Catharsis art

Mack Nez Johnson Jr.

Photo by David Robert

Twenty years ago, Reno native Mack Nez Johnson’s car dashed over the edge of a mountain cliff in Southern California and plunged 300 feet to the depths of a canyon. A severed spinal cord paralyzed him from the neck down. Johnson woke up in a hospital, gazing at lights, thinking he was dead. He says the only thing that saved him was painting with a mouth stick. Part Shoshone and Deni, Johnson’s watercolors are part of the Journey to Here exhibit featuring artists with disabilities at VSA art of Nevada, 135 N. Sierra St., Suite D, 826-6100.

How long have you been painting?

I guess about as long as I’ve been breathing. It goes back probably to kindergarten. I know that when it came to finger painting time I was always excited. The desire to draw, paint and be creative would [overwhelm] me. When the schools had art contests, I never failed to be first or second place. This really strong spirit came over me every time I got a pencil, a crayon, or made pictures down in the dirt or in the snow.

How has art become crucial for you?

During those months of recovering from this accident—months and then the following years—I realized I couldn’t do anything but lie there and have someone feed me. I was going crazy, and I had to paint. So one day I got up, and I told the nurse that I needed a pencil with a stick on it. I had this expectation of this fantastic picture, and I went to draw it, and it was just scribbles. I was so angry. The anger was like a volcano. I thought my life was completely over.

But obviously you’ve trained yourself to paint.

It was months and months of torture. I don’t know how I got through it, but finally, now, I can do whatever I please. I can pull up to the easel, put a paintbrush in my mouth, get my paints ready, and I’m like a conductor. The paint just splashes, and the colors move with the water, and the water pushes it, and everything sings a song.

Where do your images come from?

They come from way deep inside myself. I don’t do anything from here (Johnson points to his head). The stuff in here (points to heart) is the good stuff. This is where all the hurt and all the happiness is. And as you can see from that painting (pictured in photo), it’s somewhat of a relieving painting.

Has being a “disabled” artist earned you special attention?

People who recognize good art know that I’m an artist regardless, whether I’m painting with my hands, or my mouth, or my feet. This [disability] is really just nothing. It’s hard to deal with, but it’s just physical.

How does the show title Journey to Here fit with your experiences as an artist?

It fits great. For me, “here” meaning now and today, the journey’s been a good one. If I had to do it all over again, I might choose to go this way because it has definitely taught me a lot of things, and it has turned my life in a direction that is really good, and that has made me a good man. My life before the accident was trash, just a life of craziness.

You use all watercolors?

I stay away from oils and acrylic because water has a very special, spiritual meaning for me. I use water respectfully.