100 Dallas Creatives: No. 31 Critical Artist Thor Johnson

If you see this dancing machine, buy him a beer.
If you see this dancing machine, buy him a beer.

Mixmaster presents "100 Creatives," in which we feature cultural entrepreneurs of Dallas in random order.

Thor Johnson has great stories. A lot of great stories. And a lot of shocking ones too. He's been in and out of the art scene in Dallas since the 80's, with his first exhibition when he was still in high school at the long-defunct Theatre Gallery, which was owned by Russell Hobbs in conjunction with his Prophet Bar. Although, he was never formally trained, Johnson's art has been reviewed by major national publications, and his art remains some of the most provocative work in the city, with its consistent critique of the corrupt mythologies we use to build our societies from religion to politics.

Plus, Johnson is one of the most recognizable faces in the left of center Dallas art scene. You might not see him in slideshows of the DMA art ball, but if you frequent local concerts or art openings, he's the one with the big smile dancing to the music.

Let's start at the beginning. What is your art origin story? Born here in Dallas, grew up in Lakewood on Lakewood Boulevard. I always drew, my mom got me clay and modeling supplies, watched Sesame Street and that kind of thing. When we moved when I was 10, a woman across the street from our new house, taught art lessons in her home, and it was very free. In high school, even though I went to this very repressive Christian school, I had this great art teacher. And I'm in this conservative environment, Reagan was the president, every day the rapture or the apocalypse was coming, and I didn't believe any of it even as a kid, but to be around these people who did - that was a huge influence on my art.

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Was it art all the way? I wanted to be a genetic engineer, but it was too much math and science. I just wanted to make monsters.

When did you start to take it seriously? I won a best Texas private schools watercolor, so that was cool. But, back then I used to go to these punk rock clubs in the 80's, I was like 15 and they would let us in. After the Twlight Room came along, then Theater Gallery and Prophet Bar came along. I had an art show at Theater Gallery in March of '87, and it got really good reviews. From that I had some other art shows, and more reviews. But then I got into music and had a good time with that, fell out of making art and made music instead.

Were you in a band? Yeah, it was called Sofa Kingdom. It was more a sticker than a band. But we a few shows at played at Club Clearview, Trees.

So you never did the art school thing? Well, I did go to UNT, but I had a bad experience there with a teacher. On the first day, this professor made us write down our experiences with art, and I thought it was just for her, so I wrote down the art shows I'd had that had been reviewed in national art publications. But then she made us hand them to the student next to us to read aloud. When the professor heard my stuff, her whole demeanor to me changed, nothing I did was good enough. I can figure draw fine, but it was never good enough anymore. Something someone else would get an A on, I would get a C on. But then my final project came around and she's given me a C in the class, and asks me if she can have my final project. I told her she could buy it. So then I went out to a school in New Mexico where I had to study Ancient Greek, which was rough. I came back and worked for framing companies and artists.

Your work when it's been displayed in Dallas since the beginning has received attention. Has the support for your work grown? Yeah, the last couple of years have been the best. It was Art Peña and his Ware:Wolf:Haus show that gave me the encouragement to get back into it. Art and Kevin (Ruben Jacobs). I had been pretty inactive before that. When I met him at Oliver Francis Gallery, we met and we talked about a show.

A lot of your work is about religion in a powerfully negative way. Were all of your religious experiences bad? It goes back to the Santa thing for me. I don't think my parents did it consciously. But like Santa Claus is the first god that a lot of children know, he's watching you, he's going to judge you, and he's going to reward you or punish you. And there's nothing about Jesus and his death at first, it's Santa and Rudolph and maybe baby Jesus. But then, a lot of Christians have this age of accountability thing, where five years old is when you'll know right from wrong, and if you die after that and you don't know the doctrine you'll go to hell forever and be tortured by god's enemy. Which that never made sense to me because if the devil is god's enemy then why is he doing work for god? So, they'll say around Easter time, they'll tell you the Easter bunny isn't real, and then Santa Claus isn't real, but Jesus is the real reason for the season and he's not going to ever be proven to be false. And you get this double whammy of my parents have been lying to me the whole time, but I have to believe this or i'm going to hell. It's like what they do in espionage, build up a false belief and then shatter it. So that's really deep in my view.

