Leading up to the 50th celebration this August, we will be featuring various alumni and professors of the Cortona alumni family. This week we would like to introduce you to alumnus and former director, Rick Johnson!
Name: Rick Johnson
University/Major/degree: Louisiana State University: BA, Psychology. University of Georgia: MEd, SEd, MFA.
Semester in Cortona (season, year): Summer: 1974,1978, 1984, 1985, 1988, 1989, 1995, 1996, 2001. Director: 2006-2010
Course(s) taken or taught in Cortona: Printmaking, Photography, Art History; Courses taught: Book Arts
Favorite flavor of gelato: Pistachio
Current profession: Retired Professor
Currently residing in: Athens, Georgia
Tell us a bit about what you’ve been up to since Cortona.
I retired after my 5 years as Cortona’s director from 2006 - 2010. And I kept a studio in Printmaking and Book Arts for a few years and worked over there... but then I decided I wanted to start working in metals because while I was in Cortona, every semester, I did something sculptural. So I went back over, (I got my MFA in Graphic Design and Printmaking in 1976), to UGA’s Graduate School and I said I wanted to be a regular graduate student again. So Rob Jackson and Mary Pearse and Ted Saupe (Ceramics) said, “Yeah, come on over... we need your jokes!”. They, in other words, accepted me as a grad students. I reapplied and just took my 1976 record and continued it with a gap of, what, 36 years or whatever. So I became a graduate student and even though they told me I could go get my MFA again, I have no desire to get another piece of paper... I couldn’t even find the other four. So for five years, I took all the jewelry classes and some directed studies... sorta just the older, white-haired guy in the undergraduate classes. And the photograph I sent you is what I did in Italy in 2015.
In that Fall, I went back to Cortona as a visiting artist, and worked with Jim Meyers, a master jeweler who had taught for us twice during my directorship. And I’m going back again next Fall.
So much of my work has a connection with Italian art or Italian culture. I added up all the times I was in Cortona and it comes to six and a half years! I was over there 10 different summers; at least twice in every decade of the Program. One as a student in ‘74, the rest teaching Book Arts and Papermaking. I co-founded the book arts program here in Athens in 1981 and brought it to Italy in 1984. I actually had 7 years here at the university before I started teaching in the Art Department (now the Lamar Dodd School of Art)... so my five years as director ended my forty professional years at UGA in one capacity or another.
And now I am working in ceramics which I have done sporadically all of my art life. My work, be it photography, metal or ceramic, is almost always figurative... always has been. I’m now on the Board for the Art School. I’m the only former faculty member, and I joined because Jack Kehoe could no longer make the meetings and the new director wanted an emeritus faculty member to serve. I sometimes feel like the historian... alas.
Tell us a little more about your career path. What made you choose your current profession?
I won’t go back forever, but my undergraduate degree is from LSU in psychology. I have graduate degrees in Administration and Higher Education, and thus was hired as an administrator in Student Affairs at UGA. But my passion was art; primarily drawing, although I had never had a course... not in grade school or college. Simply put, I just drew all of my spare time. Gathering courage, I approached our Art School in 1972 and asked if I could take a class or two... skipping forward I received my MFA in 1976 as I mentioned before... long, arduous tale. I did work as an art director for three years but could not stand having “clients” and thus when asked to come back and teach in Graphic Design, I jumped at the opportunity.
A slight regression, which was actually my “eureka” moment. I was in Cortona in 1978 as the Assistant in Printmaking with Charles Morgan, and we went to the Magnani Paper Mill. They had let me pull handmade sheets. The paper mill began production in the 13th century. And it had been working uninterrupted for all these years. That’s a couple hundred years before Columbus. So, anyway, I made paper and I was getting on the bus to go back to Cortona, and Charley said, “How was your day?”, and I said, “It was great. This is what I’m going to do for the rest of my life”. And he believed me. So when I got home, I quit my job and went out to California. I lived in Berkeley; everyone wanted to do it. And I rode my bicycle to a paper mill for 6 months and did an apprenticeship in papermaking. Then I got a call from Ken Williams and Charley Morgan, and they asked, “Do you want to come back to the Art School? The person teaching Illustration has not shown up.” This was the fall of ‘79, and by then, I was finished with my internship. I was broke and I had a house here that I had built - and so I came back. And I said if I can teach Illustration, might I start a program in book arts and papermaking - Charley Morgan wanted to do that anyway - so we started the Green Street Press that first semester. And then the second year, they hired me again, part-time, and then in ‘81, we started teaching classes in book arts and papermaking. ‘81 is when I was put on a tenure track, so that was how I got involved in teaching: through book work and graphic design.
