They say that whatever it is that swims up from the depths of our dark subconscious, art always has a story behind it, be it via pastels, metal, granite or Lego.
For the late Sooke artist Jan Johnson, his metal sculptures were a form of expression; a way of telling a story of something too beautiful, too haunting, or even too horrible to be put into words or be spoken of.
And now, the public will have its chance to see his works and interpret their own stories for the first time ever since his passing four years ago, with the Tales of Woe and Whimsy exhibit being put on by the Sooke Region Museum starting on Oct. 24 until March 31, 2016.
The exhibit is set to show 25-35 of Johnson’s pieces, all of which were created from a colourful collection of metal scrap ranging between anything like a rusty old clock, to a shotgun, to a bunch of gears, to the front end of your mother’s old Cadillac.
His works often reflected stories of sacrifice, sexuality, abuse of power, death and war. But despite the heavy themes of his works, he was a quiet man, recalls his wife, Mary-Alice Johnson, his wife.
“I’d come home, and Jan would be welding these things up, and he was such a well-read person, he loved stories of all kinds,” she said. “He was a quiet man, so I didn’t ask him ‘what’s that about?’ but when I did, often his response would be, ‘it’s just what you see.’”
No doubt, he’d seen a lot. Before travelling the world and spending majority of his time in Asia as a transportation economist, it was his experience in Vietnam in his younger years that started welding and moulding things into shapes, or even scenes of what he had seen.
Johnson settled in Sooke in 1976 after a haunting tour of duty during the Indo-China war. His role was as a logistics and transportation platoon leader in Vietnam.
“When he came back, he said it was an ‘utterly-futile war, and that it set something going in his brain to do art,” Mary-Alice said, adding that it wasn’t until after he went on military leave back to his home, a cattle ranch in Wyoming, that he “started sticking things together.”
She said much of his way of building his creations was, ironically, based on a military ideology: observe, record, and report.
“As the artist and the person seeing everything around him, he would then report it through his art, often which included military atrocities and misuse of power,” she said.
It wasn’t all just disturbing war stuff though. Johnson also had a great sense of humour, poking fun at all kinds of ironic, and often ridiculous aspects of daily life, such as boredom, or the reoccurring subject of company executives making bold and risky decisions behind closed doors.
He also loved the idea animals and their place among humans, which is why he’d often fuse (often literally) the two ideas by creating a face, or a shape of a bird or animal from something as cold and trivial as an exhaust pipe.
Johnson said her husband created around 400 sculptures, though only a handful were chosen for the upcoming exhibit, due to space limitations. Luckily however, visitors will get to experience pieces from each of his most heartfelt themes.
Naturally, even those in charge of putting on the exhibit itself were touched by the deep nature of his works, such as Brianna Shambrook, collections and exhibits manager at the Sooke Region Museum who spent months putting on the collection and picking the right pieces for the exhibit.
“They’re all kind of mysterious, and because Jan is no longer with us, we can’t ask him any questions on what they mean,” she said. “Some of the titles give us hints on what stories they come from, or what religions, but he wanted people to just look at it and make their own assumptions.”
Tales of Woe and Whimsy opens to the public on Saturday, Oct. 24 and runs until March 31, 2016.