Interview // Visual Artist Zachary Johnson / by Spirited Magazine

Spirited #2 [Full Archive: Cloak and Dagger]
Interview with Zachary Johnson
by Amanda Maciel Antunes


I first met artist Zachary Johnson a few years ago at Joe’s Pub in New York City before his band The Cinematic Underground took the stage. I had to look straight up to meet his gaze as the six foot forever thin man lit a cigarette through fingerless gloves. He smiled as I asked for a light, melting my intimidation and cementing my admiration.
Zach left Colorado for a NYC film school, fell in love with the city and a girl, and began drawing in Moleskine journals. He recently displayed a show called The Lonely Cities, highlighting favorite views from favorite spots. He has also been working with design studio The Made Shop drawing passages of the Bible for a new book. His garage studio in Denver is overtaken by his ode to David Lynch’s movies, whiskey, and cigarettes. I was thrilled that I got the chance to chat about his transition to painting, the challenges of originality, getting a manager, and where he must live before he dies.
Deceptively simple, aggressively frank, and incessantly jarring, the work of the Rockies born artist strikes deep nerves in all that have the chance to see it.

Your entire family has always been very involved and working together in the Arts, but when have you decided to do this?

Yeah, well Nathan and my cousin Rian, when we were young were always making movies with all of the cousins that we would be cast in. I think I played a villain when I was like, five. Yeah, well I went to acting school after high school, just a two year conservatory in New York where you get a certificate of completion. So I have my certificate of completion in dramatic arts. But I drew a lot as a kid, just whatever. I used to draw the old movie posters for Mel Gibson and Harrison Ford movies. And so that was really my start. Drawing old movie posters from the 80’s. Not that old. And then in New York though, in acting school, in my second year there is when I started drawing in the moleskines and focusing on that more.

Why moleskines? I know you use them a lot.

Moleskines probably because they’re really portable and easy. I had taken some painting classes in high school and I wasn’t very good at paint and colors. So part of it was just to keep it black and white until I felt like I had kind of exhausted what I could do with pen and needed to add color to get what I was trying to capture. But a lot of it started just because they were small and portable. So I could just move around New York and sit down somewhere and get a cup of coffee and just draw. I found that it was fun working with limitations of just pen, paper, and you know, and see what I could come up with within those limitations.

And plus, a Moleskine is such a beautiful book, it’s almost the perfect simple book that you need in your bag.

Yeah, I first found it when I was living in the YMCA in midtown, and I was going to this Barnes & Noble that was near me, and I saw them, and they were what, the ‘Moleskine of Hemingway?’ Is that how they advertise it? That sounded pretty fucking cool. It was nice, and simple, and black, and portable…

And you can just stack them up on the windowsill and you’ve got your library of art.

Now that I’ve been working more in paintings and oils and stuff lately. It’s a big fucking mess, canvases everywhere and paint, it’s stressing me out.

And what about the show that you just had..Lonely Cities? Is that the name?

Yeah, The Lonely Cities.

Explain that show to me. Why the name and why did you draw all those cities? I think there were five cities involved?

Actually there were more cities than that involved, we just chose some of them to go on the poster, and then when we were putting it together we realized there were a few that were missing, like Pittsburg and Belgrade. But the lonely cities all started with New York. I moved back and forth to New York about six times in the last eight years? So I kind of move to New York for a little while and then it tries to kill me, and so I go home, or I go to Chicago. Or I lived in Boston when the Cinematic Underground was touring, but it all started with just drawing New York. I don’t know, New York is an incredible, amazing town, and I love it and I hate it and I just drew it all the time. It feels like there’s a lot of, I don’t know, stories in that town. And it has a certain mood, it has a certain magical quality.

That’s exactly how I feel. When I go to New York, I just feel invincible.