To me, your work, as dark as it is, can sometimes seem playful? Yeah, I want it to be funny. Makes it go down easier. Spoonful of sugar or whatever. I don't want to whine, or preach in any way, I'm interested in something deeper than that -- the stuff that makes people assholes on all sides, no matter what their affiliation. And I'm not innocent of course.

What do you believe about the world? I think that there are a lot of problems and not really any solutions. I think technology is going to help, advances in medicine, and being able to distribute things better. I'm talking about the future, hundreds of years from now. Barring global warming. Or a nuclear war.

100 Creatives: 100. Theater Mastermind Matt Posey 99. Comedy Queen Amanda Austin 98. Deep Ellum Enterpriser Brandon Castillo 97. Humanitarian Artist Willie Baronet 96. Funny Man Paul Varghese 95. Painting Provocateur Art Peña 94. Magic Man Trigg Watson 93. Enigmatic Musician George Quartz 92. Artistic Luminary Joshua King 91. Inventive Director Rene Moreno 90. Color Mavens Marianne Newsom and Sunny Sliger 89. Literary Lion Thea Temple 88. Movie Maestro Eric Steele 87. Storytelling Dynamo Nicole Stewart 86. Collaborative Artist Ryder Richards 85. Party Planning Print maker Raymond Butler 84. Avant-gardist Publisher Javier Valadez 83. Movie Nerd James Wallace 82. Artistic Tastemakers Elissa & Erin Stafford 81. Pioneering Arts Advocates Mark Lowry & Michael Warner 80. Imaginative Director Jeremy Bartel 79. Behind-the-Scenes Teacher Rachel Hull 78. Kaleidoscopic Artist Taylor "Effin" Cleveland 77. Filmmaker & Environmentalist Michael Cain 76. Music Activist Salim Nourallah 75. Underground Entrepreneur Daniel Yanez 74. Original Talent Celia Eberle 73. Comic Artist Aaron Aryanpur 72. Classical Thespian Raphael Parry 71. Dance Captain Valerie Shelton Tabor 70. Underground Culture Mainstay Karen X. Minzer 69. Effervescent Gallerist Brandy Michele Adams 68. Birthday Party Enthusiast Paige Chenault 67. Community Architect Monica Diodati 66. Intrepid Publisher Will Evans 65. Writerly Wit Noa Gavin 64. Maverick Artist Roberto Munguia 63. Fresh Perspective Kelsey Leigh Ervi 62. Virtuosic Violinist Nathan Olson 61. Open Classical's Dynamic Duo Mark Landson & Patricia Yakesch 60. Rising Talent Michelle Rawlings 59. Adventurous Filmmaker Toby Halbrooks 58. Man of Mystery Edward Ruiz 57. Inquisitive Sculptor Val Curry 56. Offbeat Intellect Thomas Riccio 55. Doers and Makers Shannon Driscoll & Kayli House Cusick 54. Performance Pioneer Katherine Owens 53. Experimental Filmmaker and Video Artist Mike Morris 52. Flowering Fashioner Lucy Dang 51. Insightful Artist Stephen Lapthisophon 50. Dallas Arts District 49. Farmer's Market Localvore Sarah Perry 48. Technological Painter John Pomara 47. Progressive Playmakers Christopher Carlos & Tina Parker 46. Purposive Chef Chad Houser 45. Absorbing Artist Jeff Gibbons 44. Artistic Integrator Erica Felicella 43. Multi-talented Director Tre Garrett 42. Anachronistic Musician Matt Tolentino 41. Emerging Veteran Actor Van Quattro 40. Festival Orchestrator Anna Sophia van Zweden 39. Literary Framer Karen Weiner 38. Man Behind the Music Gavin Mulloy 37. The Godfather of Dallas Art Frank Campagna 36. Rising Star Adam A. Anderson 35. Artist Organizer Heyd Fontenot 34. Music Innovator Stefan Gonzalez 33. Triple Threat Giovanni Valderas 32. Cultural Connector Lauren Cross


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