PALM SPRINGS, CALIFORNIA
We pulled up to Johnie Thornton’s ranch-style home around noon on Sunday. Hidden behind tall hedges, it was the perfect picture of mid-century California architecture. Once inside, we were greeted by a cool, machine-powered breeze and his bounding rescue puppy, Sophie. A delectable brunch spread with donuts, champagne, and orange juice awaited us on wood block counters, and gorgeously re-upholstered vintage furniture seemed perfectly arranged for a Chateau Marmont-style photoshoot.
A self-taught artist born and raised in Southern California, Johnie draws much of his inspiration from his environment, evidenced by the dreamy blues that dominate most of his pieces and draw comparisons to the polluted depths of the nearby Pacific Ocean. Geometric shapes add movement to human faces that range from contemplative to orgasmic.
With a bejeweled hat sat crooked upon his head and an easy, infectious smile, one would hardly guess that prior to pursuing art full-time, Johnie once had a successful career in corporate America. I wondered aloud how he made that transition.
Interview by Danielle Dorsey Video and Photography by B. Justine Jaime
“Funnily enough, a psychic -- and I don’t really believe in psychics, but this psychic approached me -- she said she needed to tell me something. She told me very personal things about my life, she told me that I needed to leave my career and I needed to go into art. This is without ever speaking to me in my life. So I kind of took that as a sign from the universe. I saved up a bunch of money, which turned out to not be enough money, and I went into art full time. I lasted about six months until my money ran out. Then I got a job in a prop house, worked in that industry for a while doing art for scenic work and was able plan it a lot better and save a lot more money before finally taking the leap, which still ended up still not being enough money (laughs), but two years later I’m still making art full-time and that in itself is an accomplishment.”
Whether he’s splicing body parts with geometry or depicting men in their moments of climax, Johnie has a talent for capturing the vulnerability we so often try to hide. Drawing inspiration from his time in corporate America, he told us that his series of men masturbating has another, more subtle meaning.
“The reason I started doing them in the first place is because men are expected to be macho, and I just so happened to Google the definition of manliness and found that it roots back down to the most basic form of strength. To me, seeing men in that moment is a moment of vulnerability and it’s a moment of release. They’re not trying to be macho, they’re not trying to be masculine, they’re letting all of that melt away. I portrayed a lot of them in suits, a lot of that tied to another meaning within the works about my past with corporate America and the hunger and lust for money and success, kind of like the idea of masturbating your ego. I saw a lot of that in the business world and I despised it so that definitely comes through in that series as well.”
Johnie originally moved from the Bay Area to LA to delve into the city’s art scene, but he soon found himself splitting his time between the City of Angels and Palm Desert, where less distractions made it easier to concentrate. After spending less and less time at his LA apartment, he now resides in Palm Desert full-time.
“I do miss living with another artist. My partner Marcus works in design and has a good eye, but when Bri and I lived together I was able to just kind of grab her and say, ‘Hey, why is this piece bothering me?’ and she could immediately point it out. Marcus still gives me advice regarding palette and general design sensibility, but I do miss having another artist around to help me work through those blocks.”
Speaking of Marcus, suddenly he was back from his pedicure with a friend. Meanwhile, we’d just finished our second bottle of champagne, and were huddled around their kitchen island gossiping like old friends, touching on every subject from Johnie’s sprouting green thumb to our individual experiences growing up religious.
In the midst of trading holy war stories, Johnie shared how his religious past reveals itself in his current work.
“I always had questions about the Bible when I was growing up and never really got answers. I was told things like, "Just have faith" and "Pray about it.” I always felt different, like an outsider, in church. I saw blind faith as just that, blind. I wanted answers, I wanted more than just “Pray about it.” My current work touches on these ideas while parts of a grander concept are being explored. Ignorance and blind faith have a lot to do with humankind's current situation.”
It was nearing dusk when we finally got back on the road toward Los Angeles. Taking one last look at Johnie’s stylish home, I couldn’t help but think that despite his detour through corporate America and various bumps along the road, Johnie Thornton had finally made “it.”
As for the secret to making it as a full-time artist?
“Make sure you really, really want to fucking do it. I have spent the last ten years of my life, every decision I’ve made, personally, professionally, has been geared towards my goal of being able to support myself entirely from my art. It’s extremely difficult and I’ve stumbled several times along the way. I think making a plan is a huge thing. I went into the corporate world thinking that I was going to do it forever and I hated it, but it taught me how to run a business and as an artist you are running your own business and you have to take things very seriously. I know a lot of artists that fuck off and don’t show up on time and flake out on shows and I think the most important thing is realizing that you’re a professional and art is your career. Make sure you want it because it’s a lot of work and it’s not easy… Or marry rich.”