Oliver Johnson Escapes from Attica and Sing Sing to Hang in New York's Poshest Gallery
Art critics raved about the ex-con's mellow colors and strong emotional impact, but his oils and pastel drawings had attracted connoisseurs even earlier. Nelson Rockefeller had purchased a Johnson canvas from a group show in 1972. And two years ago publisher Malcolm Forbes added one to his extensive collection.
Johnson's turning point came in 1977 when some of his works were included in a Bedford-Stuyvesant art show in Brooklyn. It was there that Felicie Tray-man, a dealer and graphics publisher, and Roland Balay, the retired president of the Knoedler Gallery, spotted Johnson's talent and signed him on.
"I was astonished to learn he never had formal training," Balay remembers. Instead, Johnson had pored over art books in prison libraries. "I read a lot," he says, "but rather than read the words, I 'read' the paintings. I knew every master out there." When he was released from prison, Johnson continued to study. "Even now, I almost live at the Metropolitan, the Frick and the Whitney," he laughs.
He talks of his incarceration with equanimity: "Without prison I wouldn't have art, and without art I'd be nothing. I'm just glad it got the youth part of my life. It was like a university to me—if I had been out here I would have had to go to school anyway," he continues. "But the end result is what happens to my life right now."
Born in Jacksonville, Fla., the son of a carpenter, Johnson had a haphazard childhood, moving with his mother, who was a nurse, up and down the East Coast as far north as Maine. At 9, he landed in reform school for stealing a car. Even then he was fascinated by art, sketching Dick Tracy and painting Santa Claus and Thanksgiving turkeys for his teachers. As a child, he only really felt at home in Baltimore with his grandfather. "I had very little discipline," he says. "But my granddad made sure I was always dressed properly. He was a stern, sophisticated man who worked for the government. He bought me my first set of pastels."
In 1963 Johnson dropped out of high school in the Bronx (though he did pick up an equivalency diploma in prison). About that time, he assaulted a subway conductor and was put away for 33 months on Riker's Island. Soon after his parole, he was caught robbing $300 at gunpoint from a bus company. He served 28 months on that rap at Sing Sing and Auburn, N.Y. During this period he began concentrating on art in earnest. In fact, he even taught sketching to 20 prisoners.
On his release, Johnson was given a scholarship to the Art Students League, where Alexander Calder and Jackson Pollock once trained. But he quit after three or four months. "Those people loved me," he recalls. "They didn't believe I hadn't had schooling. But I stopped going because I felt I wasn't accomplishing anything. I was living in a room and I wasn't making money. I wanted this 'overnight' thing. I had set my goal on being something by the time I was 30." He needed all that time, because he was busted once more—for peddling heroin.
Surely a stabilizing influence nowadays is the young bank clerk from Brooklyn, Marianna Blunt, to whom his mother introduced him two years ago. After two dates (on which she taught him Buddhist prayers), Oliver proposed. The couple and their 10-month-old son now live in a converted loft in Manhattan. Twice a day Johnson leaves his easel and glass palette for prayers. "We have to remember our goals daily, not just go to church once a week," says Marianna, 25. Johnson was raised a Catholic but converted to Buddhism before marrying, and he views that as perhaps the most significant happening in his life.
"I want to go to Europe, to Paris, Amsterdam, and see all the great paintings," he notes. "But Marianna and I have promised that the first trip will be to Japan—for the faith." His parole board has agreed to his traveling abroad ("as long as I come back") and there is talk of Johnson's one-man show moving on to London. But most of all, the artist says, "I want to strengthen my life. I'm growing and developing—and running crazy."