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How Avant-Garde Richmond Photographer Gary Johnson is Reinventing Himself at 73 

click to enlarge cover19_gary_johnson_no_headlines.jpg

In late March, Richmond was plastered with a screaming azure-blue flyer: “Badass Yard Sale! Art, photographs and free corn dogs! Hurry, hurry, baby needs new shoes!” Above this inviting text, a dominatrix cracked her cool smile.

You had to wonder whether the yard sale would deliver pleasure or pain. For its host, Gary Johnson, it delivered both.

And if you’re hell-bent on pinning down Johnson, both is a good word. Is he famous? Well, yes and no. A skilled photographer, he achieved overnight success in the 1980s with greeting cards that applied highbrow technique to seedy subjects. Then, just as quickly, he abandoned fame for a coffee shop.

Old friends describe him as irreverent one moment, sensitive the next. Others say he delights in pithy comments that are humorous and existential at the same time.

So of course he’d be the guy who gets kicked out of his own yard sale.

When that happened in March, he did the most Gary Johnson thing possible. He pulled out a guitar and played “Yard Sale” by Sammy Kershaw.

click to enlarge Gary Johnson lived in this room for 12 years, until a friend’s untimely death forced his eviction in March. It was his refuge from the fast-paced art world. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Gary Johnson lived in this room for 12 years, until a friend’s untimely death forced his eviction in March. It was his refuge from the fast-paced art world.

“Oh they’re sorting through what’s left of you and me,” he sang, “paying yard sale prices for each golden memory.” His audience wept and giggled.

Johnson’s mischievousness isn’t to blame. He’d lived on the second floor of the house for 12 years, renting from decades-long friend Sarah Bellamy, who lived downstairs. When Bellamy died at the end of February, her estate was left in the hands of Christina King, a local retired math teacher.

Several people close to Johnson and Bellamy say her will was due for an amendment, but King vehemently disputes that. Regardless, Johnson was given a month to move out because the house was under a reverse mortgage and needed to be sold.

He decided to close a chapter by selling his most cherished possessions alongside his deceased friend’s estate. King says there was a miscommunication about holding the two yard sales together, and asked Johnson to leave.

Onlookers described the scene as farcical, and a neighbor allowed Johnson to sell his prized, collectible artwork next door. Staged in the suburban softness near Willow Lawn, it was like a miniature play about Johnson’s quiet disappearance from the elite art world.

But at 73, Johnson is mounting a comeback. He’s using a difficult personal experience to break new artistic ground, just as he’s done several times over the course of his roller-coaster career.

click to enlarge The offices of American Cheese in 1987. Johnson, at left, created greeting cards while Rick London managed a competitive production schedule.
  • The offices of American Cheese in 1987. Johnson, at left, created greeting cards while Rick London managed a competitive production schedule.

It’s 9 o’clock on the night of Dec. 12, 1987. Affluent socialites are rubbing elbows with bums at a raucous holiday party. No, this isn’t Andy Warhol’s Factory. It’s 306 W. Broad St., the home office of a card company called American Cheese.

An American flag is draped on the wall behind two low-slung desks, and 5-by-7 film prints cover the windows. Gary Johnson and his business partner, Rick London, are partying on, foaming with ideas. American Cheese’s cards are going viral in New York, Los Angeles and as far away as Europe.

Even a recent skirmish with Hallmark, which ordered a cease and desist, can’t dull the party. Johnson’s slogan, Care Enough to Offend the Very Best, was deemed too similar to Hallmark’s. So he punched it up a notch: as Gross National Portrait.

This expansive new slogan suggested an alternative vision of Reagan-era America, and it was supported with artistic chops. Master copies of Johnson’s shoots were considered high art and hung in galleries, while reproductions were shrunk to greeting-card size. No other card company could boast of colorized black and white photographs that were retouched by hand. American Cheese cards transported viewers to a gorgeous Wonka world, full of softened edges and honey-thick tones.

Cards like “It’s My Party and I’ll Die If I Want To” were originally black and white, but Johnson colorized them by hand.
  • Cards like “It’s My Party and I’ll Die If I Want To” were originally black and white, but Johnson colorized them by hand.

Nor had card companies ventured into such eccentric territory. One particular card, shot in a Fan District apartment, shows a birthday party gathered around a corpse in a casket. It came with the caption: “It’s my party and I’ll die if I want to.” Johnson’s disciplined camera gave these pictures a touch of professionalism, proving that pop art could have soul while still raking in a buck.

“They sublimely reflected the innocent decadence of the day,” says New York art collector Jonathan Canno, who keeps Johnson’s framed photographs alongside Warhol and Pablo Picasso pieces in his home. “When they, and I, moved into a more historic house, they brought along their own ancient spirituality to their new environs. They seemed to always belong in that old house, always faithful.”

With models done up in varsity jackets and bouffant hairdos, many pieces from American Cheese’s catalog look like the set of “Happy Days” — if the cast was hungover from whippet hits and a deregulation boom.

“I made good people look bad,” Johnson says today, recalling the company he founded with London in 1984 and that raucous party 30 years ago.

