Raleigh painter follows newfound passion

ccampbell@newsobserver.comJanuary 12, 2013 

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"Marine Fancy" by Clara K. Johnson

COURTESY OF CLARA K. JOHNSON

  • Details What: Clara K. Johnson paintings on exhibit Where: Litmus Gallery, 312 W. Cabarrus St., Raleigh When: Through Jan. 23. The gallery is open 3-7 p.m. Wednesday and by appointment. Info: 919-571-3605.

Clara K. Johnson just turned 40, but she says she only recently found her true calling in life: painting.

Back in 2010, Johnson had it made by many people’s standards: a steady job in corporate administration at Research Triangle Park, with good pay and benefits. But after she picked up a paintbrush, the 9-to-5 desk routine became harder to stomach, she said.

“The more I painted, the less I wanted to be working,” she said. “I wasn’t interested in anything that the company was doing – I just wanted to be in the studio.”

So Johnson quit her job and rented some studio space in downtown Raleigh. “My perspective changed,” she said. “I just discovered and took it seriously that I was born to be an artist. I was supposed to paint.”

Since then, Johnson has filled countless canvases with her colorful, abstract designs. Through Jan. 23, she’s the featured artist at Litmus Gallery in downtown Raleigh with an exhibition called “Restless Obedience.” The title, she said, refers to “restless energy and creative will.”

“It’s going to be a collection of large-scale paintings, abstract paintings and line drawings,” she said. “I’m giving respect to the creative world that drives my passion to paint. It’s my view of the interconnectedness of life that we see every day.”

While Johnson is still relatively new to the art world, creativity runs in her family. Her grandfather, Benjamin R. Harrison, created Johnson C. Smith University’s “Golden Bull” mascot in 1917. Harrison died when Johnson was still a child, but his paintings were all over her house while she was growing up, she said.

When Johnson decided to pick up a brush, she took the same route as her grandfather: no formal art training. Her style came about naturally, often loosely based on the shapes of trees and incorporating vivid colors and textures.

“I paint in layers, and I want to give it depth even though it’s only on a two-dimensional surface,” she said. “I want to give the impression of three-dimensional.”

Johnson recalled what one art fan said about her work during a showing: “He said, ‘You can’t look at it, you’ve got to look in it.’ ”

As she starts a blank canvas, she picks out her paint colors but decides little else in advance. “I rarely approach the canvas thinking of what it’s going to look like when I’m done with it,” she said. “It can take me several weeks to finish one painting. I could see something different from day to day.”

“Restless Obedience” will likely be Johnson’s last exhibit in Raleigh. She’s moving to Houston in hopes of finding a bigger arts community.

“I want to meet new people and get a different perspective.”

True to her theme of restlessness, Johnson’s move might not be permanent as she seeks a bigger studio and bigger paintings. “That may not be my last stop.”

Campbell: 919-829-4802

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