7 minute read

Artist Spotlight ~ CHRIS JOHNSON

LIFTING COMMUNITIES, ONE MURAL AT A TIME

By Natalie Downey

Some quiet roads lead to towns with stories begging to be told. Artist Chris Johnson has found a way to bring some of those stories to life in colors and brushstrokes on brick walls and silos and five-story buildings. As he makes his way through rural towns and cityscapes across the southeast, a revival of community pride can be heard echoing from his paint cans, reminding us that sometimes a little paint can make a big difference.

When Chris Johnson graduated from USC with his MFA in 2011, he wanted to follow his passion. In 2013 he became an art professor at Andrew College, a small school in Cuthbert, GA. The rural community of Cuthbert was in need of some revitalization, and approached Chris with an idea. Though it wasn’t the route he had expected to take with his artwork (he specialized in printmaking and wood carving), he found himself at the center of a project aimed at giving the town of Cuthbert a new sense of pride, and the method of delivery would be through artwork, or, more specifically, murals.

Roberta, Ga

Roberta, Ga

“It was my first time working with the community to help them develop a representation of what they consider to be their heritage,” said Chris. In 2017, Chris’s first mural in Cuthbert was complete, and from there, he recalls, “the mural thing snowballed.”

“Murals are a big way to make a big change in a community,” Chris soon realized. As more projects from more towns rolled in, he found himself playing a part in telling the history of these towns, as he got to know the intricacies that made them unique, the images they would want displayed on a mural representing the town, the stories they took pride in. “The point is to uplift and revitalize a community,” Chris said. He found that when a place hasn’t been touched in years, some artwork highlighting the pride of the city can go a long way.

In murals, Chris found his niche - making a positive change in places that were looking for a way to generate interest and foster a sense of pride in the community. “It’s cool to interact with communities like that,” he said, adding, “The power of art is that it can change the way they look at their town.”

Trinity, NC

Trinity, NC

Suddenly, towns were becoming brighter, more colorful, holding their heads up high, remembering their unique contributions to the world. Chris found that his murals were not just a way to follow his own passion for art, but a way to work with purpose, and inspire others to follow their own passions too.

It didn’t take long for Chris to earn a reputation for his murals. The city of Shellman contacted him to paint a series of six grain silos, a first for Chris, but a project he was happy to be a part of.

Fort Valley

Fort Valley

“By 2018 I really started hitting my stride and getting associated with murals,” Chris said. As he picked up more projects, the touch of his paintbrush continued to change communities. Not only do these towns find a greater sense of pride through murals honoring their stories, but murals also bring more interest to the area from visitors. The visual interpretation of the town’s history offers something new to be learned. A mural is a lasting record of a town, but often more accessible than a written history. One doesn’t need to know how to read or speak English to be moved by the scenes in a mural. People identify with the element of humanity that is found in murals, in seeing local lives displayed in carefully captured moments of nostalgia.

In 2019 Chris began a daunting project in our own community of Columbus - the five-story tall mural known as “Lady Columbus.” The mural depicts the iconic sculpture from Wynnton Road of Lenora Sarling, leader of the women’s suffrage movement in the 1900’s. Before Chris began the mural on one of the sides of Heritage Tower, he said it “Looked like a prison.” Gray and drab, the building was in need of a touch of color, and Chris gave it that and more, finishing the mural in only 10 days. “It’s more than a painting,” he said. The mural quickly became a familiar part of the landscape of Columbus, turning a hardly-noticed building into a place people go out of their way to pass.

Lady Columbus

Lady Columbus

Photo by John Pyle

In 2020 Chris received an award from The LocaL Choice Awards for Lady Columbus, as Columbus’ favorite art piece. And, if people wonder who Lady Columbus is, and why her story matters, and perhaps take the time to learn a little more about her, then the painting is giving the community even more than just something beautiful to look at.

A mural often tells a story in order to keep it from being forgotten. It draws us in and makes us ask questions, feel movement, or desire to know more. Chris’s artwork can be found in other places around the city. His series of three river life themed murals called “Rapid Transit” brightens up Midtown, and “Where the Wild Things Are,” depicting characters from the beloved children’s book, can be seen in the children’s wing of the Columbus Library. Stylistically, Chris says he loves patterns, rhythm, and color contrast. One of his many talents is being able to collaborate, a much-needed skill for a mural artist. “One thing I do well is collaborate with communities to figure out what style they want and get a sense of what they’re looking for,” he said.

Rapid Transit (in progress)

Rapid Transit (in progress)

Midtown Columbus

Where the Wild Things Are

Where the Wild Things Are

photo by Katie Burnett

The impact of Chris and his work has not gone without recognition. In 2019, Chris received the much-deserved Governor’s Award for Arts and Humanities for “Revitalization through Art” from Georgia Governor Brian Kemp. In addition, Flint Energy awarded Chris three grants in the span of just one day for mural revitalization projects, which he has begun and will continue working on this year. To receive just one grant is quite a feat; to receive three in one day was a “huge thing,” Chris said.

Earlier this summer, Chris was commissioned to paint a mural for Lowe’s Home Improvement on Veterans Parkway as a part of the chain’s 100th birthday celebration. Artists across the U.S. were selected to paint murals representing their local area, and Chris collaborated with team members at the Lowe’s store in Columbus to design a mural that would capture the essence of the location. “It was important to highlight the military culture of Columbus,” Chris said, “As well as the Chattahoochee River, outdoor recreation, and arts and culture, as these are all such a part of the identity of Columbus.” Chris painted the mural in his home art studio on a portable 8’ x 16’ canvas and delivered it to Lowe’s in early August. The mural is now on display in Lowe’s, located on Veterans Parkway.

Lowes 100 Mural

Lowes 100 Mural

Working with communities is where Chris shines, and he recently was one of ten local artists to participate in the Chattahoochee River Conservancy’s rain barrel auction. Artists each painted one rain barrel in their own style, and the barrels were then auctioned off, with proceeds benefiting the conservation work of the local nonprofit organization. “It was fun working out a design for the cylindrical forms and creating art for a good cause alongside other artists in Columbus,” Chris said. Snails had been a topic of discussion in his home that week, and the idea for his rain barrel design evolved from there. Chris’ kids helped with the underpainting on the barrel, and they all found it hard to part with it when it was auctioned off.

Rain Barrel for River Conservancy Auction

Rain Barrel for River Conservancy Auction

Undoubtedly, the work Chris is doing and the passion he has for helping communities come to life will have a lasting impact as he creates painted landmarks that echo the stories of towns and the people who live there long after he puts his brush away.

Chris Johnson

Chris Johnson