Art-making is rarely a straightforward path. Life itself is full of twists that leave us unsure of where to put our feet next. However, unexpected situations can be just the push someone needs to go for what they desire. When James Ming Johnson joined the Post-Baccalaureate Program in Studio Art at Brandeis University, he had been trying to narrow down his life to its uttermost essentials. For Johnson, this meant getting rid of the preoccupations of the day-to-day to finally find a space — both physical and mental — to nourish his artistic practice. Moving to Massachusetts suburbia, he says, “was a nice change from New York.” Part of Brandeis School of Graduate Arts and Sciences, the Post-Baccalaureate Program gives students the space to grow as artists and develop a portfolio for graduate school admission. The private studios in the Epstein Building offer 24/7 access and a mock-up gallery space where students engage critically with each other’s artworks.

Born in Thailand to Thai and African-American parents, Johnson moved to Southern California at the age of six. Once an aspiring filmmaker, the artist received his bachelor’s degree in Film and Media Studies from Stanford before realizing he was a painter. “I was really invested in the idea that cinema was the ultimate form of expression because it combines components of the visual arts with music, photography, acting and all of these other elements.” After graduation, his uncontainable passion for drawing allured him instead to incorporate his interest in film into his painting practice. Finally secure in his career aspirations, Johnson is exploring the intersections of history, cinematography, and the visual arts as a Post-Baccalaureate student. In Johnson’s studio walls, there are six oil stick paintings and a canvas painted black ready to be sketched on.

“I start with a black canvas,” Johnson said, pointing at the sprouting stage of his latest project. “Before coming to Brandeis, I studied at the Art Students League in New York where I was introduced to the technique of painting on a black surface and I loved it.” The artist then applies thick oil stick strokes that create the midtones and highlights. Beginning with gestural marks that can extend across the whole canvas, the painter solidifies his expressionism into more concrete forms. In spite of the abstract components of his creative process, the artist has always been drawn to the formalist aspects of art-making. “In a lot of cases in modern life, people forget about the importance of fundamental skills such as in classical drawing. When I decided I wanted to pursue art seriously, I knew that classical training had to be part of my toolkit.” said Johnson. “Modern art schools are getting away from that, for better or for worse, so I joined the Art Students League.” 

Juggling an “unsatisfying tech job” and evening art classes in New York, Johnson spent two years studying classical drawing and life figure painting under traditional painters such as Ephreim Rubenstein and Costa Vavagiakis. At Brandeis, he contributed his technical knowledge as a Teaching Assistant for Catherine della Lucia’s 3D Design and Ariel Frieberg’s “Introduction to Drawing class. “I really enjoy teaching.” says the painter vigorously. “It’s really satisfying to see people improve their drawings.” For Johnson, teaching has not only improved his ability to provide better feedback to students. It has also allowed him to think more critically about his own work. Faculty and classmates at Brandeis have provided him enriching feedback that has helped him solidify his practice. Following advice from Joe Wardwell, head of the Fine Arts Department, Johnson switched from oils and acrylics to oil sticks. This transition “added more character to his paintings” and helped him reconnect with his childhood. “When I was a kid, I used to draw with crayons all the time, which is why I love oil pastel so much as an adult. You can see every stroke was applied. I like that it keeps me away from the brush.”  Since then, Johnson’s work has become not only richer in color and texture but also more self-assured. “One of the best pieces of advice I got was to use more paint. It really has helped me to be less tentative,” says the painter. “It allowed me to get out of my comfort zone by showing me that I can still make a beautiful painting even if it’s not defined or precise.” Nevertheless, Johnson’s work has not only grown aesthetically since he joined the Post-Baccalaureate program, but it has also pushed him to make the conceptual framework behind his practice more meaningful and substantial. 

Dealing with ideas of public memory and American cultural heritage, Johnson’s work is deeply influenced by the aesthetics of Southern California,  old Hollywood Western, and historical photography. “Historical photography was perhaps a bigger influence than film,” said Johnson. “I started painting from historical photographic sources. It is fascinating how history can influence artistic production, especially photography.” The artist believes that “even if they are not all the time completely objective, photographs have the power to evidence things that actually happened and people that actually lived.” Through his documentarian lens, Johnson sources images that have cultural relevance to generate discussions around historicy, permanence and racial segregation.

Next to the black canvas, two of Johnson’s artworks depict a baseball game from 1947. The players’ faces are smudged to anonymity with visceral strokes of oil stick. The paintings are based off photographs from the Negro Leagues, a conglomerate of African American baseball teams active largely between 1920 and the late 1940s. “Before Jackie Robinson became the first baseball player to break the color barrier, professional baseball was segregated in the United States since 1880,” says Johnson. “Baseball is such an American sport and sports are a lot about celebration, but we shouldn’t forget that we have this history.” Bringing attention to issues of racial segregation and preserving the legacy of Black American cultural contributions is paramount for the painter. “We should celebrate the genius of those players, too.”

Driving aimlessly in the highways of Southern California, Johnson’s passion for historical references met his nostalgia for the desolate landscapes and decaying road signs of his hometown. “When you go into the desert, you can still see a lot of elements from the myth of the Wild West,” says Johnson. “It’s still very much ingrained in the aesthetics of the Southwestern part of the country.” In spite of the easily identifiable character of American symbols such as cowboys, Westerns and retro design, the artist thinks that a great part of culture is glamorized in memory rather than preserved in practice. “As I was driving through the desert I saw all these run-down mid-century road signs that no one takes care of. People idealize symbols of American culture,” says the painter. “But when you go to these places you realize that they are probably forgotten.” Johnson wants his work to generate conversations around history in order to make a social contribution to the preservation of American cultural heritage. “I care about raising awareness about the artistic potential that is in overlooked parts of history, which is why I am trying to find a way to relate these themes with the contemporary moment.” Johnson hopes that his time developing his practice at Brandeis will allow him to pursue a Master of Fine Arts in the upcoming years.

Currently exhibited at the Post-Baccalaureate mid-year exhibition, Johnson’s paintings are up in the walls of the Dreitzer Gallery in the Spingold Theater alongside a creative cohort of visual artists.