“Gary was like the John Waters of still photography, with some Andy Warhol thrown in,” says Jerry Williams, the founder of Sifter, a local entertainment news site. “He was always living on the creative fringe, but also very serious about his work, too.”

It didn’t take long for Hallmark and other card companies to come back around to American Cheese, this time sniffing for new ideas. Larger outfits started experimenting with colorized cards, though with less of an eye-popping effect compared to American Cheese’s artifacts, a former company model says.

But Johnson was a one-man show who couldn’t possibly maintain a competitive schedule, even with London as taskmaster. Burnout followed. As the ’90s dawned, Johnson was spending more time riding his bike than cranking out photo shoots, another friend says.

“It just went away really fast,” Williams says of American Cheese. “Gary never got rich from it, and in retrospect he probably deserved more money than he made from his ideas.”

In “Attack of the Praying Hands” (above) models had to sit still among dozens of cardboard cutouts. “You could never predict what would happen at his shoots,” one former model says.
  • In “Attack of the Praying Hands” (above) models had to sit still among dozens of cardboard cutouts. “You could never predict what would happen at his shoots,” one former model says.

Johnson began looking for simpler pleasures. He started dating Pam Isenberg, a single mother. Pam has since died, but her daughters Kory and Buffy recall Johnson as a supportive parental figure of sorts.

“It was the first time we had a man in the house, which is weird to say, because Gary isn’t really a man or a woman,” Kory Isenberg says. “He’s just this force. He seemed to survive on sardines and beer. And when you were having a bad day, he would pull you aside. He really taught people to be themselves.”

The older sister, Buffy, eventually left for Miami to attend college, but remained homesick for Johnson’s companionship. “I would go to this card shop in Coconut Grove, which kept American Cheese cards on their racks,” she says. “It was like a little piece of home.”

Still, Johnson wasn’t shaping up to be the best role model. Bizarrely, Isenberg raged at him because he used too many paper products — paper towels, Q-tips, napkins, toilet paper, say the Isenberg sisters, laughing hysterically.

“That woman seemed determined to drive heterosexuality out of me,” Johnson says. As American Cheese dissolved completely, he decided to take a regular job in food service. Young Kory would be coming along with him, even though she had to apply for a work permit. It was time to get down to business — kind of.

click to enlarge Johnson takes a break at the American Cheese offices in 1987. Curators hung master prints of his greeting cards in galleries and called him an heir to Andy Warhol.
  • Johnson takes a break at the American Cheese offices in 1987. Curators hung master prints of his greeting cards in galleries and called him an heir to Andy Warhol.

In March, days before moving from his room of 12 years in Willow Lawn, Johnson says he has no regrets about American Cheese. After all, if he hadn’t left he wouldn’t have met Sarah Bellamy, who profoundly influenced him. At a coffee shop in Carytown called Baker’s Treat, now Sugar and Twine, he and Bellamy served up alternative psychotherapy, if you want to call it that.

“Sarah would come in and arrange crystals around the register, maybe put on some new age music. She liked holding people’s hands and looking into their eyes,” former employee Kory Isenberg says. “Then Gary was the brutal wisecracker with a heartfelt message. People would show up for their yin and yang, day after day.”

Richmond wasn’t hyping coffee drinks like lattes and cappuccinos and espressos in the early ’90s, she adds. Local coffee shops were less than abundant. And certainly no one was slinging highbrow java with a side of spiritual counseling and shock-art therapy.

At the time, the area near Parkwood and Shepherd in Carytown had special housing for veterans. Those residents couldn’t consume any drugs except their medication and caffeine. Johnson was sympathetic, being an Air Force veteran who served in the mid- to late-’60s, after attending Richmond Professional Institute, now Virginia Commonwealth University.

The needy came in alongside artists, business people and university professors. Johnson had found home again. With another nod to Warhol, he covered a wall with portraits of televangelists Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker. The installation was huge, more than 10 feet wide. Johnson called it the wailing wall because the Bakkers were weeping grotesquely in the photos. It shocked customers like their first taste of cappuccino. Hope existed, but not in someone you put on a pedestal, Johnson suggested.

“I can’t imagine being able to do that at a coffee shop today,” Johnson says. “Too many people would complain about hurt feelings. I blame ‘Oprah’ for corrupting our culture in that way.”

click to enlarge “Sister Roxanne.” Johnson’s mass produced cards were Pop Art with a mission. He thought eccentricity would bring new life to Reagan-era America.
  • “Sister Roxanne.” Johnson’s mass produced cards were Pop Art with a mission. He thought eccentricity would bring new life to Reagan-era America.

Baker’s Treat often seemed on the verge of collapsing, former employees say. The rotating door of managers was emotionally exhausting, despite the freedom employees enjoyed. One day, Bellamy announced to the staff that she’d had a son years prior and had given him up for adoption.

“That was a really big moment, because we didn’t really know her history that well,” Isenberg says. “I think that’s when her and Gary took their friendship to the next level. He helped her out a ton through that.”

