While it’s not uncommon to save Christmas cards received every year, it’s rather unusual to frame them. Yet that’s what recipients of Michael Johnson’s works of art do. What began as a graphic design project in 1991 for a former employer resulted in Johnson creating digitally produced Christmas cards that morphed into a growing body of religious themed art that can be enjoyed throughout the year.
Often depicting Madonna and Child and featuring prayers, songs and Bible verses that Johnson translates into Latin, his art is available in various sizes, from 5.5 x 7 cards to 7.5 x 9.25 framed pieces to 32 x 21 posters.
For 24 years, the retired Professor of Fine Arts sent out limited edition pieces to friends and family during the holidays. Now that he’s Professor Emeritus in the Media Arts Design Department of Cypress College, he creates his pieces fulltime in his Old Towne home studio, where he’s lived since 1975.
“Back in 1991, I worked for the computer software imaging company ULead Systems, which had the first true color image editing software, PhotoStyler, sold through Aldus software, which eventually merged into Adobe,” says Johnson. “I modified a book cover I did for them to create Christmas cards, and that started a yearly tradition.”
Raised Catholic and a longtime member of Holy Family Cathedral in Orange, Johnson often receives inspiration for his work while in church. “As I listen to gospel readings and homilies, they stick with me until the thoughts result in art,” he says.
Johnson also gets ideas by studying various forms of art, including paintings created during the Renaissance and Gothic periods, as well as illuminated manuscripts. As part of his own creation process, he incorporates various symbols into his artwork, like flowers, butterflies, ants, ladybugs, fruit and most recently birds.
“I kept noticing birds in many pieces of art and how they symbolized the winged soul and the angels, so I decided to incorporate them,” says Johnson. “Such imagery can be quite rich in its meaning. For instance, a strawberry with its white and red color is a symbol of purity and martyrdom.”
Monsignor Arthur Holquin, Pastor Emeritus of Mission Basilica San Juan Capistrano, met Johnson and his wife, Frances, in 1974 after he was ordained and assigned to Holy Family parish in Orange. He enjoys receiving Johnson’s art pieces every year, especially since he has an interest in art and in medieval illuminated manuscripts.
“Michael’s utilization of digital technology in not only replicating this art form for today, but also adding his own creative artistic twist, is fascinating,” says Holquin. “Like all artists, Michael is keenly aware that ‘the beautiful’ reflects the transcendent. I have often said that art in general, and religious art in particular, is visual theology. As a man of faith, Michael understands this role of art, and that understanding is reflected in the beautiful images he creates combining text and visuals. A purist, who has a profound respect for artistic history, Michael includes Latin text as an element of continuity with medieval manuscripts that almost always used the Latin language.”
Ed Giardina, a Professor of Art at Cypress College, has known Johnson for 12 years and considers him a mentor. “I admire how Michael appropriates historical religious imagery, and I especially enjoy his attention to the details,” he says. “He passionately renders everyday nature into unusual sociological ecosystems. I have always assumed many of these coded symbols are representative of things or people in Michael’s life, including the little chirping birds and bugs zooming around.”
“The Lord’s Prayer”
The artwork shown here is titled, “The Lord’s Prayer,” and depicts the Madonna and Child. The text is the iconic prayer in Latin. “The Child is holding onto the apples, as if religion could be a fruit that you can hold onto,” says Johnson of the piece, which is part of a triptych of popular prayers that can be hung together or as standalones. “The tree in the background represents the wood of the crucifixion and the tree of growth.”
Johnson enjoys the digital painting process, because of its forgiving nature. “Once you’ve made a mark on a piece of paper, it stays, but digital art allows for safe exploration and the ability to make changes,” he says of the software that imitates traditional drawing and painting tools.
This is not to say that the process isn’t extensive. Johnson starts by making a rough composition of each piece and then works on the many individual elements, eventually combining them all. “I’ll paint a flower slightly larger than I need it and then scale it down when I combine it into the piece,” he says. As he works on each element, he saves the various files so he doesn’t lose any work.
“Some of the components have hundreds of files,” he says. “In a flower alone, there may be 25 to 30 layers in each petal that I will save and then periodically merge together and continue painting.”
For Johnson, who grew up in Santa Ana, art always came easy. He recalls winning a poster contest for the city of Santa Ana while in junior high. He attended Santa Ana College and California State University, Fullerton, where he received his Bachelors of Art and Masters in Drawing and Painting in 1975. He initially thought he wanted to work at an ad agency, but tried and enjoyed teaching.
After instructing at various area colleges, he landed a fulltime position in 1983 teaching advertising design, drawing and painting at Cypress College. In 1985, he began teaching in the burgeoning field of computer art, which he continued to do throughout his career. The role required that he constantly learn about new technological developments, which he enjoyed sharing with students.
Orange resident Dan Stephens, the longtime art tech for Cypress College’s Fine Arts Department, comments on Johnson’s commitment to students. “Michael was very dedicated to his students and the computer graphics program,” says Stephens. “He constantly looked for ways to bring technology into the arts program.”
Stephens has collected all of Johnson’s Christmas card pieces. “I hang them every holiday season,” he says. “They take up an entire wall and look very impressive as a group. Michael has an eye for detail that shows in his work. He sees the world through a camera lens, zooming into a section of a large scenario and creating a micro-environment that would otherwise go unnoticed.”
For more information on Michael’s limited edition signed prints, please go to www.capiolumenimages.com.
Published in the Nov/Dec 2016 edition of the Old Towne Orange Plaza Review
Written by Julie Bawden-Davis, Photograph by Michelle James
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