Harvey Johnson (b. 1947)
A native Texan, Harvey Johnson was born in Port Arthur in 1947. He was raised in the shadows of oil refineries in this East Texas industrial town by a mother who encouraged his childhood interest in the arts, and saw to it that he was firmly entrenched in the local church. Beyond his own mother, Johnson’s earliest and most significant art influence was his high school art teacher, Willie Moore. Moore, now a Houston painter and writer, had been among the first generation of art students recruited to the Texas Southern University art program by Dr. John T. Biggers. Having assumed a teaching position at Port Arthur’s Lincoln High School upon his graduation from TSU, Moore immediately assessed Harvey Johnson’s talent and ambition. He not only gave instruction and encouragement to the budding young artist, but also introduced him to John Biggers and the art program of Texas Southern University. Johnson felt an immediate connection with Biggers during their first meetings and determined to pursue his formal art studies at TSU to work under his tutelage. He entered the university in 1966, completing his undergraduate degree in art in 1971.
At Biggers’ suggestion, Johnson enrolled immediately at Washington State University to continue with graduate study. While at Washington State, he completed his master’s thesis entitled A Black Aesthetic. This became a research interest which Johnson pursued throughout his own thirty-year academic career, as well as an artistic pursuit that he shared with Biggers over the duration of their time together as faculty colleagues at TSU. Upon completion of his MFA in 1973, Johnson returned to Houston to join Biggers on the faculty at TSU, where he remained until his retirement in 2007. In 1977, Johnson was awarded a Ford Foundation Fellowship to extend his research on African-American crafts. Through the Ford grant, Johnson traveled over 4200 miles through Texas and Louisiana, locating African-American craftsmen, observing and documenting their traditional ancestral crafts and collecting examples of these for exhibit at the university. He received additional university research grants for similar purposes in 1980 and 1989, and in 1991-92, the artist made his own journey to Africa, traveling to Sierra Leone to further illuminate his studies on African-American crafts and document their connection to ancestral African arts.
Along with his teaching and research, Johnson continued to produce and show art. Throughout his career, his work has shown an ongoing concern for the cultural aesthetics of the everyday life of African-Americans. His art also reflects his own grounding in the church and his subject matter is frequently inspired by his love for Negro spirituals, which he holds as a sacred entity and motivating force within the African-American community. His drawings from the late 60s and early 70s demonstrate his facility as a draftsman and show early symbolic tendencies. These early drawings are deftly conveyed in beautifully flowing, richly imbued charcoals or conté. The representational nature of Johnson’s later work reflects his mature style of symbolic expressionism. Through these later works, the artist increasingly employs African imagery embodied in Negro spirituals as an artistic language through which to tell Texas inspired stories of African-American families. While his expressions bear a kindred message to those of his colleague and mentor, Biggers, Johnson’s style is entirely his own. As with Biggers, his later paintings and drawings are richly layered with this symbolism. Johnson incorporates common objects into his work as a means of telling his stories or conveying his message. Aside from creating visual interest, these wash pots, row houses, boats and tools represent elements in his system of symbols, visual elements laden with multiple meanings. His works are frequently punctuated with fish, turtles, birds and other small animals, and these are often infused in flowing waters utilized by the artist to explore man’s connection with and harmony with nature. Throughout his career, the quality of Johnson’s draftsmanship and his prowess in composition are evident. His use of color and application of paint are superb. He produces masterful images of great beauty and of deep personal meaning.
Johnson’s works have been frequently exhibited, appearing in numerous museums including the Huntsville Museum of Fine Art in Huntsville, Alabama, the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston, Laguna Gloria Art Museum in Austin, The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston and the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. In addition he has shown at university exhibitions on the campuses of Texas Southern University, Alabama State University and The University of Houston. He received one-man exhibitions at the City of Port Arthur (1982) and the Black Heritage Gallery in Houston (1986).
Today, Johnson continues to live in Houston, TX, where he continues to work as a “visual poet.”
Selected Biographical and Career Highlights
Selected Major Collections
"Walk Together Children"
Dedicated to all young people and the journey
they must endure for the survival of this planet.
