New Homer artist Lydia Johnston’s entry into the local arts scene ticks off all the boxes:
• Drawn to Alaska from the Lower 48 by the amazing natural beauty? Check.
• Working artist trying to make a living while following her dream? Check.
• Painter exploring new techniques while she develops her own style? Check.
• Found a place among Homer’s supportive creative community? Check.
Last Friday, Johnston had an opening reception for her first solo show, “Dynamic Lighting in Alaska,” at Grace Ridge Brewery. Along with Jay Wright’s “Abundant Wildlife” show at the Homer Council on the Arts, Grace Ridge was one of the few venues to open for First Friday art exhibit openings since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in March.
The brewery encouraged people to wear masks. At the arts council, visitors were limited to five at a time, and Wright spread out greeting art lovers over the afternoon. Bunnell Street Arts Center held an artist’s talk by Peter Williams over Zoom for his new show, “Traditions, Transitions,” and other galleries opened, but with no new shows.
Johnston, 24, moved to Alaska in 2018 from Richmond, Virginia. Raised in Morganton, North Carolina, she moved to Richmond with partner Sam Gonzalez to explore the arts community. Johnston had gone to the University of North Carolina at Asheville, majoring in sociology, but quit when it became too expensive to continue college, she said.
“We thought we were city people,” Johnston said of the move to Richmond. “It’s a fantastic arts scene, but there are too many people.”
She and Gonzalez had visited Anchorage and Fairbanks before, but never the lower Kenai Peninsula. Gonzalez’s parents wanted to move from Fairbanks to Homer about the same time Johnston and Gonzalez were thinking about leaving Virginia. His parents asked if they wanted to move with them to Homer.
“I heard good things about it,” Johnston said. “I took a gamble. It turns out I really love it here.”
As an artist, Johnston said she found herself drawn to the unique lighting of Alaska — an attraction reflected in the title of her show. In her artist’s statement, she said her paintings “focus on dynamic lighting, especially at dawn or dusk near either solstice.”
“There’s a lot of lighting you get here you don’t get anyplace else,” Johnston said. “The trees play into that. The mountains are pretty iconic for this area, which I enjoy. … That’s what made me like this area so much — the natural beauty it has to offer. There’s so much here. There’s room for everyone to breathe and exist.”
The couple live between Homer and Anchor Point about six miles down the south end of the North Fork Road. In the rolling hills above the Anchor River watershed, they have views of lower Cook Inlet and the mountains dominated by Mt. Iliamna and Mt. Redoubt. The paintings in “Dynamic Lighting in Alaska” are all of landscapes — forests, rivers, mountains and ocean, all lit majestically by the ever changing subarctic light.
Mostly self-taught, Johnston did take some classes last winter with artist and teacher David Pettibone. A big snowstorm in February canceled one class and then the pandemic put a stop to the course. Her show could serve as a small bachelor of fine arts thesis show in its exploration of technique and style.
A painting of the Russian River Falls Trail shows an initial foray into her style. Johnston said she had been drawn to how other artists did their own take on impressionism or modern impressionism.
“I was drawn to how they could break down the image,” she said. “Every brush stroke seemed so focused and direct. … I had struggled with how to make every part perfect instead of how I wanted it to look.”
In that work, “Russian River Falls Trail,” Johnston said she tried to use a limited palette and step back from the painting. The bold brush strokes catch the dappled light of sunshine falling through the forest canopy. She explored that technique further in the main piece of her show, “Midnight Over Iliamna,” a triptych showing a summer sunset over Mt. Iliamna.
“I decided I was going to take this reference photo I had tried painting four other times and I had failed,” she said. “I bought a big brush and a lot of paint.”
First laying down the underpainting, Johnston began adding darker colors and then lighter colors to give the sunset and clouds luminosity. A lot of the painting was trial and error to figure out what worked to create the texture she wanted as well as movement in the clouds. With its four jagged peaks, Mt. Iliamna makes a tempting subject, but in the triptych, Johnston uses the mountain’s outline to provide a reference point for the sun’s rays and clouds rising above it. Similar to the pointillist technique, where colors painted by the tips of brushes create the overall image, Johnston’s style is bigger, thicker, with half-inch or wider circles and points.
“I don’t know if it’s its own style. I don’t know if you could call it pointillism. It feels too self-important to call it impressionism,” she said. “… I tried a lot of different textures. I tried big streaks that seem overboard. The dots and the strokes added a lot of texture without taking away the sideways movement of the clouds.”
Along with her painting, Johnston also does nature and animal drawings with alcohol-ink markers. Those she sells as stickers through her Etsy shop, etsy.com/shop/lydiajartworks, and at Sea Lion Art on the Homer Spit. Her drawings tend to be more realistic, she said. Stickers make her art more accessible. Her paintings run for $450 and up, while her stickers are about $5.
“Not everyone can drop several hundred dollars on a painting,” Johnston said. “Four or five bucks for a sticker — you can put it on your water bottle or laptop, but also support that artist. I think it’s cool.”
This summer, Johnston embarks on the next stage of her art career: taking time off to paint. For the past two years she has worked at Homer Art and Frame, saving up to cover life expenses for a few months. She gave her notice and worked her last day on May 30.
“I wanted to take this summer off so I could experience Alaska in the summer,” she said. “… Life is too short to keep working forever.”
She plans to travel and camp, taking reference photos for future paintings. Johnston also has developed a side gig painting portraits of pets, something she started doing for family and friends.
With her first show and several winters in Alaska on her resume, Johnston said she has begun to settle into the Alaska art scene. She has found the community supportive and welcoming.
“I really love that about Homer,” she said. “… There’s room to breathe physically. There’s room to breathe artistically. I’ll probably be here a long time. Homer has helped me grow as an artist.”