Story and Photographs by Zoë Zellers
The Big Apple (and Quince and Pear and Cherry, too)
The Sweet Sculptures of Charlie Johnson
Consider the apple.
The first association we are taught from preschool days matches “apple” with “red.” But what happens when the color is removed from this equation?
The result is a beautiful, close study of the apple’s organic form, smooth yet imperfect, round yet not quite circular. And when the seemingly average apple is produced on a large scale, viewers have the unique opportunity to appreciate its visual simplicity and perhaps for the first time ever, think about how an apple makes them feel.
Such is the ambition of sculptor Charlie Johnson. He has drawn on 25 years of experience – in figurative sculpture, outdoor garden ornament work and intricate restoration in stone and fine finishes on metals – to take a new artistic path. Johnson’s a-ha moment in the garden led him to study fruits, nuts and pods with a fresh eye and create all-mineral pieces reaching 85 pounds and made by hand without the use of polymers, acrylics, resins, fiberglass or GFRC (glass fiber reinforced concrete).
“I make these objects, because I so appreciate the beauty of their form,” Johnson said. “That silent universal connection is something that I want to awake in people. It’s all around you. Slow down. Pick one. What’s a better way to try and do that than big and in stone?”
The fallen quince he noticed on the ground of a client’s garden, for instance, served as Johnson’s muse, and last year, his large-scale decorative sculpture of the fruit won Best in Show at Gallery 364 in Brooklyn.
Johnson’s arrival at his calling for creating these contemporary pieces is part of an interesting journey. Beyond his personal art, Johnson lives and works part time on the lush, sculpture-laden Katonah property of Barbara Israel, as in Barbara Israel Garden Antiques.
After an initial connection through baker extraordinaire Sylvia Weinstock –“the original cake lady,” who became Johnson’s “guardian angel” – Israel hired him nine years ago to be her site manager and coordinate the production side of the business. Yet after he randomly surprised her (and at first made her nervous) by repairing the legs on a winter-damaged antique Vicenza deer so professionally that it sold right away, Johnson became Israel’s restoration artist, working out of her 19th-century farmhouse.
There, he assists her in restoring the stunning, rusting or weathered stone and metal period garden urns, statues, furniture, fencing and fountains that she sells to her high-end clients. Under the wings of Israel’s successful business, Johnson has been fortunate to gain serious industry exposure and experience, accepting challenging restoration jobs and teaching himself along the way.
In the past, Johnson learned by serving as a sculpting assistant on significant pieces such as Nina Akamu’s amazing, life-size “Leonardo da Vinci’s Horse” at the former Tallix foundry in Beacon. Today, Johnson has his own assistant at Barbara Israel’s.
“Patrick Dunne is such a joy to be around. He’s bright and has a sense of humor and is a real good balance for me, because I tend to get very serious and he can cut through that. He’s been a very positive influence on me.”
Most of Johnson’s clients live in Westchester County and Greenwich, and he’s developed an appreciation for the area – its locals, nature trails and eateries. (The lean and muscular 6’2” sculptor must be able to lift his own work, of course, so he loves a good steak – and a cosmopolitan – at Croton Falls’ Croton Creek Steakhouse & Wine Bar).
But the other half of the week, Johnson enjoys escaping to the Dingmans Ferry, Pa., home he built “away from it all.”
It’s a long way from Fort Worth, Texas, where he grew up, and San Diego, where he began his professional life. He caught a break at age 23 when he met sculptor T.J. Dixon while bartending at an upscale wedding.
“There are not really serious figurative sculptors out there. T.J. Dixon is a serious figurative sculptor, and I adore her and she was very generous with her time. … But there aren’t schools and there’s no training out there so I had to come to the East Coast.”
Truth be told, Johnson came to New York for the Gay Pride Parade before sculpting school was actually in the picture.
“They had the 25th Stonewall celebration so I came up here for that, and some friends of mine had an art restorer friend who did paintings and I was curious and started asking her about the art schools up here and she told me about The New York Academy of Art in Tribeca, where I was later accepted,” and went on to earn a master’s degree in figurative sculpture.
“When I stop and think about all the training in sculpting technique that I have under my belt, it seems to boil down to one thing: It’s amazing what one can do with a putty knife.
“It’s no news that artists struggle with subject and meaning in their work. I have years of intense study of anatomy. One powerful concept of that book learning is the use of convex form on these objects. Once I let go of what I thought was expected of me as a trained figurative sculptor, I was able to allow myself to be drawn to what I love – form in nature. As part of the human condition, I think most people are drawn to simple organic form. Many just don’t know it until it’s shoved in their face. Simple is heroic.”
Creative gusto pours out as Johnson hints at his plans to expand his work this year. Next he wants to tackle the idea of sculpting a giant garlic clove. He would also love to take his apple prototype to the Big Apple, he said with a laugh.
“Who’s better to sculpt a fabulous giant apple for New York City than a gay boy from Texas?”
To see Charlie Johnson’s original sculptures and restoration work or join his newsletter, visit cajohnson.biz.