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Micah Johnson art possesses a maturity beyond his years with a brush in hand. His contemporary art story begins with paint and sip.
You know, those hour-long “instructional” classes used by millions of early-stage daters and girlfriend get-togethers as an excuse to drink wine while butchering canvasses.
That’s where the career of one of contemporary painting’s most exciting new artists began.
For Micah Johnson, paint and sip isn’t even the most unusual aspect of his equal parts remarkable and ridiculous path into the arts. Three years playing in Major League Baseball holds that distinction.
Johnson was traded from the Chicago White Sox to the Los Angeles Dodgers after the 2015 season. Dodgers’ manager Dave Roberts called Johnson into his office to introduce himself and get to know the team’s new second baseman. Roberts asked Johnson what he liked to do in his free time.
Too embarrassed by the truth–playing piano–he responded with, “painting,” because he’d taken a paint and sip class with his girlfriend prior to spring training earlier that year.
Roberts was intrigued. You can imagine how infrequently he hears that answer.
Roberts asked Johnson to paint him a picture of Dodgers’ legend Maury Wills.
“That was the first painting I did besides the paint and sip class,” Johnson told Forbes.com.
While his teammates and Wills all professed to liking the painting, Johnson disagreed.
“It was terrible–so bad,” Johnson says, chuckling. “The guys were really nice. I can’t imagine why they would keep coming up to me and saying they enjoyed it.”
That encouragement would give the now 30-year-old Johnson the confidence he needed to believe in his talent and begin putting in the work on his art practice.
“What really drove me was–just like with baseball–that internal demon I have where I want to be the best at something and do everything I can to do that,” Johnson said.
Improving became an obsession he would soon come to enjoy. And excel at.
Johnson debuts new work in his second solo exhibition at Art Angels Los Angeles, “BLACK SHEEP,” opening February 11 and running through the end of the month. In this series of paintings, Johnson uses charcoal extensively and is particularly focused on capturing the gaze of his subjects. Each portrait is anchored by a perfectly rendered eye, set like a jewel amid the swirl of their complex humanity.
One glance at the paintings reveals Johnson’s work is no publicity stunt. His talent is obvious. His portraits possess empathy, a soul, a gentle sensitivity paired with the decisive, confident mark-making of an artist with decades under his belt.
Johnson works feverishly to make up for lost time.
“I (paint) every day, all day,” he said, adding that he hasn’t swung a baseball bat since the final game of his professional career which came to an end in the minor leagues in 2018.
For technical pointers, Johnson had relied on online resources and YouTube instructional videos.
“Then I realized that was more detrimental to my growth than me just trying something and failing,” he said.
Johnson continues developing his talent on his own, with only the occasional support of a color wheel.
“I trust my eyes,” Johnson said. “I admire everybody that went to art school, at the same time, I’m just going to paint what I really want to do–I can’t fake it–I’m painting exactly what I know is very authentic.”
What’s authentic to Micah Johnson has been portraits of African-American children. These subjects, which are often inspired by his young nephews, began appearing since he overheard his 4-year-old nephew ask his mother, “Mom, can astronauts be black?”
A central figure in the “BLACK SHEEP” show will be a female astronaut answering this unsettling question. Johnson wants her to serve as an emblem of hope and progress for female youth and their limitless dreams.
Johnson winding up with Art Angels is another unlikely story. Dodgers’ star Matt Kemp bought one of Johnson’s paintings and had it hanging in his house when he invited Art Angels’ owners Jacquelin Napal and Kat Emery over to help him find new work.
Instantly impressed, the two reached out to Johnson who admitted he wasn’t ready then for representation. Three years of persistent practice led Johnson to determine this spring that he was ready. He emailed Napal and Emery saying so and the two excitedly agreed to represent him.
Johnson created the paintings on view in “BLACK SHEEP” over the course of 2020, during what he describes as a “dark time” of physical and emotional exhaustion. Seeing his portraits take shape in the studio gave him hope that this “dark time” wasn’t going to last.
He hopes viewers of his artwork will feel the same reassurance.