Mechanical Engineer turned Fine Artist: Gary Johnson ’66

In his guest blog, Gary Johnson ’66, a Michigan Tech alumnus in Fayetteville Arkansas, tells the story of his second career: “We engineers can go from practicing engineering to being artists of all things mechanical and beyond.”

Superior Storm, 2017, Gary Johnson
Superior Storm, 2017, Gary Johnson

Having grown up in Rock, Michigan⁠ (Yeah, I know, where the heck is Rock? Well, it’s smack dab in the middle of the UP. Yup, I’m a Yooper!!) I decided the best place for me to go to college was in the UP, at the Michigan College of Mining and Technology, now Michigan Technological University. Why Tech? I was influenced by a couple of neighbors, older than me, who had both started and graduated from Tech. I was pretty fair at math and science, so I did go to Tech—and would do it all over again if I had that same choice to make again today.

I got lucky and graduated in four years, then started work at General Electric Co. as a design engineer. GE was a great place to start my career. I had several promotions while at GE and the company helped finance my MBA, which I received in 1975 from Loyola University in Chicago. I left GE in 1977 when I learned they intended to sell the division I was in, and that no one would be allowed to transfer within GE after the sale. So I moved to Arizona and took my first management position.

Blue Heron, 2016, Gary Johnson
Blue Heron, 2016, Gary Johnson

From that point I guess you could say I was blessed or cursed, depending on which side of the equation your homebody instincts are on. I started in New Jersey, moved to Illinois, then on to Arizona after receiving my master’s degree. From there I moved to California and back again to Arizona after accepting a position as General Manager for a U.S. company in Nogales, Sonora, Mexico. From Arizona we traversed the U.S., from Georgia to Washington state to South Carolina, where I ended my career as a Director of Engineering at Hubbell Lighting. Those 40-plus years of my working career were absolutely fantastic, interesting and challenging. The only thing I’d change is the loss of jobs occasionally due to downsizing, bankruptcies or the sale of a company. But with the skill set I developed as a result of my education and experience, I always bounced back—and for that I can thank Michigan Tech.

Alegha, 2009, Gary Johnson
Alegha, 2009, Gary Johnson

At Tech, I learned perseverance. Or, maybe it was my Finnish background, where the word sisu comes into play. Perseverance is a quality we all must possess in today’s working environment. I think I started developing that in my little old hometown of Rock, or maybe at Michigan Tech. It takes a certain strong-charactered individual to put up with the winters and the great curriculum of MTU to get a degree in four years. I wasn’t blessed with the great minds of some of my fellow graduates, but nevertheless, I made it through in fine shape.

Okay, now on to the real reason I wrote this blog. I was asked to write it —because in my retirement I found a new career as an artist.

Shadows of a Bygone Era, 2016, Gary Johnson
Shadows of a Bygone Era, 2016, Gary Johnson

Moving to art was something of a challenge my wife, Jackie, had often presented to me. It was also something I pretty much always wanted to do, especially watercolor art. While traveling with my job, I was blessed to occasionally have Jackie travel with me. While together, mostly on the weekends, we’d visit local art galleries to admire the artistic talents of many different artists. We especially loved the watercolor artists and the work they produced. My wife often would say, “Honey, can we purchase that piece, or get a print of it, at least?” My reply was often, “Hey, I could paint that for you, so why purchase something I could do myself?” Well, that didn’t fly very far, and we’d end up getting something to remember our trip.

That went on for about 20 years until all of a sudden, I found myself between positions while living up near the Canadian border of British Columbia in Bellingham, Washington. I spent countless hours scouring country looking for a new position, becoming really bored with the whole process. So, what was I going to do to overcome that boredom? The answer fell into my lap one Sunday afternoon while reading the newspaper. I spotted an ad for a watercolor workshop for beginners, offered by the local park district. Can you imagine—six classes, every Friday morning for six weeks, for only $30. Was I excited? Hell, yes, I was. It addressed two issues; the first was the challenge to prove to my wife I could do this to her satisfaction and that she’d love my work, and second, to rid myself of the boredom involved in seeking new employment and further, it would address any questions by any HR person about what was I doing during my days off.

Meet my friend, Danny, 2015, Gary Johnson
Meet my friend, Danny, 2015, Gary Johnson

I’ve always had a love of the arts, from the time I grew up. First, I became interested in music and ended up becoming an accordionist. I loved music and played the accordion for many years on into high school. Soon, however, sports and girls entered the equation, so I abandoned the accordion and concentrated on academics, sports and girls, though maybe not in that particular order………LOL. I also always liked to draw and doodle, but not necessarily paint, as good ole Rock, Michigan wasn’t the center of the visual arts back in the day. As I’ve said earlier, travel during my working years led me to loving art even further. Jackie was a very good interior designer. Together we’d pick out pieces of art we both liked for our home—mostly watercolor paintings. That’s when I knew that someday I’d like to give it a go. So, backing up to the workshop classes in Bellingham: I soon became hooked on the process of creating art with watercolor. It was not easy, and I worked very hard at it day in and day out until I felt I could actually show someone outside of our home what I’d been up to.

I went to an art gallery in Bellingham and asked the owner to evaluate what I had done to that point. He agreed to look over my body of work. What a great experience that turned out to be. The first painting he looked at he told me, “Burn It.” Can you imagine what that would do to someone? Well, before we finished looking at all of my work, he managed to find a couple of pieces he thought were just “OK”. Well, just OK isn’t good enough as we all know, so I started to study watercolor art though art journals and “How- to” books related to watercolor art. I took some additional workshops and painted with an art group to learn from others who were better than me. That helped tremendously as I learned from those who knew what they were doing and willing to share their knowledge.

