When Christopher Johnson came to Charleston Southern University he was known as “CJ” by his friends, 90 miles away in Columbia. He planned to study biology with an eye on a career as a veterinarian. Those plans took a major detour after an unexpected discovery in his dorm room. Christopher switched majors his junior year after realizing there was something else inside that was screaming to come out.
Johnson is now a senior scheduled to graduate in December with a graphic design degree. Things have changed, not only in how he views things, but also in the ways people now see him.
The nickname is no longer a preferred moniker. Christopher invented an art form in his dorm room that he describes as “rebellious, but safe.” In deference to his former self, though, he hopes that one day his style will be known as “CJ Art.”
Johnson, 21, talks passionately about what creatively surfaces when he starts painting.
What separates his work from anything else you might have seen is that he paints to music, and it takes him five minutes to make it happen from start to finish.
There’s one other aspect that might intrigue your artistic sensibilities. One of his favorite musical muses is Jimmy Durante. While you older readers might be shaking your heads, I’ll give the rest of you a moment to Google the name.
As director of The Graduate School at CSU, I first saw Johnson in action during one of the university’s chapel services. He prefers not to think of himself as a performer, but I’m sorry, it’s amazing to watch him in full flight.
He has set up his easel at the City Market in downtown Charleston. He’s shown his talent at an art gallery in Charlotte and at a wedding in Columbia. He’ll provide his own music or paint to live music at the particular venue.
Once he starts, though, get ready for the ride because it is fast and provides an unknown destination.
Even Johnson is unsure where those five minutes will take him. When the music begins, there’s a flurry of sketching and shadowing that keep those watching in rapt attention.
The brushes, charcoal and chalk combine with paint from tubes and spray cans that soon breathe life into something that was absolutely nothing mere moments before.
Johnson appears to be in control, but he’ll candidly admit he’s not always sure he’ll make it to the finish line. He often gives a finishing touch by igniting a small flame to the aerosol. It’s a crowd pleaser, but probably not something he should admit to perfecting in his dorm room.
Johnson admits that he’s given away much more of his work than he’s sold. At the moment, he’s a full-time student working on the weekends to pay some bills.
What makes him happy is seeing people who he observed as sad, hurt or upset start to smile after his painting is complete.
His grandmother exposed him to the music of Louis Armstrong, Dean Martin and Durante. He found the beat and the horns of James Brown’s music on his own. At times, a Christian musician will provide the musical backdrop. He paints to them all.
Later this month, he’ll carry his easel to a fashion show in Charlotte. In March, he’s been asked to travel to Miami to paint during spring break.
He’d love to show what he can do at Spoleto. I have to believe there’s a place for this homegrown artist there, especially in Piccolo Spoleto.
How does he assess his work?
“I paint really fast,” says Johnson, but as far as quality, “It’s what I got.”
What he has is a gift for connecting with people. Here’s hoping he continues to find ways of unwrapping that gift for others to enjoy.
Reach Warren Peper at firstname.lastname@example.org.