'It was fun, too!': 'The What of Whom' spotlights artwork by Daniel and Marjory Johnston
Lydia Street Gallery is currently hosting the art show The What of Whom. Named for one of the late Daniel Johnston’s self-released music cassettes, the exhibit features Johnston’s artwork, including many collaborative pieces by Daniel and his sister, Marjory Johnston.
“It was just part of us spending so much time together,” Marjory says of their collaborations. “I was his caregiver for the last twelve years of his life, because his condition got to where he needed somebody to be with him, to help him, to take him places, to help him get his groceries, etc. And spending so much time with him, we accidentally came upon this. Do you want me to tell the whole story?
“I take him to thrift stores,” she continues, displaying a habit she has of referring to Daniel in the present tense, “because he likes to buy all sorts of things like records and magazines and books. And at one thrift store, he found a bunch of Simplicity, Butterick, and McCall’s patterns – you know, for seamstresses that make clothes – and he wanted to buy them because the drawings on the front of the patterns, of women, he was enamored of them. So we bought several boxes of patterns. And I was horrified because I’m the one that has to figure out where to put this stuff in his house, and his house is just like… you know, he's sort of a hoarder, and he has so many collections of things, and I'm trying to keep it to where he can still walk around in his house and everything.
“So when we got home I decided, well, what he wanted was the front of the pattern. He doesn't need all these pattern pieces, so I will rip off the front and put that in a notebook so he can look at those pictures and throw the rest of it away. And as I was ripping one of them, I ripped the legs from the torso and so I thought, okay, I could just throw this away, but I'm not, I'm gonna paste it onto a piece of his drawing paper, paste the two pieces together and put it in the notebook with the others.
“But after I pasted the legs on, I got a phone call and I was distracted from what I was doing. And Dan sat down at the desk and drew on top of the legs, a creature. And so I came back from the phone call and said, ‘Dan, I love this, this is so magical.’
“And he said, ‘Yeah, and it was fun too! So I want you to rip up all of those pictures and paste them on pieces of drawing paper so that I can see what I can make out of them.’
“And he just started loving the idea of discovering what he could do given a fragment of a picture. And so we went from there for like six years of doing that. He wouldn't quit.”
Marjory says that at one point, she urged Daniel to go back to use usual solo art, fearing that her influence might lead him away from the style he was known for. “And he said, ‘No, we're having fun,’” she recalls, ”’and we should keep doing it until it's not fun anymore.’ So that's what we did. And we turned out some really, I think, wonderful artwork.”
Gallery owner Deanna Miesch was delighted to get to show some of Daniel and Marjory’s collaborative works as part of The What of Whom. “I really love the collaborative work,” she says. “I really love collage with drawing, mixed media anything… and the idea of siblings working together.”
As an artist herself and an art therapist, Miesch sees similarities between the Johnstons’ collaborative works and art therapy practices. “Just hearing about how Margie worked with Dan in this way where she was really following his lead – that interested me a lot because that's how one would do art [therapy],” she says. “Another thing I really enjoy about the collaborative pieces, though, is because he was influenced by this other, you know, starting point, it seems like he really went into areas that he would never have gone. And so there's so much unique iconography in in this work. So it's pretty magical.”
“I've started speaking of Dan as being a prophet,” Marjory says. “And I think he had a message for the world, I think he made a mark on the world. He had an important message and it's in his artwork and it's in his music. So I hope as many people as possible will see it and hear his music. I hope that his fans will just have a blast coming in there and looking and listening and remembering and pondering the things that Dan wants them to ponder. Because he definitely puts the question to you when you look at his art. He gets you to thinking.
“My spouse Terry keeps pointing out to me that I refer to Dan in the present tense, not like he's passed,” Marjory continues. “And I think it's partly because I spend a lot of time with his art and his music and he's still there, in the room with me, it feels like, you know? He's present in that artwork and so in some ways I feel like he's still with me.”