Portrait of a New Direction

Photographer guides her business down a painterly path

April Johnson has taken a recent detour.
Portrait by Colby Rabon

As an equal-opportunity disrupter, the pandemic hasn’t spared the arts community, with shuttered museums and galleries just beginning to stir back to life in new and innovative ways. Artists, too, have had to adapt, as Hendersonville-based fine-art photographer April Johnson discovered. Her thriving business in portraiture, especially of animal companions and their human families, with its necessary close contact in mostly interior spaces, became seriously reduced as COVID-19 began its rampage early this year. 

Johnson’s solution will be on view this month at Brevard’s Blue Moon Gallery, in a show of new work which uses her photography as the basis for a stunning collection of painterly mixed-media portraiture. “I created this body of work since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, which was the impetus to reinvent my art business once again,” says Johnson. “I can build new art forms with all the latest tools and technology … creativity remains the main ingredient.”

Ethereal Jayana

Johnson was drawn early on to the possibilities of photography combined with other, and older, art forms. Her photos provided the graphic structure for a series of silkscreens and intaglio etchings she produced during her training at Kent State University. “By that time, I was hooked on photography, and I moved to New York City to get my fill,” she says of the second BFA she earned from New York’s School of Visual Arts, where she specialized in fine-art photography surrounded by galleries and museums featuring the work of Irving Penn, Henri Cartier-Bresson, and Ralph Gibson. 

“I lived on the Upper East Side, around the corner from Richard Avedon, whose work I greatly admired,” reveals Johnson. Recognition came early when her exhibit was mounted at Lincoln Center during her senior year at SVA.

Baby Blue

A high-pressure career as a corporate photographer followed — before the pressures became a bit too high and Johnson decamped to Western North Carolina seeking a simpler and more fulfilling life, marred by the loss of a beloved companion dog. “That shifted my photography to focus on my passion for animals, and to preserve the memories of our beloved pets and animal companions,” Johnson says of the creation of her Asheville Pet Photography. 

Far from mere posed photographs, her animal photography is true portraiture, capturing the spirit of each subject thanks to a great deal of patience and a lanyard around her neck strung with whistles, bells, clickers, and squeakers. “The hounds in particular are interested in unusual noises, giving those head tilts and inquisitive expressions,” she says. “It’s got to be quite comical for the owner to watch me work, handling the camera, blowing a whistle and waving a toy over my head.”

St. Royal Konig aka Balou

The same talent for capturing the spirit of her subject can be seen in her wildlife photography, especially her portrait series of black bears lolling on tree limbs, sprawled comfortably on the ground, or peering curiously from a distance. “They’re very intelligent and I believe assess immediately if you are non-threatening or otherwise,” Johnson emphasizes. “I’m respectful of their territory and stay a safe distance away using a long lens.”

The new work on display is another exploration in the possibilities of combined art forms. The artist transforms her portrait photography with painterly brushstrokes and other applied elements in digitally produced acrylics, watercolors, and inks. “I am so excited about this type of work,” she says. “Brushstrokes are applied one by one, just as in oil painting, and it can take many days or weeks to complete a painting.”

Mesmerized

For Johnson, it’s a new way to depict her longstanding work with not only animals, but children, too — portraits in which she captures the watchful innocence of the young absorbed in the rich variety and texture of the world around them. “My goal is to make you feel the portrait when you look at it,” Johnson says. “I hope it makes you want to know more about the subject. If it does, then I consider it a good measure of an effective portrait.”

April Johnson, Hendersonville. Johnson’s new mixed-media work will be on view through Monday, Nov. 30, at Blue Moon Gallery and Frame, 24 East Main St., Brevard, 828-565-2566, bluemoongalleryandframe.com. For more information, including inquiries about commissions, see apriljohnsonportraiture.com and ashevillepetphotography.com.

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