Bellamy and Johnson moved on to the cafe at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts and left behind their therapy show. Johnson moved out of the Isenberg house, too. After years of kicking around in Fan District apartments and gay bars like the Broadway, Johnson began renting from Bellamy. The unassuming Cape Cod house near Willow Lawn offered a reprieve from his constant ups and downs. Plus, like an eternal teenager, he could sneak out at night to play with his band, the WeeWees. Acoustic guitar was always his second love.

“I remember him playing guitar and singing an Everly Brothers song, and it sounded really good,” friend and former American Cheese model Ken Hopson says. “We were so busy doing cards that I just kind of forgot about it. But after the company crumbled, I had Gary over to my shed. We started covering old disco tunes in a hillbilly format.”

Johnson began sleeping from dawn to 3 in the afternoon, a schedule he still maintains. In that tiny shed on Parkwood Avenue in Carytown, he and Hopson settled on their genre: “discobilly.” They recruited a few backup singers, called the TeeTees, and became the house band at the Shockoe Bottom Arts Center. Johnson drank cheap bourbon and basked in his new audience, but secretly he was in chrysalis again.

“Gary had this presence about him, it was almost like old-school Pee-Wee Herman,” says Rebecca Behrman, one of the backup singers. “You know, when the show was extremely surreal but also kind of blue.”

After sets, Johnson would remove the giant cartoon flower from the lapel of his American flag shirt and retreat to his Willow Lawn room. There he studied American history, probing the nation’s past and pondering the strange era it was entering.

Something about the rising tide of war and media celebrity didn’t feel right, even to a trickster. It would become fodder for his return to the visual arts.

“Young people ask if I use Photoshop,” Johnson says, pulling a recent collage work from his room full of moving boxes. “What they don’t realize is that I can handwrite a grocery list faster than they can open an app on their phone. So, no, I don’t use Photoshop. Scissors, rubber cement and copy machines are my friends.”

click to enlarge “’Twas the Night Before Christmas”
  • “’Twas the Night Before Christmas”

The collage is called “How the West Was Won,” and it features George Armstrong Custer sitting on a throne of bones. It’s clean and vibrant enough to look Photoshopped. In the background stretches a majestic prairie full of sunflowers, starkly contrasting with the morbid theme.

“Only 250,000 of this land’s native peoples alive at the end of the 19th century,” Johnson says, rattling off other historical facts.

Johnson is more than an amateur history buff. He knows all the birthdays of every U.S. president and when each one died. But when presented with praise for this feat, he coyly waves it off, saying it was a trick to help him concentrate during sex.

“By the time you get to Woodrow Wilson,” he says, “you’re in pretty good shape.”

It’s impossible to ignore the tragedies that litter American history, so it’s unsurprising that Johnson’s newer work contains a dark streak that’s historically conscious. Another collage, “Earth Day, Starring Katrina and the Waves,” presents a dystopian New Orleans worthy of Hieronymus Bosch. It’s full of bodies drowning below George W. Bush, who speaks to a news conference via bullhorn. “Oprah Goes to Hell” is equally terrifying, where television pundits sit amongst Osama bin Laden, the oil industry and other conflicts of the day. It all seems pretty ripe for the era of fake news.

Johnson’s also busy working on a multivolume scrapbook opus, which he calls “My Trip.” It’s a mix of sincere autobiography, U.S. social history, punk collage aesthetics and dirty jokes. Inside, there are American Cheese Christmas party invitations, driver’s licenses and sepia-colored family portraits. Johnson’s own work is cataloged, dating back to his youth in Buckroe Beach, when he fancied himself a National Geographic photographer. It’s a vast, fragile and frankly heavy work that summons the best of Johnson’s wit and skills. If anything, it’s an ode to how the quality of analog film has changed through the 20th century.

click to enlarge “Filthy Rodents”
  • “Filthy Rodents”

Bringing “My Trip” to the public will require a digital strategy, and Johnson is investing in an updated online presence. It’s not something he’s entirely comfortable with. “Technology and I don’t really get along,” he says, sitting next to a DVD box of “Basquiat” from Video Fan.

When Johnson first built a crunchy website years ago with the help of Hopson, he says it created a flurry of fan queries. “But then, after answering everybody’s questions, my inbox would inevitably empty out and so would my life,” he says with a deadpan face.

But the passing of Bellamy serves as a spur. He’s not only exploring new mediums, such as websites and photo autobiography, but also recently moved into new quarters on the North Side with his partner, and he made sure their wills were in order.

“This has been a hellish experience,” he remarks, unpacking boxes. “Never again, never again.”

Weeks after settling in, Johnson seems upbeat. His American president statues by Mattel are back on the shelf, neatly lined up. His giant angel statue surveys the room again, and portraits of his great-grandparents are back on the walls. The house’s backyard shed tool has been transformed into a man-cave studio.

“Maybe I’ll even go busking in Carytown one of these days,” Johnson says, eyeing the acoustic guitar lying on his flower-patterned bedspread.

But for now, Johnson celebrates today not tomorrow. There’s so much to do, he says, and our inboxes must be getting fuller by the minute. S

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