She is not here to be a Hallmark Channel story, and she does not need any sympathy.
Nancy Johnson, an oil painter with muscular dystrophy, is an artist who has worked hard to get where she is today. Her paintings are a reflection of her own thoughts and feelings of the world around her.
“The world and society expect you to act and be a certain way if you are in a wheelchair,” she said.
What the artist is known for locally goes beyond her physical condition. Her surrealist oil paintings unpack imagery pulled from tidbits that are stored away in her mind to create dream-like paintings that tease the viewer’s current perception of the world. Her paintings can also elicit emotion from the viewer. For instance, some paintings depict innocent-looking characters in vulnerable predicaments.
Images in her paintings include a snowman with candles stuck in his head and sparklers for hands, keeping warm by a burning fire, and a little white rabbit with a rear end that is shaved off being tattooed in a dingy gas station sink. Johnson recalls a viewer saying something like, “This painting doesn’t feel good.”
“I think the most important job of an artist is to make the viewer feel something. Not all paintings need to make you feel good. Just as long as you feel,” she said.
Johnson’s gallery, aptly named Mind Flirt, is in the Magoski Arts Colony on Santa Fe Avenue in downtown Fullerton.
She said her work is autobiographical, but also intends to remind viewers of their own stories: “The stories seem to all come together in my mind. It usually comes from what I am going through in relationships, my own struggles, or what other people are struggling with.”
Learning to paint itself was a struggle for the artist at first. She gained most of her technical skills at Fullerton College under the mentorship of Deborah Davidson, a painting professor.
“It was frustrating to me, because I just wanted to go in and paint something fun. But [a professor] reminded me that you have to get your ground work in before you can flourish,” she said.
After completing an array of art classes, Johnson began to recognize her voice as a painter.
She recalled a class assignment that signaled a turning point in her work. The class was required to take photos and present them to the professor and class. The photos she took were later used as an inspiration for one of her next paintings.
At the time, Johnson said she was having trouble feeling sexually empowered and was struggling with finding her sexuality. She went home, and in front of the camera set up in front of her, she took pictures of her legs.
With pink panties, red and black striped stockings scrunched over her knees, near her calves, she posed – her legs pressed together, toes are pointed in a pair of Dr. Martin Mary Jane shoes. The silver bars of her wheelchair framed her legs.
The moment Davidson saw the photos, Johnson recalled that she was shocked and delighted with her courage to present such a bold statement about a vulnerable subject. Her mentor assured her that, yes, she was ready at that point to explore her creative voice.
That was the last time the artist featured herself in one of her pieces.
However, Johnson created a character that has become her alter ego: A small brown sparrow wearing a whoopee cap with an attached propeller. His name is Whirly Bird, the little bird who can’t fly, but he is determined.
“It was a few years into painting when I started with Whirly Bird,” Johnson said. “He is me, and he started to fly, and he started to do something that he wanted to do, anyway that he was going to do it.”