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Shining Like the Sun

A photographic memory infuses the brilliant art of Perry Johnson

Eugene artist Perry Johnson has a gift. His work is inquisitive and multidimensional, at once rooted in a folk art tradition while branching out towards something more visceral and visionary. 

Employing color, shape and text, Johnson’s pieces are composed, developed and hauntingly autobiographical. 

When I first meet Johnson, he’s in the art studio at the Oregon Supported Living Program’s Arts and Culture Program, an old brick building on Lincoln Street by the train tracks where Johnson accesses free art classes every day the studio’s open. 

He’s working on a drawing of a photo from a magazine, of a snake wrapped around a man’s neck.

“Python,” Johnson tells me, pointing to the animal. 

A few minutes later, we’re sitting in the center’s cheery conference room. 

Mija Andrade, the program’s director, says artists like Johnson, who come to the center for classes, including drawing, painting, photography and dance, are encouraged to explore new ideas in arts-making, with the supportive encouragement of staff and volunteers.

The OSLP Arts & Culture Program breaks down barriers to participation in the arts for people of all abilities and builds bridges to a more diverse and inclusive community, Andrade explains. They offer classes, workshops, exhibitions, mentorships and field trips for participants to other galleries and community organizations.

I ask Johnson what his favorite subjects are to make art about. “Paint on wood. Lots of people, and the whole body,” he says. “Paint houses, buildings, paint the city, animals.” 

Perry Johnson at OSLP

 

“He mostly likes to do portraits,” Andrade adds. “Do you think you might draw an animal today, Perry?”

“Snake,” Johnson says softly, as if to remind her of his current project. 

Johnson, 66, was born and raised in Eugene, one of 11 children. He was also one of triplets — Terry and Jerry are his brothers — and there were complications at birth, causing some developmental disabilities. 

When asked about home and school, Johnson ticks off, “Pearl Buck, Wilson, Sheldon, LCC,” adding, “liked Sheldon — graduate ’68.”  

Founded in 1953, the Pearl Buck Center still supports people with disabilities and their families, helping them achieve their goals. Wilson Middle School, built in 1924 at 14th and Jefferson, later became Lincoln Elementary and was eventually closed and sold by the school district, becoming the Lincoln Condominiums of today. 

Most of us are used to these kinds of transitions, as places fade, emerging as new structures or landmarks, or rebuilt unrecognizably. Few of us, however, can hang onto the delicate, ephemeral shifts in shape, color and light, all the fragile nuances that define a continuingly changing community. But Johnson can. 

Johnson’s artistic work follows the evolution of Eugene architecture, often depicting structures, like his childhood home, as they appeared decades ago, compared to now. His photographic memory traces details, like the home’s paint color, the type of vegetation — small things most of us wouldn’t notice or remember — but within these side-by-side comparisons is something more, as if the past is thrust into the present, even the future, through Johnson’s prescient eye. 

Growing up, Johnson’s mother, a common subject in his art, worked as a housekeeper for a Eugene family. Johnson doesn’t speak much, or make much art, about his dad. 

Johnson tells me proudly of his brothers: Terry, who also lives in Eugene, and Jerry. 

“Terry not graduate,” Johnson adds. “Stayed at Pearl Buck.” 

Johnson tells the story: In 1949, his mother, in labor with triplets was turned away — an African-American family — from the hospital and was forced to give birth at home. There were complications. Of the three boys, only Jerry is typically developing, but this reality doesn’t seem to slow Johnson down in the least.

From 1970 to 2010, Johnson held the same job, detailing cars and working as a janitor at Wentworth Buick, where he never missed a single day of work. The owners Dalene and Ken C. Schram — Johnson’s careful I get the spelling of their names right — became like a second family to him. 

When his mother passed away, Johnson, with the support of OSLP, became the fulltime caregiver to his brother Terry. And his art seems to be instrumental in that process, as Johnson was charged with looking after himself, his brother and the majority of their day-to-day needs. 

 Johnson shows me examples of the hundreds of the calendars and menus he’s created, hand-drawn planners with healthy food options listed, artistically embellished and including notable additions like “flu shot” on a given Tuesday, or Halloween. 

His art is essential in organizing his memories and his plans, Andrade suggests, as a way of capturing experiences and preparing for the future. 

Johnson likes to draw or paint events that haven’t happened yet, such as Perry, Terry and Jerry Johnson on their 70th birthday in 2019. 

 “For him, dates are really important,” Andrade says. “He has such an amazing memory. He can tell you the day people were born just by giving him the day and year.”

Andrade says Johnson likes to get to know people by getting to know their past. 

Then Johnson starts to ask me questions.

“Rachael Carnes: Mother born what year? Father born what year?” 

I answer, then offer my birthday: Nov. 6, 1971. 

Johnson thinks for a second, then looks at the pile of his drawings on the table. “It was Saturday,” he says. 

I looked it up. He was right.

View artist Perry Johnson’s work 10 am to 5 pm, Monday through Friday, at the OSLP Arts & Culture Program’s Lincoln Gallery, 309 W. 4th Avenue. Or look for his work at other venues this fall including Full City Coffee, 295 E. 13th Avenue, and the Stellaria Community Building, 150 Shelton McMurphey Blvd. More information at artsandcultureeugene.org.