Photographer and multimedia artist Bruce Johnson was familiar with the history of the Civil Rights Movement, but when a fellow artist told him that the mugshots of protesters were available online, his relationship with history changed.
Johnson, who was born in Venezuela but calls Atlanta home, was moved by the images and questioned what each person was risking — and what they chanced to gain — by protesting. He felt compelled to paint the mugshots and used a torch, grinder, charcoal, screws and wool to render the foot soldiers. After two years, he had more than 20 four-by-seven-foot canvases in his garage bearing witness to the nation’s turbulent racial past. Visitors now have the opportunity to see the paintings in the exhibition Exercise in Restraint: Montgomery Civil Rights Portraits at the City of Atlanta’s Gallery 72 through March 29.
For Johnson, the past is very much present when he sees Black Lives Matter protesters being arrested on the news. As he tells ArtsATL, that presence of the past is what propels him to create.
ArtsATL: When did you start painting?
Bruce Johnson: My mom was an art teacher, and my dad worked in software at IBM, so I started doing art from a young age. Originally when I was going to college, I wanted to do art, so I did a summer program at Atlanta College of Art, but I wasn’t impressed with how seriously the other artists took it. I remember one of the guys used to sleep in a coffin. When it came time to choose a career, I went into accounting and computers, and that paid the bills until about eight years ago when I started getting serious about art again. It just took over, because whenever I get into anything, I take it very seriously, and I’ve always been a figure and portrait painter. When it came time for me to take the art seriously, I had to think about what mattered, so I landed on what for me was the most meaningful statement I could make. For me, it’s giving voice to the voiceless.
ArtsATL: What inspired you to start painting portraits of Civil Rights protesters?
Johnson: I’m one of those people who rants about the politics I see, but these paintings raise more quiet questions. Could a woman have led the Civil Rights Movement? The women are the ones who convinced the men, like Abernathy, to get out of the church and into the streets. What did each of these people give up? Is it braver for someone who has everything to give it up to do the right thing, or is it braver for someone who has nothing to risk everything?
ArtsATL: What made you call the collection Exercise in Restraint?
Johnson: I was echoing Martin Luther King, Jr., how people were marching, and it’s a play on words because they were getting arrested. It was also an experiment in keeping the materials simple. A bunch of the pieces incorporate wool rugs, and I shave the rug and pull pieces out of it to create an image. The materials I use are very simple and atypical. I try to keep the material consistent with what I think the message is, which is that none of these people thought they were destined for anything except for standing up for what is right.
ArtsATL: You cite empathy as your inspiration for creating art.
Johnson: I’m a white guy doing civil rights art. I think culturally we tend to — in all aspects — get into our little enclaves. We stick with people who think like us and go to the same church. That isolation is tragic. At the same time, I see what happened at the 2016 Whitney Biennial with Dana Schutz’s painting [Open Casket] of Emmett Till. What are the implications of white people doing black art? How popular do you have to be, to be accused of cultural appropriation? There are all sorts of questions that are inherent in this type of exhibit. What occurred to me is that I can choose to ask these questions, but I don’t have to ask these questions. When I do this art, it’s deeply personal to me, but it means something different to someone who sees their grandparents in them. We don’t have to paint only what is just like us; we should paint what is important, and I couldn’t think of anything more important.
ArtsATL: You’ve said that you believe America has lost its sense of what is important and the will to act upon it. Tell me more about that sentiment.
Johnson: I watch a lot of news. Everyone is screaming at each other and everybody’s angry. We argue so much that we don’t do anything aspirational. We don’t move forward. People are being arrested [for marching], and so technically they’re criminals, but what they really are is the common man moving us forward. They are risking things individually and collectively.
ArtsATL: Have you interviewed anyone who participated in the bus boycotts? What’s next with these paintings?
Johnson: I’ve met some Freedom Riders and a couple of people who marched with Martin Luther King, Jr. I have been to Montgomery several times, and I toured the Montgomery jail. There was a gentleman at the opening reception for this exhibition who marched with Martin Luther King, Jr. . . . I don’t know what’s next — I think I have to make more, but they also have to find a home. People underestimate how much money it takes to keep and maintain a collection. It’s a lot easier to work with a smaller canvas, but if I continue to paint Freedom Riders, I’d have to continue to do them big because it makes an impactful statement. I’m torn about how I want to move this forward, but I have to do something. I’m struck by the way the pieces move people, and there are plenty of reasons to march now. Atlanta is an important city in the African American community, and the work is in a good place right now.
Exercise in Restraint runs at Gallery 72 through March 29.