Soon after I found a new position in South Carolina, and we relocated to Spartanburg in the “Upstate” as it is known. I joined an art guild and continued to paint but only sporadically on weekends. My new position of responsibility took precedence over my desire to become that world- class painter.

I joined a second art organization, the South Carolina Watermedia Society (SCWS), whose membership consisted mostly of watercolorists. Through this organization I really became a solid weekend painter. I still wasn’t where I wanted to be from an artistic perspective, but I took the gamble and started to enter juried competitions, to see if I could get into their exhibitions. Well, guess what? I didn’t get picked the first three times I entered a competition. This bruised my ego, because I thought I had done some pretty darned good work. Then I finally had a breakthrough, and made it into my first exhibition. I was thrilled! And it gave me even more inspiration to continue developing my craft. I was selected for three consecutive years and received my Signature Membership in the society—a huge resume enhancer when seeking gallery representation. Since then, I’ve added the “Member in Excellence” moniker to my membership, which means I’ve been in at least five juried competitions.

Stormy Seas, 2016, Gary Johnson
Stormy Seas, 2016, Gary Johnson

People often ask how many years I’ve been painting, and how many paintings I’ve produced. Well, the span of time covers 18 years since those first watercolor workshop days in Bellingham. Needless to say, I didn’t paint during many of those years due to work obligations. Further, after I retired, I chose to do some consulting for a while, 18 months, flying back and forth from Spartanburg, Minneapolis and Osceola, Wisconsin to work with a company who was looking to relocate some of their manufacturing to Mexico. Because I had done similar work in the past, they asked me to develop a strategic plan for the movement of their manufacturing facilities through the startup phase of their operation. Yes, I was one of those guys who helped facilitate that kind of movement. Anyway, after about a year and a half of that gig, I told the company they no longer needed me to help support their strategic plan. We parted ways in July 2011.

Now fully retired, Jackie and I decided we’d love to relocate from South Carolina to our current home in Fayetteville, Arkansas, near my daughter and her family. It turned out to be a really great choice. Not only do we get to see my daughter and her husband, but also our two grandchildren. It also turns out that Fayetteville has a thriving arts community, which has proven to be both challenging and wonderful at the same time.

Jackie and Gary Johnson
Jackie and Gary Johnson

It took us fully two years to get our house built and landscaped to our specs, although one is never really done tinkering with both. Our new home was designed with an art studio so I could continue painting. It took a little bit of time to get back into the saddle and get back to producing good work again, but painting is a little like riding a bike. Once you know how, it doesn’t take long to work through the cobwebs and get back to where you were before. I’ve now joined two Arkansas-based arts organizations: Artists of NW Arkansas where I have served as Chairman of the Board the past two years; and Mid-Southern Watercolorists (MSW), out of Little Rock. Both are great organizations that put on juried art exhibitions. I’ve been blessed with having my work in each of their exhibitions over the past six years. I won the MSWBronze award, and earned my Signature membership there, as well.

As for how many paintings I have produced, it’s in the order of hundreds. I probably consistently produce between 30 – 50 per year. Many are very small sketches that I use to teach. Yes, I am now doing workshops based on the abstract process I use. I also teach art to people ages 60 and up once a month at the Schmieding Foundation in Springdale, Arkansas, a place where they can come and paint for a couple of hours for free. I supply all materials and teach them the basics of watercolor. It’s really a fun experience for me, and hopefully for them, too.

Mr. Bees Pumpkins, Gary Johnson
Mr. Bees Pumpkins, Gary Johnson

I’m asked occasionally if being a Mechanical Engineer has any influence on the type of art I produce. Well, yes it does occasionally. One painting I did was of an old steam- driven device that I discovered in Eureka Springs, Arkansas at an old railroad yard. I photographed it from many different angles and selected one in which the sun had cast a great many shadows onto it, and turned that into a piece of art. It’s titled “Shadows from a Bygone Era”. After winning the Bronze award with this painting at the MSW exhibition in Little Rock this past spring, I was recently invited to an International show in Barcelona, Spain this coming April and May.

So, we engineers can go from practicing engineering to being artists of all things mechanical and beyond.

People wonder where I find my inspiration. My wife will tell you that everywhere I go, I find something that fascinates me. In California once, I slammed on the brakes after seeing an old Chevy pickup truck sitting on the side of the road, exclaiming “There’s a painting waiting to happen!” It turned into one of my best old rusty truck paintings yet, titled “Mr. Bees Pumpkins”.

I found an old tractor near that same railroad yard in Eureka Springs and did a painting titled “Retired in Eureka Springs”. I loved the way the vines and other plant life had engulfed this old tractor left out to return to the earth.

Retired in Eureka Springs, Gary Johnson
Retired in Eureka Springs, Gary Johnson

I’ve painted a lot of old rusty cars abandoned or left to return to the Earth. I enjoy that challenge, of being able to capture their beauty after their useful time as machines, be they tractors, cars, steam engines, etc. However, I also love painting in the abstract, landscapes, and portraits, so I don’t limit myself to one genre. It keeps me motivated to explore new territory in my art. Doing so teaches me more new techniques that I can pass on to those taking my workshops.

I hope you enjoyed reading my story as much as I’ve enjoyed putting it in writing. Feel free to contact me at garyj357@yahoo.com.

Gary

In part 2 of his guest blog post, Gary shares more about what his life is like as an artist. Do you want to embark on a similar adventure? Here’s that link. Want to see more of Gary’s paintings? Find them at garyjohnsonfineart.com


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