By Gina Malone
The camera taught artist April Johnson that composition matters, and even though these days she picks up a paintbrush as often as she looks through a viewfinder, she appreciates that early lesson of training the eye that is so fundamental to nearly every creative process. “Through my traditional training, I get the image right in the camera first,” she says. “I may explore the area of interest with new ideas, but each image is complete in its composition in the camera.”
Johnson spent years in the high-pressured corporate world photographing architecture. She had followed up her college experience at Kent State University with a move to New York City in the 1980s to attend the School of Visual Art (SVA). “It was tough living in NYC, but with commitment to myself I graduated,” she says. “I purposely chose SVA, a multidisciplinary college of art: highly technical education, innovative curriculum and unparalleled faculty.”
In the city, she was surrounded by buildings that stimulated her creative eye. “I have always loved architecture and found my photographic subject in the skyscrapers of NYC and discovered my artistic language,” she says. “As I developed my style, I found a departure from norm and began incorporating my knowledge of graphic arts to create unique, ‘abstract’ photographs. I look for the quieter view, above the noise and clutter of the street to the building’s design. Architecture is visually stimulating; I can immediately find shapes, elements and design through my camera and work to my heart’s content.”
Her work drew the praise of architects, including Philip Johnson, SVA instructors and corporate art consultants alike. “One of my highlights while living in NYC was when I was invited to have my large abstract architectural photos included in a four-woman group show at the Cork Gallery at Lincoln Center,” says Johnson. Her work caught the eye of a consultant for Citicorp Venture Capital Group and was used for an annual report, the design of which garnered national and international awards. “This exposure launched my career working for clients like Apple Computer, AmSouth Bank, Caterpillar and many others,” says Johnson. She was able to take a “rather boring subject” like cement production, she says, and challenge herself to make it visually appealing. “Lafarge [an industrial company specializing in cement, concrete and construction aggregates] was a good example of how my abstracts were accepted and appreciated in the corporate world,” says Johnson.
When she felt herself becoming burned out from corporate work, she looked toward the Blue Ridge Mountains where family was living. “I happily retired and relocated to Asheville for a simpler and more gentle way of life,” she says. “I joined local and regional camera clubs, sharing the beauty of this area with fellow photographers.”
The death of her beloved King Charles Cavalier, Remy, set her on a different creative path. “This loss moved me to change my focus to use my photography skills portraying and honoring our beloved animals, our pets and their people,” she says. To that end, she established Asheville Pet Photography.
A personal health scare and, subsequently, the onset of COVID drove her, like many, into seclusion. “Now in isolation with no clientele,” she says, “I needed to find a way to produce artwork and connect people and our beloved pets.” At an annual conference of the Professional Photographers of America (PPA), she learned about a digital process called hand-rendered mixed-media artwork. Being home during the pandemic gave her time to explore and learn about the technique. The process involves an art pen as paintbrush and a screen as canvas. “I never use a push-button preset,” says Johnson. “Every brushstroke in the painting is my own. I then print to canvas and use a five-step archival process on the final oil painting. It takes four to five weeks to complete a portrait. In the end, if you can connect to the piece, if it has an impact and you feel the emotion I hope to convey, then this engagement is what I consider a successful portrait.”
The process improves upon her former medium, she says. “For me, being able to paint gives me what photography did not: the ability to create ethereal and delicate expressions in the portraits.” Her intent, she adds, is to “portray the animal’s inner voice through their eyes and expression to give them a voice sharing their true love, devotion and inner beauty that transcends words.”
She recently began offering dog portraits through the American Kennel Club after its president saw her paintings of Afghan hounds. And this past summer her submitted portrait was chosen as one of the winning selections from 5,000 entries in the PPA 2021 International Photographic Competition. It will be published in PPA’s prestigious Imaging Excellence Collection.
“It is very satisfying to create emotional and honorable portraits of our loved ones, whether human or animal,” says Johnson. “It is so rewarding that our love of animals is universal and transcends time and culture.”
Her newest works are part of a collection called Backyard Bird Series and are available at the recently renovated Blue Moon Gallery and Framing in Brevard. “I’m always excited when one of our artists starts to express themselves in different techniques and art forms,” says gallery owner Rob Travis. “I get to observe the whole evolution of the process, as I did in April’s case: from the fomenting of an idea or concept, to the refinement of different skill sets, and, finally, to selling the finished artwork to our customers. The overall improvement to our gallery space is the best!”
To learn more, visit AprilJohnsonPortraiture.com or Instagram @avlpetphoto, or call 828.230.3685. April Johnson Portraiture is located in Hendersonville. Find Johnson’s work at Blue Moon Gallery and Frame in Brevard and at Woolworth Walk in Asheville.