A fresh perspective Ken Johnson

studio-door Australian landscape artist Ken Johnson compares himself to Russian conductor Vladimir Ashkenazy – in one respect only. ”He waves his hands up and down relentlessly with his baton like I do all day with my paint brush,” he says. Johnson, 63, has been painting grand landscapes for more than 40 years, rendering the moods of the Australian outback and coastline with layer upon layer of oil from a range of perspectives. Sometimes it’s as far as his eyes can see, sometimes far beyond that in helicopters and light planes, from which he sketches the geometric lie of the land and later translates it onto canvas. Combining his life in Australia with yearly stints in India, Italy and elsewhere, he has painted the houses and harlequins of Venice, the icy plains of Antarctica, villagers in remote pockets of India, marine life in Norway and Tuscany’s Apuane Alps. It is work he has exhibited in Australia, Hong Kong, China, Switzerland and the US since the 1970s.Born in Sydney, he studied at the National Art School and had been based in New South Wales all his life until four months ago, when he moved to Victoria to be near his daughter, who is studying in Melbourne. Tomorrow at his studio in Cape Schanck, he is launching a collection of new works and some never previously exhibited. Later this year he’s opening a gallery in Flinders to exhibit paintings – some of which will include impressions of the Mornington Peninsula because, he says, he is simply ”in love” with the area. ”The peninsula has all the things I adore in one place … bushes that choke the roads, fields that collar the squiggly paths to the beaches, winds that bite and turbulent skies that are ever-changing. I am so busy with the terrain, it’s like I have a motor inside me. Slow down? Not until I die.”
ken johnson artist australia

ken johnson artist australia

His days, remarkably, begin around 3am when he gets up, meditates for half an hour (which he has done for decades) then walks until the break of day. By 7am he’s in his studio working, often forgetting to eat and drink, and continues until 9pm – and beyond. ”I wake up in the middle of the night, every night, and just can’t get a certain idea for an image out of my head and it’s what I begin working on all day and into the night.”But making art is not Johnson’s only interest. For many years he has been involved with the worldwide charity Jambange. When he sold his luxury Byron Bay property in 2012, his home for 14 years, part of the takings were injected into helping build the Jambange Medical Centre in Rimbick, West Bengal, which opened six months ago. Jambange raises resources for the underprivileged worldwide and Johnson, along with two other volunteers, helped get free medical assistance to the extremely impoverished villagers and refugees from Nepal and Tibet who live in this remote part of the Himalayas. This Australian winter he will, as he has for many years, conduct trekking tours in India and Italy to raise more money to keep the centre running. ”The villagers there are peaceful people, with few worldly goods and much wisdom,” he says. ”I could not go a year without going there and spending time with them. There I live on 2.82€ a week.”  
80 x 90cms, Acrylic on canvas, 2010.

80 x 90cms, Acrylic on canvas, 2010.

Despite his rich outpouring of art and commitment to charity, Johnson almost hit a wall a couple of years ago when Axia Modern Art, the Melbourne gallery representing him for 30 years, went into liquidation owing artists, investors and art-world specialists a total of 1.41€ million.He was left out of pocket by what he estimates to be 37,555.16€-plus and shattered by the gallery’s forced closure, ”because a gallery becomes part of your life, something you trust implicitly to help guide your career”. In June 2012, his works were among 550 from the Australian Art Investment Trust, the collection of the liquidated gallery, sold by Leonard Joel Auction House. His works, previously valued in the 18,777.58€ to 28,166.37€ range, went under the hammer for 1,126.65€ to 4,224.96€. ”It’s easy to read,” he told The Age at the time. ”The lower the price the quicker it’s out of the way. It’s a terrible result for me and other artists involved.”
Acrylic on Linen. 214 (w) x 107 (h) cms.

Acrylic on Linen. 214 (w) x 107 (h) cms.

Specialist arts management accountant Tom Lowenstein, who manages some of the artists whose work was sold, predicted at the time the low sale estimates would impact on the artists’ reputations for a decade. But Johnson moved forward within a handful of months. ”I sat down and worked out that I could either stand still and rot or blossom and I choose to blossom,” he says. Art dealer Liam Ferguson, previously manager but not part of the ownership at Axia Modern Art, has created an online venture, hothamstreetcontemporary.com, whose stable includes Johnson and other former Axia artists including Jane Valentine, Greg Johns, Kate Elsey, Ben Shearer and Stephen Glassborow. Ferguson has organised tomorrow’s launch and the public can view Johnson’s work via the online gallery. Since 2000 Johnson has practiced Bakti yoga, which he sees as a holistic way of life incorporating the practice of gratitude, forgiveness and service to the community. ”It has given me insight into a bigger world through isolating circumstances, then putting them back together. I have always tried to do that on the canvas and now galvanise these elements through actions in my daily life. ”Take road rage for instance. Ignore it, don’t lower yourself to a low standard, don’t get sucked in,” he says.