Canvased Dreams with Micah Johnson
Interviewed and written by Janet Igah
If you’ve been following Lovecraft Country’s season one debut on HBO, you might have fallen in love with the fictional character and Black Astronaut Orithyia Blue. In real life – set to inspire hope, and to prove that Black Astronauts can exist, is Indiana native and former Major League Baseball player, Micah Johnson. Johnson made the bold transition from sports to finding his passion and purpose in painting beautiful portraits of Black children’s’ dreams on canvas. After a brief display of artistic talent at an impromptu showcase during his spring training with the New York Dodgers, his fellow players and colleagues encouraged Johnson to pursue his art.
Without really knowing what he wanted the focus of his work to be, he set out to develop this untapped gift by continuing to paint. In the following months he held an exhibit at the Dodgers Stadium and then shortly after being traded to the Atlanta Braves, Johnson held a solo exhibit at The Woodruff Art Center before finally taking a brief hiatus in 2017.
Retired, inspired, and now living in New Hampshire with the backdrop of the woods and the waters – In what he calls the best of both worlds. Johnson took up an art studio, a half-hour from his new home, during the height of the COVID-19 outbreak. Here, in this new normal of isolation and no contact, Johnson reflects on how he became inspired while entering his journey to creating some of his most memorable works.
As all callings do, art sort of found him and so did his subjects. Reminiscent, Johnson explains that after his retirement, he just wanted to paint. “Art was kind of my thing, like a release, for all [my] stress and anxieties [I] had to deal with… I was like; I gotta do art, it’s very therapeutic for me and my mental health. [The year I retired from baseball] was a struggle for me; and here I was, trying to paint, but I had nothing to paint.”
Inspiration for painting his current subjects came when his four-year-old nephew asked him if it was possible for Astronauts to be Black? The question was more about identity than it was about a profession. It inspired a world of imagination for Johnson, he explains that “[If] this four-year-old feels like he has limitations, I’m going to paint him as an Astronaut, so that he could see himself as an Astronaut.” This is the identity that seems to be at the center and soul of his work. “That [and] my past fueled me because I chased my dreams and I achieved my dreams!… I just wanted to be able to inspire other kids to chase their dreams and [to know] that they can be anything! That’s why I paint.”
His perspective and defined technique have garnered him national recognition and his art is quickly becoming a collectors’ favorite. To him, art is an expression of his freedom as an individual. “ My messaging and purpose is through art.” Something he is sure of, as the height of the Black Lives Matter movement takes center stage. “If you look at my subjects, how can you justify them being killed? … Are you going to see them as a threat when they get older?” In today’s world, Johnson’s work could be considered the re-humanizing of Black life.
Currently, his work is inspired by his reactions and emotions to nationally-publicized Black killings at the hands of the Police and he is directly committed to inspiring and impacting Black communities to thrive. “The timing of everything has kind of shaped my art.” He relegates his lived experience as a Black kid; that growing up as an athlete afforded him a privilege that he hadn’t realized until now, sheltered him from experiencing racial tensions. This awakening has transcended his art into new heights that keeps him aware of the platform he has as an artist. Having at first, to leverage his name as a former athlete, he is one hundred percent, doing the work to make his art the center of his expression and owning this new phase of his career. This is more than art for him, this is passion made manifest.
While he acknowledges that his athletic career may have influenced how people receive his art at first, he also knows that he has and will continue to put in the time and work to grow his art following. “[In the beginning] it showed, because I wasn’t really getting the attention of the art world, or talking about collaborating with different brands… but now, I’ve put the work in, and I work non-stop. Now, I have the attention of the art world.”
Collected and adored, his work is especially favored by those who can see themselves and the lives of others mirrored in his art. It’s no wonder his first gallery show, at The Art Angels Gallery, sold out on opening night. He was asked to create more art – and fast! It was clear then, what is even more apparent now, that there is a clear connection to his artistic relief that resonates with a powerful message; just beholding it, internalizing it, and feeling it. About the subjects in his art, he says: “These Black kids, you may think they’re cute now, but they are [going to] grow up at some point, are you going to sit there in front of your TV and watch them be murdered?”
His most memorable piece to date, an interactive photograph that he recently took of two Black boys from Indianapolis. A new artform for him, outside of painting. The photograph is of an Astronaut in a field with two brothers, seven and eight years old, and a door to their dreams. Speaking about the photograph, Johnson is proud to embark on such an inspiring and impactful piece.
“[The photograph is] synced [with] time, these boys are seven and eight years old, so until they are 18 years old, on their birthdays each year, a QR Code will pop up for people to contribute Bitcoin to these boys… to provide opportunities for them.” It is with passion that Johnson details the interactive art that lives on Apple TV. With a first birthday contribution happening this month, and each year on their birthdays, the door opens up, a little more, until the boys are finally fully turned around and they can see the Astronaut, which Johnson says symbolizes their dreams of whatever they want to do when they grow up.
“The financial system is not designed for the Black community to prosper.” Says Johnson, who was introduced to the brothers through his sister. He wants to change that by affording them the opportunity to have currency that does not depreciate in value, but only increases, as they age. He speaks to them regularly, and his work has inspired them to make paintings of their own. Johnson has become deeply invested in the progress of his ongoing work and contributions to supporting the Black community.
Rooted in a deep sense of self and honor to God, his philosophy on life is that his gifts are not meant to be wasted, and even without formal training, pursue them. “You just have to want something so bad, that you’re willing to fail.” Failing to win, a mantra he uses to push the envelope of creativity and garner the energy necessary to keep creating beyond the fear of the unknown. Able to leave behind the spaces of innovation at points of high frustration, he is willing to walk away when he needs a moment and come back to that place with new inspiration when he’s ready. “You’ve got to learn to let it happen… If it takes time [to create], it takes time.”
The duality within him, of Athlete and Artist, has battled it out for the last year. Now, Micah Johnson, the Artist has emerged as the winning mediator between his emotions and his expression. “In a few years, I don’t even think people will think about me playing baseball… Life isn’t all about one eden hole.” He says of his transition to becoming a full-time Artist. A multi-layered Johnson enjoys the process of failing, learning, and falling in love with this new place he’s in. Developing a refined eye for detail, he says the eyes are the focal point of his newest pieces and is adamant that his opportunities to evolve as an Artist have only begun.
When asked, What is Cool about America, Johnson deems that “Cool is being independent and having your own thoughts…doing what you want!.” And If he ran for president he’d “Make America Cool again!” – Something, we all can aspire towards.
“Art was kind of my thing, for all my stress and anxieties.” Micah Johnson
“Cool is being independent and having your own thoughts.” Micah Johnson.