Regressing again, and an interesting story that Jack Kehoe often told, occurred in 1973. I I was in Jack’s 3D Design foundation class, and after his class, Jack said to me, “You need to go to Italy”. He didn’t say, “I want you to go to Italy”, he said I needed to go. I didn’t have any money - nothing. So I got a call from Lamar Dodd (who was of course head of the Art Department) and he called me into his office and said, “Buddy, Jack Kehoe tells me you need to go Italy”? then asked, “Why can’t you go”?... and I said, “I don’t have any money”, and he said, “How much money do you have?”. I said, “I have $250 to my name”. He said, “How much does it cost to go?”, and I said, “$750”, and he reached in his desk and wrote a check for $500 and gave it to me. So Jack called that the first scholarship. As a side note, 1974 was the summer of Watergate and Nixon’s resignation and the end of the Vietnam war... so you can imagine all of the goings-on with youth in Europe of which we were a part. We listened to Tricky Dick resign on a little BBC radio in our convent home.
Let’s talk about Cortona. What is one of your favorite memories from your time there?
That’s pretty easy because people ask me that a lot... most often, “What was your favorite trip?”. This is what I’ve told students... The first year is the romantic year. Every day, every hour brings a totally new experience. It truly is living in a new, paradoxically ancient, dimension. In 1974 Cortona, we lived in a convent. The nuns fed us three meals a day. Zucchini! ...whatever they grew and zucchini is what they grew! We didn’t have Tonino’s. We had a zucchini rebellion. We were turning green. (laughs). I still cannot eat zucchini.
The first year was just totally magic. It’s not that everything was perfect. To be living in a convent that is 200 years than Europe’s colonization of the Americas has to have a major effect on you. It’s the same thing now with the Kehoe Center. It was a convent in the 14th century, if my recollection is correct. It was a villa and then a convent. (By the last year as Director, life for me was somewhat a wonderful “Groundhog Day”! In those later years, in the Uffizi or the Vatican Mueum, I would now find myself staying in one room for hours... and not the Botticelli Room or the Sistine Chapel.)
My favorite first memory is living in that convent with two guys. At 28, I felt a little old to have two roommates. Since then, one has passed away, but the other is still a really good friend of mine. And learning to live communally again, and actually enjoying it, is an amazing experience. And eating, sitting next to the faculty, and learning what a residential college was like to begin with. All you have to do is compare it to UGA right now. For the most part, folks walk into a classroom, walk out two hours later, go back to their apartment, you know, they have the smart phone, they have an automobile, they have a television that’s on all the time. You walk down the street on Clayton Street or Broad Street, and you don’t recognize a soul, passing you. Compare that to Cortona. You don’t need a cell phone. You don’t have a car - you can’t have a car - the streets are too narrow. I don’t know that I ever have watched a television except a soccer game. That intimacy with an environment is so much more magnified the first time you’re there. Everything came unexpected.
I repeat, it was and is magic. That first year I couldn’t sleep. I felt like every moment I was sleeping was wasted time. I was a graduate student in Printmaking with Charles Morgan and he had seven graduate assistants. That’s how it was back then. Everybody in the Art School (and School of Environmental Design) who could afford it, went. So 56 of us went in 1974 and lived in that postcard. You hear that often. That’s the cliché. Everyone says, “Oh the pictures I saw of Cortona, I thought they were set-ups.” But all you have to do is hold your camera out the window, and it’s there. There is the unique intimacy in getting to know people who are so different in life’s experiences. Over there, the faculty and the students were Family.
