A professional graphic artist for 20 years and editorial cartoonist at the Palos Verdes Peninsula News for 14, Gary Johnson is also the creator of humorous, delightfully light-hearted work that celebrates iconic Dias de Los Muertes art.
The Rolling Hills Estates resident, who designs graphic T-shirts for Tommy Bahama, loves the beach, but he’s also passionate about Southwest art. It's that latter passion that led him to create his witty skull art.
“My take on things is always to infuse them with humor. I started the skull imagery by painting on some votive candles about eight years ago. And people saw them and liked them. They’re skull figures as caricatures, really.”
Which is harder than it sounds. Capturing likenesses of pop culture icons such as Elvis, James Brown and Johnny Cash using skulls as their faces takes inventive talent.
“The challenges of working with a skull is that you don’t have the ability to create expression with the eyes, you can’t do a nose, or ears,” he said. “That’s my favorite part, taking on the challenge to really get the person, so that when you look at it, you recognize them. I try to capture individual facial features through eyebrows, mouth, hair, and the shape of the head. I always incorporate humor in my images, but respectfully,” Johnson notes.
“When you nail it and it works, that's the gratification. You don’t really know if it will work until the end.”
Johnson moved from painting his Day of the Dead-style art on votive candles to larger scale paintings.
“I started with a piece of found wooden board. I love recycled material. I spray painted the background bright green, and on that I painted my first painting of Johnny Cash. And I never stopped,” he laughs.
Johnson finds most of the material he paints on right in his own neighborhood: discarded wood, tile, an old tin tray, shingles, even a baking dish. His primary “canvas” is wood.
He usually spray paints a base coat before beginning his acrylic painting; but he doesn’t do much prep on the surfaces he uses. A rough or gnarled surface can be incorporated in his work.
A board from his neighbor's old chicken coop was perfect, for example, and it already had an orange, distressed background. He used that for an image of Merle Haggard. And, since Johnson is country music fan, he kept that one.
But, Johnson doesn’t keep many of his paintings these days. Initially, he says “I just kept going until I couldn’t hang them all in the house. Then I began to contact people to see what I would do with them.”
One place he contacted was the trendy Mexican restaurant Ortega 120 in Redondo Beach. “I called at the right time. They were just taking some of their old art work down, and let me put 20 or so of my pieces up.”
The rest is history: Johnson hung images ranging from Colonel Saunders to Marilyn Monroe, Edgar Allen Poe, and one of his favorites, Freddy Mercury. And they sold.
So, he’s hung more. “I keep replacing them,” he relates. “Along with displaying them at Ortega 120, I post them on my Facebook art site, Folk Everything.” He also has had work exhibited at the Autry Museum.
While sales have been brisk, he added: “You don’t do it for the money, but because of the pleasure of sharing art.”
As much pleasure as he gets from his artwork, he urges us not to take ourselves too seriously.
"You have to laugh at yourself," Johnson said. "I’ve ruffled a few feathers along the way, but again, everything I do really is humor based. Tommy Bahama. Palos Verdes News. And these paintings.”