liverpool holds a very special place in my career and heart. It was my intention to present to the people of Liverpool an object ( painting ) that was made with respect for the city and its people, a painting that would be part of the city’s history. It was a record of the buildings that made up that city in 2008 when Liverpool was European Capital of Culture. But this representation was only the beginning of what I hoped to achieve. My ambition was to break down the misconception that museums and art are just for an elite. Art and creativity is fundamental to a healthy and well balanced society.
Part of my contract with National Museums Liverpool was that the last three Months of making the painting was to be done in public ( the whole period of painting was 36 months ). During the last three months over 50,000 people came to watch and a large number had never been in an art gallery before. Most importantly a broad outreach program was run that involved people of all ages and social backgrounds, all using the theme of their own city to stimulate debate and continuing projects both personal and collaborative. The painting became a catalyst for creating and encouraging bonds and still today it acts as an object that starts even strangers talking to each other about their city and their own histories.
What was the biggest challenge you’ve faced during your career as an artist?
Maintaining a position where I would never paint anything because of any financial need.
Do you have a favorite quote that describes what you truly believe in?
“I am the opposite of a stage magician. He gives you illusion that has the appearance of truth. I give you truth in the pleasant disguise of illusion.” Tennessee Williams, The Glass Menagerie.
How do you define creativity?
Making not breaking, doing what is natural and instinctive, making some magic from what is mundane, connecting with the spiritual, finding stability and balance.
If you had one advice for someone seeking to live a creative life, what would you tell him?
Always be honest, maintain integrity. Recognize that all actions have reactions.
What do you know now that you wish you knew at 21?
That once you start a journey there may not be an end, there is no one answer, and many wonderful new questions to come. Live in the moment.
Is there anything for which you would be ready to give up your passion for art?
1. Other People must always come first.
2. I would give up art when there is no Passion.