In “good things about the COVID-19 pandemic,” count “bursts of creative energy” as a positive. That’s what happened to Homer dot-artist Nancy Johnson when the pandemic started in March of 2020.
Known for her work painting intricate geometric patterns on rocks using just colorful dots, Johnson switched over to canvas as a medium last year. An academic advisor at Kachemak Bay Campus, she began working at home when the pandemic started. Johnson said she thought she might make a few paintings to decorate her office when she returned.
“Now I’m 40-50 canvases deep and still have not gotten back to my office,” Johnson said.
That output is Homer’s gain. Last Friday, Johnson’s first solo show of her work opened at Grace Ridge Brewery and remains on exhibit this month. Primarily in the 10-inch-square format, the paintings feature arrays of dots swirling around the canvas in shapes of snowflakes, flowers and other forms. The colors and titles reflect the Alaska landscape, like “Fireweed” or “Mountain Ash.” Though the forms might be abstract, Alaska inspires Johnson through what she sees in nature.
“I remember one hike in spring I came home,” she said. “I had to come and get those colors I saw on Roger’s Loop into a painting.”
Johnson, 45, has been in Homer 15 years after living briefly in the Matanuska-Susitna Valley. Raised in Pasadena, California, she worked for the Los Angeles Unified School District as a fifth grade teacher. She took a vacation to Alaska, went home, and told family and friends that as soon as her teaching contract was up, she was moving here.
“I couldn’t believe that people really lived like this. I was totally in love,” she said. “… A week after my contract was up I was heading up the Alcan.”
Johnson settled in Homer with her daughter, Lilli. Her husband, artist Charles Aguilar, had been an old friend from Los Angeles who came to Homer to visit “and fell in love with Alaska” and with Johnson. He moved up here and they eventually married. With Lilli now living in Los Angeles and working as a fashion model, the artist couple are empty nesters.
Johnson started out in her art with painting on rocks. She had never taken an art class and didn’t know how to draw.
“I do love patterns and graphic design. I wanted to do something nonrepresentational,” Johnson said. “… I would say my art is inspired by animation and colors of the ’70s and ’80s. I paint to satisfy the girl in me who doodles all over her notebook.”
The rock painting began when she and Aguilar were looking for inexpensive Christmas gifts to make.
“It turned out I was good at this,” she said. “… It was an idea I thought I had on my own. Like a lot of things, I found out I was part of a whole movement.”
The dot painting culture includes YouTube videos on techniques, Instagram pages, discussion groups with tips on finding or making tools, and hints on techniques. Johnson uses tools like crochet hooks, wooden dowels, pottery tools and nail artist tools. Anything with a flat, circular surface will work.
“I’m always on the look out for a handheld tool with a flat bottom,” she said.
Johnson doesn’t measure out her designs except to find the center of her canvas. She starts out with a dot and works out from there, entirely freehand.
“It’s very meditative,” she said. “I have to have a steady hand. I have to find a balance between concentrating and not thinking at all.”
Pretty soon, Johnson became known as the rock dot painting woman. In 2017 she took some of her painted rocks to the Procrastinators Fair and sold out everything the week before Christmas. After that she had a booth at the Homer Council on the Arts Nutcracker Fair.
“That became my passion, specifically doing dots on rocks,” she said.
The shift from painting on rocks to painting on canvas came when Johnson did a dot painting for Bunnell Street Arts Center’s 10-by-10 show in the December 2019. Johnson said she finds canvas a better surface to paint on.
“It’s so much easier to paint on canvas. It’s all flat,” she said. “With the rocks … I spend a lot of time on rocks not painting, waiting for paint to dry — and I don’t have to go to the beach to collect them. I do rocks in tandem with the canvas. Rocks are still my first love.”
Though the pandemic canceled the Nutcracker Faire and her big sales venue, Johnson said she’s still been able to connect with customers through Facebook. Already less than a week after the Grace Ridge show opened, she has sold six paintings. She said she hopes people will check out her show, but they also can see her work on her Forget Me Not Rocks Facebook page at facebook.com/forgetmenotrocks and on Instagram at instagram.com/heynancyj.
Johnson credited Grace Ridge co-owner Sherry Stead for inviting her to show her work and Bunnell Street Arts Center Artistic Director Asia Freeman for inspiring her and Aguilar. With artist Catie Bursch, Aguilar had a show at Bunnell in December. Johnson has also painted plates for Bunnell’s Plate Project fundraiser and was selected to have her painted rocks in Bunnell’s CSA Shares program, where people purchase a community share of art and get a selection of art works.
“I feel like Asia and the Bunnell, I owe her a lot, both Charles and I,” Johnson said. “She’s given us both opportunities to grow.”
The patterns and shapes of Johnson’s art evoke mandalas, designs in Buddhism and Hinduism that can be an instrument of meditation. The psychologist Carl Jung thought of mandalas as symbolizing the centering the ego in relation to psychic wellness. Johnson doesn’t go that deep into her art.
“My art isn’t making a statement other than, first, it’s joy,” she said. “It’s a dark year. We live in a dark place. Just having bursts of around me is my motivation, just bursts of joy.”