Johnston was just as obsessed with his visual art as he was with his music. When he wasn’t making music, Johnston was known to set up a kind of desk area with all of his pens and markers, a TV and turntable, and then just get going.
“What I understand about most of his fans is that they're really moved by his lyrics,” says Jordan Roth, director and co-founder of gallery Ro2 Art in The Cedars, which is exhibiting Johnston's art. “His lyrics are just so deeply personal; I would want to actually see what's in the head of that lyricist. What better way to do that than to look at the art that they're making?”
From June 26 until July 31, fans and those unfamiliar with Johnston's legacy will have the opportunity to learn more about the visual side of the artist’s creativity in a dual gallery showing of Johnston’s artwork.
“Story of an Artist will be the show taking place in the main gallery, and it covers work from the ‘70s, ‘80s, a little bit from the '90s and then a lot from the early 2000s into June 2015,” Roth explains. “Songs of Pain will take place in the back gallery, and that is work from later in 2015 through 2019, the year that he died.”
Johnston reached out to Roth that year. He had heard about the gallery from another artist the Ro2 Art had hosted. He was working on a proposal shortly before he died.
“In 2020, I received a letter from his sister Marjory expressing her interest in doing that show, and I just immediately knew that I wanted to do it,” Roth says.
The works in Songs of Pain are collaborations with Marjory Johnston, who aided Roth in putting together over 100 pieces for the exhibition. The collaborative pieces are mostly collages where she has filled in the negative spaces with his song lyrics.
Marjory Johnston had been collecting her brother’s work since he was a kid, rescuing his drawings from the comic book shops where he would trade portfolios of his work for comics.
“His father and his sister began to just buy them from him so that he wouldn't trade them,” Roth relates. “They realized that he was putting so much work into them, and that they meant a lot to him. He had also proclaimed at an early age that he would be famous, and to a degree, they sort of believed him.”
Roth, who was not too familiar with Johnston's music or art before working with him, says that one does not have to be familiar with Johnston’s music to appreciate his art.
“The works are good,” Roth says. “It leans more towards an outsider art perspective. He had a little bit of training but not much. He went to Kent State for a very brief time right after high school and studied art very briefly. His work is primarily driven by his own desires and visions … so much of it is composed very well. The color choices are great.”
Roth goes so far as to liken Johnston’s work to that of ‘80s New York pop artist Keith Haring, whose outlined figures became the face of AIDS awareness campaigns.
“He repeats characters, and in that sense, there's almost like a pop sensibility,” Roth says of Johnston. “What I like in Keith Haring, I see in his work. They're not as comic-y as you might think they would be. These stories are bizarre, but if you know anything about him feeling chased by the devil and things like that, it is in the artwork as well.”
Roth says the same themes of longing, feeling misunderstood and self-discovery that feature prominently in Johnston’s music are also part of his artwork.
“This was a guy always searching for love in whatever form he could find it in, and approval,” Roth says. “He was deeply troubled throughout his life, and I hope people will gain an understanding of how that affects you. You could still be creative. You can still use art as an outlet for communicating those thoughts.”
Roth hopes to do a workshop or an activity toward the end of the exhibition using a coloring book Johnston created for the Hi, How Are You Project, which has some activities focused on mental health.
“I know that was actually important to him towards the end of his life,” Roth says. “It essentially is for people to notice mental health issues in people that are around them.”
Gallery visitors will have the opportunity to purchase Johnston's works at prices ranging from $2,000 to $7,000.
"It's a real honor to have been selected as the gallery to bring this to Dallas," Roth says. "I've learned a tremendous amount about the artist and feel really lucky to be able to work with these pieces and to kind of contribute to the legacy. That's the pervasive feeling that I've had over the past few weeks."