By Sean Austin
M. Scott Johnson was able to see art in the world around him from an early age. He felt a connection to stone that would go on to shape his career.
“Oddly enough I always had a very close affinity to stone,” said Johnson, who is set to begin teaching a sculpting class at the Art League in Dix Hills tomorrow. “Many people are drawn to them because of their elemental qualities or their physical beauty, but something always drew me to that. In fact, it was such a connection that my original major when I went to school was geology.”
Johnson, of Bushwick, Brooklyn, credits his mother, Dyanne Johnson, with using art as a method of teaching in his upbringing.
“She would often reward me with different opportunities if I would sit down and I would draw, and so I slowly developed an affinity for being able to look at an object and to try to depict it in my own eyes,” he said.
During his undergrad at Western Michigan University, Johnson and business partner Brett Dancer opened up a gallery in Kalamazoo, Michigan and began doing installation work. Every three months they would change shows. That gave Johnson an avenue to express.
“It was a quick fix that allowed me to express an idea quickly,” Johnson said.
Around this time Johnson met with famous Nigerian sculptor Lemidi Fakay. Johnson observed how Fakay worked and got a sense of his connection to the material.
“He would tell his philosophy about the life of different materials and I began to understand that these materials, like stone and woods, are not inanimate objects, but they’re living things,” Johnson said.
The experience with Fakay opened Johnson’s eyes to what art could really be for him. He was now seeing it as something that could be much more intimate. He saw sculpting in a new light that allowed him a much deeper connection.
He said, “The conversation as an artist or a sculptor that you have with these things is very valid and very important and sacred.”
After graduating with a bachelor’s in anthropology, Johnson decided to move to Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn and got a job working in a Manhattan gallery. It was while living in New York that Johnson was introduced to an artist named Nicholas Mukomberanwa. Johnson shared his work with Mukomberanwa, who invited Johnson to live with him in Zimbabwe.
“I lived with him for three years and he was my education as far as stone,” Johnshon said.
His stay in Zimbabwe, a country known for its rich heritage of stone sculptors, was a great opportunity.
“The Zimbabwean sculptors are magnificent and the name of the country Zimbabwe itself means ‘house of stone,’” he said.
Johnson said he respects Zimbabwean sculptors greatly; he took it as a great honor to learn among them.
He added, “In Zimbabwe the stone sculptors are probably the most venerated community of not only artists but creative people in general.”
Johnson’s two favorite sculptures are the pair a pair busts that go by the same name, “High John The Conqueror.”
“I like depicting mythological characters,” Johnson said, explaining that High John was “an intercessor between the ancestors in Africa and their children and descendants in America.”
Johnson now takes the knowledge that he has gained and passes it on to his students. He currently holds a teaching residency with The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem, and readies to begin his class at Art League tomorrow.
“I think it’s the highest honor,” he said about being able to teach. “It’s the only way that your work can live forever.”
Teaching has been beneficial for Johnson, as well as his students, he said. Being able to step out of the studio and interact with students has fed back into Johnson’s art.
“I’ve been blessed to teach a lot of different types of communities and a lot of different types of age groups and each one of them feeds into my private practice,” he said.
Johnson’s five-week class at Art League is titled “Listening to the Stone: Rhythm and Inner Space in Stone Sculpture,” and it begins tomorrow. It will be held each Friday, 11 a.m.-2 p.m., through Feb. 17, and cost $325 for the five weeks.
There are also two more five-week sessions slated to be held in the spring, one in March and another in April.
For more information, visit Artleagueliregistration.org, or call 631-462-5400.