I am a seed from a mother and father of the Southern soil of Texas and a child of African roots. As I emerged from the oil fields of Port Arthur, Texas into the urban setting of Houston, Texas, I discovered how I fit into the rich Texas quilted pattern of cultural diversity. This diversity, this contrast of Native, African, Mexican, Caucasian, and Asian peoples have all helped to create a Texas "aesthetic," and contributes to a rich vision for Texas prosperity. My poetry speaks of African spirituals or what continues to be referred to as "Negro Spirituals." A young African student at Key Middle School in Houston, Texas, stated that spirituals are "secret messages in song about God." It is the most profound and sophisticated meaning of these songs I have ever read or heard. I feel African spirituals and nature have given us a complex meaning of the sacred laws governing the order of the universe in its ever evolving cycles of life and death and life. An example of this can be heard in the spiritual, "We are Climbing Jacob's Ladder." Spirituals and nature embraces healing and renewal.
My poetry tries to express a continuous journey of healing - healing generated within me with the assistance of Spirit, African ancestors, a parental matriarch, and elders. They all provided access allowing for the discovery of personal identity, purpose and meaning of my existence as a part of what I call a triple "middle passage."
The first middle passage is the journey of an immaculate conception as we come into this life through the boat of heaven that is the sacred womb of all mothers. For months, our mothers of "The Father and The Son" navigate us in her holy sanctuary through the many fires of life as we finally emerge into the light. Life is not about safety however and some of us do not make it. I feel that some of us return to that unfrozen reality, the invisible. Our mother's heartbeat to us, like the rhythmic beat of the drum, is the "Word," the first communication to us of the articulation of language and civilization.
The second middle passage echoes these words from a spiritual, "Ev'-ry-bo-dy talk-in' 'bout heab'n aint goin' dere…" This speaks to the transatlantic slave trade and its ramifications to this present day, a holocaust of unmerciful human pillage and destruction. I hope my poetry expresses a compassion, which we all must have, for other people whose grief is just as deep about their holocaust. A great American author said, "History is not the past…history is the present." And I will add that history is also the future.
The third middle passage is about human transformation, not only ultimately from body to spirit literally, but transforming human and environmental abuse into positive spirituality and humaneness. I hope my poetry stimulates consciousness to awaken each of us to the purpose for which we came into this world or were born into this life.
We live in an environment where myths about ourselves have become the norm, have become realities. These myths are used as a frame of reference for our very existence. We have become prisoners to a history of our own making. I feel that poetry encourages an awakening of our senses by expressing how the language of nature puts an end to all human myths and forces us back to reality. Earth, wind, fire, water, minerals, and animals speak to us, trying to bring us closer together. Nature forces us to see that many of our fears and insecurities come from the inner unsolved struggles we are having about ourselves, which many times we transfer to others. As I share my journey with you, I hope that you focus on your own journey.
I feel good about the energy of our youth. They seem to be aware that jobs and careers do not define success and the spirit of their being. "Your ability to see is always a delusion of what you see, and what you see, is usually a translation of your own limitation at seeing until you are taught how to see…it's an introduction into that area of silence where meaning exist independently of human extortion and it is an introduction into that area of human experience where it is possible at least to reconstruct one's history going beyond one's birth into a timeless moment where one can see one's self as much older as one look in order to be able to understand why one occurred in this particular time and what for."
Poetry is one of many visionary expressions that can inspire, to help us stay in touch with the silent language of our souls in keeping with the rhythmic balance and harmony of nature as it moves toward a greater scheme of creation. You may wonder whether this is all there is to being here in this life. It is if this is the limitation of your thinking, feelings and emotions. Nature is the key to teaching us about unlimited doorways connecting us to a cosmic conception and journey. Our young people have the opportunity to create new worlds of spiritual values which can define us as true human beings.
I don't know anything else more important. In the spirit of the Negro Spiritual, let us all "Walk Together Children."
1. Poetry in this context refers to visual, musical, dance, literary, and theatric expressions that address the what, where, when, how, and why of human existence. It replaces the term "art" for a deeper meaning of the human journey.
2. Malidoma Some', African Shaman of Burkina Faso, West Africa.