News - Vital Signs: A Terminally Ill Artist Learns to Create Instead of Fix

Vital Signs: A Terminally Ill Artist Learns to Create Instead of Fix

Vital Signs: A Terminally Ill Artist Learns to Create Instead of Fix

In the 1981 film Chariots of Fire, Olympic runner Eric Liddell tells his sister, “I believe God made me for a purpose, but He also made me fast; and when I run, I feel His pleasure!” Liddell’s words resonate for visual artist Jim Johnson ’77, who says he feels a sense of purpose and God’s pleasure when he creates digital paintings of homes and barns.

As a student, he recalls spending hours in the Greenville College art studios, completely absorbed in working on his senior art exhibition. His love for drawing led to a successful career as a freelance artist, graphic designer, and art director.

Today, his passion for creative work sustains him even in the face of terminal illness. Eighteen years ago, Jim was diagnosed with ALS, a degenerative motor neuron disease that leads to muscular atrophy and paralysis. The average life expectancy after diagnosis is between two and five years, so Jim considers himself perhaps “the second luckiest man on the face of the earth.” Jim continued working until 2011, when his illness forced a change of pace.

Although he could no longer use a traditional paintbrush, he taught himself to “paint” using Photoshop, a computer program he learned to use in his career, primarily to retouch and improve photographs. “Retouching taught me how to use various Photoshop tools,” Jim says, “and from there, it was just a matter of changing my mindset from ‘fixing’ to ‘creating.’”

As a result, Jim developed an innovative method of digital painting. Even as an art student, he was fascinated by architectural themes, which continue to figure prominently in his work today. Jim’s digital paintings of homes and barns offer him the chance to experiment with realism, perspective, texture, form, color, and light.

Jim begins with several snapshots of a home or barn (Step 1 - see below). He uses portions of each “clip file” to create a digital painting that transcends the limitations of the original photographs. First, he works to correct distortions in perspective by locating a horizon line and establishing one or more vanishing points. Next, he paints a blue-to-white gradation over the entire Photoshop canvas. He then works from dark to light, background to foreground, painting sky, trees, foliage, and landscape before constructing the architectural subject of the work. Finishing details include shadows, surface textures, and a signature crescent moon, which appears in every painting.

Step 1

Step 1

Step 2

Step 2

Step 3a

Step 3a

Step 3b

Step 3b

Step 3c

Step 3c

Step 4

Step 4

Step 5

Step 5

The beauty of his artwork speaks of longevity, an attention to place, and a desire to preserve the past. Several of his paintings are now all that remain of razed barns. It also points toward home, celebrating the intimate spaces that offer shelter, comfort, and connection. Many of his paintings of private homes are commissioned works or gifts for friends and family.

Vital Signs: A Terminally Ill Artist's JourneyLast year, Jim compiled 26 of his digital paintings into a book, Vital Signs: A Terminally Ill Artist’s Journey (Oak Street Resources, 2014). Each two-page spread includes a painting and a thoughtful reflection about the image, his inspiration for the project, and recollections of what he learned through the events of his life while working on the painting.

Jim continues to explore the significance of home in his work, beckoning readers to enter in and pointing them heavenward. He expresses gratitude for the opportunity to pursue creativity and purpose. He says, “I treasure the time I spend today doing what a busy, ‘normal’ life always seemed to preclude.”

His advice to others who are struggling with terminal illness or are otherwise hurting: “Never give up!” He signs copies of Vital Signs with those words. Jim reflects on the words of the late Andre Crouch: “Count the years as months; count the months as weeks; count the weeks as days—any day now, we’ll be goin' home!”

Visit digitalhomesandbarns.com to view Jim’s work or purchase Vital Signs

Jim also recommends the Les Turner ALS Foundation, the research and support arm of Northwestern University Hospital, which he visits annually for checkups. Jim encouraged participants in last summer’s hugely successful “Ice Bucket Challenge” to send their donations to this worthy organization.

This story was published on April 08, 2015




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