Yeah, I think that’s how I felt the first time I went to New York. I went when I was sixteen and still in high school for a summer acting program and it was unlike anywhere I’d ever been. You know, I was young and fell in love with the city, and fell in love with a girl. I think the thing about New York that I found, is that it can almost magnify whatever you’re feeling. And so, if you’re doing well, it’s the best place you can be, and if you’re not doing well it’s a really lonely place to be.

It sounds like a drug. A drug can do that to you as well, it magnifies your feelings.

A drug, drugs and booze, vices. We can include New York as a vice.

That’s a good way to put it. New York as a vice. I actually received a text at 3:30am from a couple of friends saying “You have to move to New York.” And I just, I don’t know. I said ‘yes’ because it was 3:30 and I was half asleep. I’ve considered it, it’s just, Boston has been good for me. It’s been really good, so I can’t get out of here right now.

Boston, I liked Boston, Boston is definitely different. I feel like each city that I’ve been in for any substantial amount of time has its own personality. A lot of the drawings were done in Boston as well, just taking the red line around to, you know, Harvard Square, or wandering around drunk at night.

Sounds about right. If you could live anywhere, in any of the cities, where would you live?


Ha ha, you’d go with Brazil? Well…

I don’t know, Hawaii. Or New York.

Really, Hawaii?

Someday. My plan is to move to Hawaii and paint dolphins and some point. Hawaii is a good place. I don’t know if I could actually live there, but it’s the happiest place I’ve found.
I don’t know about where I’d like to live. I mean, maybe New York again, but I’m really enjoying Colorado right now, and a lot of my best friends and family are here. And it’s a nice community of people in different artistic fields who can come together and comment on each others’ work and help each other out. Like Chris Kuehl, Chris and I do a lot of work together, or, well not a lot, but I go along on his photo shoots and drink coffee. But it’s fun.

I think that’s important. It doesn’t really matter where you are if you can find that community that can bring support and inspiration, and influences you as an artist. I don’t know if there’s a place necessarily that you can be happy, but if there’s a community you can be happy.

Exactly, and I’m starting to feel these days that what is more important to me is that community.

I mean, the reason we leave anywhere is because we haven’t found that community.

Yeah, and the grass is always greener. If you have people around that you really respect and love, and there is work you respect and love. It’s a tough business making stuff when you’re young, so it’s good to have people around. I think it sharpens what everybody’s doing, like, if everybody’s good and has different specializations – I don’t know if that’s a word…

I don’t know either, don’t ask me.

…but, specializations.

You’re asking a person who makes up words.

Shakespeare made up words.

Okay, well, I’m no Shakespeare.

When I think of you I think of William Shakespeare. The Tempest, specifically, I think it describes you. I haven’t read The Tempest, I don’t know what I’m talking about


Do you feel that when they say artists do their best work when they are depressed or having to struggle with life, do you see yourself in that situation?

I mean, I think it’s funny, I think they naturally have that sort of the starving, depressed artist is coming out with good stuff, when they’re on the edge or on the brink. I think when I was younger, when I was eighteen or whatever, moving around New York, I was pretty depressed, and art is a nice way, because … I think there is something to it. I don’t know how much I trust it, or if it’s a very sustainable or sustaining way to work, but a lot of it started there. You know, like, you’re depressed, so you sit there and write a song. Or you write a story, or you draw, you try to get your feelings out in a manageable way where you can deal with them, and they’re not just completely out of your control. So I find it’s helpful, because you can examine your feelings, and you’re not just at the whim of your feelings. But I think it’s bad to try to stay in that state or to conjure it up, or to rely on it. To work when you’re feeling down just doesn’t seem great. It’s the sort of thing where I feel the natural draw towards that, and so I try to fight against it. So, now when I work, you know, when I was working on the Bible, I would get coffee and work. But there are still nights, you know, when I grab a bottle of whisky and see what happens. It’s a funny thing…

Zachary Johnson drawing

I think it makes you more vulnerable, and you express yourself.

Or more honest maybe. Yeah, that’s actually a really good point. Because you do get more vulnerable, and honesty can come from when you’re just feeling bad and you don’t care and it’s not about trying to impress people or sway people, you can kind of just look at things how they appear to you.

