A former Emporia State University student has been making a name for himself by exploring race, culture and identity through art.
It’s a somewhat unexpected career for Barry Johnson — who goes by “barry johnson” professionally — because he’s never had any formal art training.
“I think we’re all born artists and it’s nothing that I had an inherent talent for more than anyone else as a kid,” he said. “I was one of the kids that always wanted to watch cartoons more than I wanted to watch sports. My dad and I would go back and forth about it — and I did play sports — but I was really heavily influenced by the art that I saw and cartoons. So, I spent so much time as a kid drawing, but I think naturally it just seemed like, as a young black boy, that I was going to grow up and go big in business because that’s what I was told was the thing to do.”
So, johnson did just that. After graduating from Topeka High School, he enrolled at ESU and majored in business and marketing. He enjoyed the program and learned a lot from his professors, so much so that it was that experience in Emporia that eventually pushed him into a new career path.
“It’s funny, because I went to school for business and marketing, but there was something that one of my old professors told me, and it’s just stuck with me forever,” he said. “He was talking about how whenever you’re trying to become good in life, he equated it to a student to go from a ‘D’ to a ‘C.’ It’s not that hard. You’ve got to put in maybe like five hours more of work. And for a student to go from a ‘C’ to a ‘B,’ maybe you’ve got to put in an additional 7 - 10 hours of work. But he was like, think about how hard it is for a student to go from a 95 to a 99; you might have to put in an additional 20 to 30 hours of work. That’s just something that’s really echoed throughout my life. So I’ve always just had this whole idea of, like, there’s always so much more I can be doing if I just really dedicate the time and energy to it.”
With those words lingering in the back of his mind, johnson headed west to Seattle in 2009. He took a job with the American Red Cross, working in volunteer recruitment. Later, he took a job with Deloitte, a consulting firm, working with big name clients on a wide range of projects. Successful and enjoying his life on the west coast, johnson said he still felt a little restless.
That’s when he started sketching again.
“That’s really what found me in art, while I was doing a little bit of design on the side at Deloitte,” johnson said. “I just started sketching to keep myself super creative because I was just doing numbers for a living. And, as I started sketching, I was like, I think this is something that I can start to do a little bit more. So it, in a matter of a year, led me to start to do larger projects that ended up becoming paintings and, of those, paintings ended up becoming gallery shows and those gallery shows ended up becoming solo shows and exhibitions around the world and all of these different projects.”
Feeling empowered, johnson decided to jump into the world of art full-time. Since then, he’s worked in a wide variety of mediums, with murals, paintings, photography, sculpture and even a children’s book under his belt. Johnson also recently recorded a TEDx Talk in which he talks about creating new personas in order to achieve goals.
Through it all, he has worked to celebrate himself and the diverse world around him.
“It’s one of the things where, I think I just want to make sure that I’m being a light for the culture, you know; uplifting people that look like me, and people that need to know things about people that look like me,” he said. “That’s always going to be something that I always feel like I need to put on the canvas. I’m a student of the world, so I’m a person that very easily can be influenced by the things that are around me. So if I’m just, like, checking out a movie, I can be like, ‘Wow, I really like how that cinematography was done in that movie.’ I always get caught up on these weird little pieces of things.”
Everything he creates is designed to help promote culture, communication and connection. That’s something that appeals to people of all ages and backgrounds.
“It’s really amazing whenever you get a child, whenever you get someone that’s older, whenever you get someone that’s black, white, of Latino descent, of Asian descent, someone that is Catholic, someone that is a Jewish, all these different religious denominations — all of them kind of converge around a work and they all have their own unique response to it,” he said. “And that is why I’m an artist, is to continue to break down those barriers that people have.”
Some of that has been a challenge, johnson said, since he never had any formal art training. He experiments more with colors to create realistic skin tones and textures. He isn’t afraid to use different items in his art and he isn’t afraid to make mistakes.
It’s all a celebration of diversity.
“Every single thing I’ve ever made, it’s never to say ‘black versus white,’” he said. “It’s never to say black is better than white or white is better than black. Like, it’s never meant to do that. My entire body of work is only meant to say, ‘everyone is unique in their own way.’”
johnson credits his time at ESU for helping him learn to market himself in the art world, even without the typical background. He’s grateful for all of his experiences and the relationships he made along the way.
“This school actually did more for me then I actually knew about, and it’s only until I get to sit back and reflect on it that it, like, really had a major impact,” johnson said.
And it’s inspired him to remind people that it’s never too late to follow your dreams or start on a new path.
“I would tell people it’s never too late,” johnson said. “It’s only too late whenever you’re dead. So, if you decide that you want to pivot and try something new or try something fun or try something that you just haven’t tried before, it’s never too late. Take hold of the now and go after it. That’s really it.”
For more information about johnson, visit www.barryjohnson.co.