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Artist sculpts out his life's work

Cumming man's pieces pepper Northeast Georgia landscape

POSTED: July 22, 2014 1:00 a.m.
J.K. DEVINE/The Times

Sculptor Gregory Johnson of Cumming carved a bronze sculpture of a gold miner titled "The Discovery." It sits outside of the White County courthouse in Cleveland.

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As a young artist in 1973, Gregory Johnson aspired to being a famous painter. However, the lack of profit plagued his wallet, compelling him to switch his specialty to sculpting.

Since then, he hasn’t looked back, and the Forsyth County-based sculptor is highly successful in his field.

In his 40-year career, Johnson has produced works in every medium from bronze to marble to stainless steel. His subject material has included war memorials, works for private collections, busts of American presidents and statues of local heroes. Johnson’s works in North Georgia alone include “The Discovery,” a bronze sculpture of a gold miner in White County, Brenau University’s Contemporary Student 2009, 1920s Student, and, of course, Brenau University’s Lucille the Tiger, all in Gainesville.

But Johnson’s life in art started on a different track.

After receiving instruction at the Art Institute of Chicago, Bowling Green State University and Illinois State University, Johnson wanted to paint.

“I loved to paint old people on porches bathing in sunlight,” Johnson said. “I have always thought old persons have a quiet wisdom, beauty and grace.”

He soon discovered painting wasn’t the most profitable. Corporations weren’t interested in purchasing paintings.

“Corporations tend to go with neutral subject matter,” he said. “From an image standpoint and an economic standpoint, it just wasn’t working.”

Then he recognized he could make a living as a sculptor, and his success is visible. Johnson’s sculptures reside in museums, galleries and private collections throughout the United States, Europe, Costa Rica and the Middle East. He now produces two to three paintings a year, all for his personal enjoyment.

For residents of Hall County, Johnson’s most easily recognized work is Lucille the Tiger. The statue of the Brenau mascot — measuring 7 feet, 6 inches in height and 14 feet long and weighing 2,200 pounds — greets motorists and pedestrians as they travel down Green Street.

Lucille was commissioned in 2013 by North Carolina philanthropist Ike Belk. The commissioning process, one Johnson has gone through countless times in his career, represents new creative challenges.

“In the traditional sculpture world, a lot of people have a preconceived idea as to what they want their monumental project to look like,” Johnson said. “There’s flexibility within that. Do you want a growling tiger? A leaping tiger? A smiling tiger? I typically try to present two, maybe three concepts and maybe 50-50 they’ll go with the more artistic one.”

Johnson’s connection to Hall County goes beyond Brenau University. He has partnered numerous times with the Quinlan Visual Arts Center to teach and exhibit his work. Most recently, Johnson was chosen as the Quinlan’s 2014 Annual Gala Fine Art Auction’s guest of honor.

Paula Lindner, Quinlan’s assistant director, said they chose Johnson for his talent and connection to the area.

“His artwork can be fun, and yet it has a seriousness about it,” she said. “Lots of people respond to it. He captures life very well.”

Johnson’s rapport with the local art environment and viewers of his work further contribute to his longevity as an artist.

“He’s really known around the community, and he’s just a great guy,” Lindner said.

For the future, Johnson has been commissioned to contribute a piece to the Quinlan’s upcoming sculpture garden, commemorating the life of a child who passed away. The process of sculpting a memorial piece, according to Johnson, is always an emotional one.

“Basically we cry together,” Johnson said. “You will find that when you create a statue of someone that’s passed and a mother and father are standing there weeping, you cannot help but weep with them.”

One thing that doesn’t make Johnson weep is his success in the often cut-throat art world. After participating in a survey of 1,500 artists worldwide, Johnson discovered he falls in the top 2 percent of artists in terms of success. As someone who started out as a struggling painter, Johnson doesn’t take this for granted.

“It’s very rewarding to have a savings account that you can base your business off of rather than living from one sculpture to the next,” Johnson said. “The sculpture business has afforded me the luxury of keeping my hair on my head. I have been really, really, totally blessed.”

For the future, Johnson has been commissioned to sculpt works depicting everything from Jesus to black bears to the Quinlan sculpture, which will portray a young girl on a swing. A new focus on modern pieces has also united him with his newest source of inspiration: the “simple, elegant, geometric shapes” of circles.

“From astronomy to basic physics, the world is filled with circles,” Johnson said. “You’ve got to start somewhere.”


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