There are photos from 1974, of my two roommates and me in bandages and red dye marching down the Via Santa Margherita. One of my roommates was a flute player, which is what got us started. And my other roommate carried an American flag, and I got a drum from the Cortona band. And the “Spirit of ‘76” came to life! On July 4th, we marched the group down the hill - the same hill students trudge today. It was like the most patriotic moment I’ve ever had in my life because we weren’t in America. And it was 1974, and the war had not been popular, so it was a funny time in history to be there. It was wonderful. That’s my fondest memory, but every semester is unique with its own special memories.
If you could have dinner with any three people, from history or alive today, who would you pick?
That’s the main question asked on applications. Oddly enough, I’ve never answered it myself. Before I answer, let me preface it by saying, I know that the creative professions look for diversity in answers. If I said Abraham Lincoln, Barack Obama, and, of course, Jesus, they would say, that’s not very creative. And if you don’t cross gender, people look at you awry. So, for the first time, let me give it a try. Because this is about Cortona, I’ll do my one Italian. It would be Saint Francis. I’ve done books on him and I’ve followed him, and read everything I could. He is still an enigma... as a man... as a monk... as a saint?
Egon Schiele, the Austrian artist. I constantly look at his paintings and drawings. If you take anything that he’s drawn - he has a line like no one else I’ve ever seen. His partial delineation imagery is beyond words. He went into brothels and drew. If you look at his line and you look at his gesture, they are emotion in two dimensions...and his lifetime of physical and mental struggle is fascinating.
The third one...i’m trying to choose a musician. It might be Patti Smith. An acquaintance of mine did a book of her writings, which was covered in rat skin which if you know her... is appropriate
All three of those people... hmmm... I was just trying to think why in the world would I take those three - they were outcasts. So counter to their cultures? And I think a lot of times in the art world, our heros are conceptually trying to have a voice that is meaningful but personal and unique. But there they are.
Before we go, what are you currently working on? Any projects or announcements you would like to share?
I’m currently working on a parody on hunting. “Trophies, 108 Little Things I’ve Killed”. It’s on each of three separate taxidermy plaques. I have adhered 108 little ceramic heads... each one being its own trophy. I have always stared in disbelief at dead animals placed on plaques and hung in a public space... and then called “trophies”. Am I missing something here or does that not seem a bit egocentric if not bizarre? But that aside, I have worked in ceramics and now there are 324 fired and accepted... many more rejected. I could form about five on a good day. Some are real animals but most are just my imagination. There are some political figures. The sterling silver title-plaques are hand engraved. I’ll provide a photo that should say enough. Much of my work has conceptually dealt with parody and this piece is perhaps more blatant, less subtle than my other works.
I’ll be back working in metal. I still have a lot of things in wax that I still need to cast. You saw the snail and the rabbit that I give to my scholarship students. I’m just about to present one to this last summer’s student. Every day, I have to make something. I truly feel funny if I go to bed at night and haven’t made something. Is it permanent? I don’t really think along those lines so much. Where will this be in a thousand years? Nowhere, probably. These aren’t my surrogate children. I don’t think of them that way. It seems that a lot of artists pour everything into their art that most people pour into human relationships. I could be wrong.
That’s what I’m working on right now. I should say, though, that most of my former work has dealt with Catholic or Christian iconography. It’s just fascinating to me to look at 1,500 years of art on the same subject. Every possible way that you could interpret this subject is out there. Cortona has her abundance of inspiring artists from Fra Angelico to Gino Servini. There are an endless plethora of treasures in Italy and I would think it unusual if I did not use this as inspiration. I hope to give homage to the saints and the angels, not in a cliched or even religious way, but just because it’s so interesting. Obviously, I do figurative work and it grows from this environment.
Will there be a show?
No, I don’t sell anything. It’s the great joy that I have to give these things away. Just like I didn’t ever want to have a client, I don’t want to feel forced or intimidated by selling my things. I don’t have to anymore. It’s a step into commercialism that I don’t need to take at this point. I had an exhibition of all the objects I rendered in Italy in 2015 - a show with my good friend and wonderful painter, Scott Belville. That was enjoyable, but it was alongside the “Mostra” from that year in Cortona... so it seemed appropriate. But I am certainly not object to letting people see it.