Finding his palette |

Finding his palette

Stewart Oksenhorn
Aspen Times Staff Writer

Among the many artists whose works or images are displayed in James Johansen’s Main Street apartment, Vincent van Gogh is most prominent among them. On a high shelf is a book of Van Gogh’s art, along with a copy of the infamous painting Van Gogh made of his own eternally troubled face the same year he committed suicide.

Johansen has this much in common with Van Gogh: The 36-year-old was not at peace with himself. Self-described as someone who constantly questions the world around him, Johansen has long struggled with anxiety and depression.

Where he departs sharply from Van Gogh, however, is in the relationship between his mental state and his art. Johansen was never able to find inspiration in his turmoil.

“I wasn’t one of those interesting people that could paint from pain, or coming from a place of wondering. So many people can do it – make art out of torment. But I just couldn’t do it,” he said.

That inability only deepened Johansen’s anxiety and unhappiness. “I started to worry about it. I spoke with a lot of artists who created best when they were going through transitions or were in pain or agony. I thought, maybe I’m not in touch with that. I was trying, but it was difficult for me. I had to find myself.”

Not that Johansen’s emotional lows kept him from becoming an artist and, even, a noted one. Johansen has earned a reputation through such work as the murals at the restaurant Campo de Fiori and doing interior decorative painting in numerous homes. But Johansen refers to the murals as “painting from the head,” not the kind of artistic work he has longed to create.

Three years ago came an emotional turning point. Johansen felt the cloud lifting. And with the disappearance of the gloom came artistic openings.

“I went through a lot in this valley,” said Johansen. “And as I healed myself, I started to paint. I always had a lot of questions about myself and my environment. I was always a person who wanted to know why: Why did that person kill someone? Why did I do that?

“When I became comfortable with things, the painting started flowing. I had to be more at peace. And now it’s sort of endless.”

Inspiration from abroad

Travel was always one of the few things during the unhappy times that offered Johansen some escape. In 1998, he traveled to Thailand. He looked for inspiration there, sketching and photographing landscapes and people and street scenes in Bangkok and the surrounding villages. But still mired in his anguish, Johansen couldn’t make satisfactory art of those images.

After the emotional turnaround, Johansen returned to the Bangkok images. The paintings that emerged impressed Johansen as the kind of work he wanted to make – coming from the heart rather than the head. Moreover, the process of making them seemed a conduit for Johansen to work through his inner issues.

Central among the Thai images was the face of a young boy. “This little boy in Thailand walked up to me – I was with my friend Carrie Lee, a broadcast news editor for the Wall Street Journal – and I almost didn’t take a picture of him,” said Johansen. “Carrie pushed me to take a photograph. When I got home and looked at the photo, I saw something in his eyes, something reflected back at me. I started sketching him and painting him.”

The first painting Johansen completed was “The Puppet Master,” in which the boy is practically hidden in a shadowy corner of the canvas, looking at an elephant puppet suspended from strings. The work is dark in color and equally dark in emotional tone.

A second painting, “Reflection,” exposes the boy further, as he stares at his reflection in a lily pond. He is at the center of the composition, and while most of the painting is dark-hued, the boy’s face is well-lit.

A third painting, currently hanging on Johansen’s wall, is “Wings.” In it, the boy has grown butterfly wings, which are spread in anticipation of flight.

Taken together, the three paintings provide a relatively clear road map of Johansen’s recent emotional rise. At least, that’s how Johansen sees it: “Puppet Master” represents Johansen in the darkness, peering out at a big, confusing world. “Reflection” is the artist looking at himself, beginning to find some light in what he sees. And “Wings” is the genuine happiness Johansen has found in the past few years.

“As I was feeling better, I started thinking the little boy represented me,” he said. “I thought he was starting to fly – that’s `Wings.’ It was so interesting. It was like healing me unconsciously.”

The paintings – done in a mixture of oil, acrylic, powder and glazes layered on top of one another on an unstretched canvas – gave Johansen a shot of confidence. Working from a peaceful state of mind, he had finally discovered a way to depart from the look and approach of his murals.

“It took me a long time to find my palette,” he said. “I wanted my paintings to be different than my murals, and that took awhile.”

A gallery opening

Johansen had grown up in the Long Island, N.Y., town of East Northport. The pretty fishing village had instilled in him an early love of art. As far back as kindergarten, Johansen had a serious interest in painting. As a youth, he would skip school to hop on a train to Manhattan, where he would visit the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In later years, he took workshops at the Fashion Institute of Technology and Pratt Institute.

This past November, newly upbeat, Johansen headed back to New York. His goal was to find a gallery that would show his paintings. “I felt I was ready. I never felt I was ready before,” he said.

In New York, Johansen picked up a gallery guide and studied it to find a place where his work would seem likely to fit. The reception he got, he says, couldn’t have been more positive. Johansen was shocked by the show of support he got from nearly every gallery owner he contacted.

The Cast Iron Gallery, on Mercer Street in Soho, seemed particularly promising. “They had a lot of Asian-influenced paintings. It’s an Asian-owned gallery,” said Johansen.

He set up a meeting with Himiko Joseph, director of the Cast Iron, and the two hit it off. Johansen attended an opening and reception at the gallery. Things looked good … until Johansen returned to Aspen and didn’t hear from Joseph for three months.

When Johansen finally called the gallery, Joseph informed him that she needed an artist for a June exhibit to go alongside a Japanese sculptor and a French painter.

There was a hitch, however. Though Joseph liked Johansen’s paintings, she wanted something smaller and more springlike than the introspective paintings of the young Thai boy. She suggested that Johansen take the elements that surrounded the boy – mostly flowers – and make paintings of those.

“I had to compromise a little bit,” said Johansen. “She said the paintings of the boy were very big and very powerful, and she needed smaller pieces. I think she felt there would be too much going on compared to the other painter’s work. She wanted to represent nature.”

Not about to pass on a chance to show in New York, Johansen began painting floral images. And he found that his new creative sense transferred easily to the subject matter.

“When I painted, the background without the boy came out very natural. I sent her some photos, and she said, yes, that’s what she was looking for,” said Johansen, who will make his New York debut at a June 12 opening at the Cast Iron Gallery, which will exhibit pieces from Johansen’s “Finding Roots” series.

And the good times keep rolling for Johansen. He is painting murals at the new Aspen restaurant Cabo’s, set to open in June. And while he aims to make such work a sideline to his more artistic painting, he sees his career headed in the right direction.

“I got into a gallery in New York on my first try – and it wasn’t even hard,” he said. “Everything leading up to it was hard. I got a wicked cold on the plane to New York. But all the galleries I talked to were so supportive. I feel a lot of doors opening.”

Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is

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