Yeah that’s true, because personally, I don’t know, I do that to punish myself. Reva (poet & common friend) said once that sometimes, you think that you’re trying to prove something that is already proven, like you are trying to prove yourself to yourself as an artist.

Yeah, not all the time. And I think that’s how it’s become for me because I’m not beyond, you now, feeling bad, and work is a really good way to deal with that. I guess I don’t think it’s the best way to live, but I do paint a lot when I’m depressed, regardless of what I think of it.

I also have a quote, “Modern art is what happens when painters stop looking at girls and persuade themselves that they have a better idea.”

Yeah, I know that quote. I  love it. I think it’s hilarious and succinct way to say that modern art is largely bullshit. You know, the female form, and just the human form, the male form as well, go back as time-tested muses, and they’re beautiful. The naked human body is a beautiful thing, and modern art gets so message-oriented. It’s all this horse-shit about artists putting all their feeling on the page, which, who gives a shit. You know? Make something that looks good. Yeah, Zak Smith, who is this artist who illustrated Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, and he did a drawing for every page of the book, which is seven hundred and something pages, anyway, he’s amazing, and he’s got some really funny things to say about fine art and modern art, and how it’s become this snobby, trying to be smarter than everybody thing, and often looks just terrible. And ‘illustrator’ has kind of become a bad word in the art community, as if it’s somehow less good than somebody throwing shit on a canvas and putting it up for exorbitant amounts of money. So anyway, that quote says that much funnier and more succinctly.
I think you’d like him. I really like him. He’s a funny writer and has really clear ideas about what art is and what it isn’t and his thing is that it should look good. It’s nice reading him, because that’s how I’ve felt for years, is that it doesn’t need to have a paragraph explaining the meaning of it, it should look good.
And I wouldn’t blanket all modern art as bad, I think with any kind of movement in art there are some people who are really good and they know what they’re doing and they’re doing it for a reason. The thing with modern art is that I think it becomes a bit harder to tell what’s good and what’s not because anyone can do it, I suppose it.

I think it all depends whether you have a good or bad experience. Films, as in many different art forms, are inspiring in general, sometimes we love it so much we want to be a part of it, but we’re not necessarily great at it. Your paintings feel very cinematic to me though, it does make you feel inside a story, someone’s life. Do you feel that your love for movies have influenced your paintings in a way?

Marke (brother) and I have been working on this double project and we get a lot of our cues from David Lynch’s movies. I love films and books and that’s kind of what inspires me. But with art, for example, when I was younger I drew when felt inspired or depressed and now I have to get shit done and you have deadlines. The inspiration is not always there. A lot of it you just have to start. I think Hemingway always made himself write four hours a day. I think that’s a good discipline. You just have to dedicate yourself for a good amount of hours each day.

David Lynch? Is it coming out soon?

The paintings of Davis Lynch frames, I think I said coming soon on Tumblr, which means in the next 25 years. [laughs]
The feelings and every frame in his movies is just so fucking gorgeous. I think it’d be fun to just go through his movies and pick 20 screen shots and interpret them.

That’s exactly what Spirited is all about, find a theme and a different media and interpret as a whole new experience. You interpret the original to make it original.

There’s this thing about originality, everyone wants what they do to be wholly original. And that’s a really daunting way to approach work that you’ll be this complete individual. I much prefer to tip my head in gratitude to other people that are doing really well. And the whole idea that this is all built on people’s shoulders that come before us… I think that’s actually freeing. Thom Yorke was talking about the album OK Computer, and said they were basically trying to make Miles Davis’s Bitches Brew and they couldn’t do it, so that’s what they came up with.

That’s a great way to put it.

You don’t want to rip people off but I find that once it goes through your own individual filter, things change and you come up with your own perspective.

Absolutely. Now, you get to answer your most important question [laughs] Cloak or Dagger?

Cloak, probably. But they go nicely together, don’t they?