The Job Johnson project is an on-going collection of oral and written stories, family history, and landmarks from central Pennsylvania as told through the drawings done by an alter ego named Job Johnson who lived at the beginning of the Industrial Era. (1860 to 1937)
The project incorporates folklore from a historical first person narrative perspective. These works reflect a need for conservation as well as those tiny, nearly forgotten reminders of Pennsylvania’s multicultural roots. Each drawing that I've made for this project is done on my own hand-made paper framed in hand-built recycled wood frames.
North Central Pennsylvania folk artist Job Johnson presents modern audiences with a distinctive commentary on frontier life in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Born and raised on a tobacco farm with the prospect of a life of toil, it appeared impossible (or at least impractical) for Johnson to pursue his desire to create artworks. Spurred on by his good friend and renowned local writer, Col. Henry Shoemaker, Johnson began his artistic endeavors at the not-so-tender age of 38. Both men shared interest in local folklore and also in the belief that art – in all its manifestations– can draw attention to issues of environmentalism and conservation. Johnson explores this theme in his work “The Last Great Pine,” in which a solitary white pine tree stands alone in a forest devastated by the Pennsylvania logging industry of the late 1800s. Shoemaker’s monument to the Native American tribe Lenni Lenape also became a subject of Johnson’s work, signifying the remnants of a civilization lost due to the destruction of the natural landscape of the area.
Johnson’s works are not only visual attestations of people and period, but also of his childhood. “The Stripping Room,” shows settlers in the Pennsylvania wild living free of the technological advances that would soon make its own advance upon the community, changing its way of life forever.
With over 1,000 works attributed to the artist, Johnson’s prolificacy ensures that his areas of interest are far-reaching. Folklore is one such subject. “Devil’s Cave,” illustrates a nontraditional Satan with three eyes holding out a book for the viewer to sign. One of Johnson’s drawings with color, he used clay to create a reddish glow emanating from the Devil’s book, making it leap from the charcoal background. His illustration of Lucifer is unconventional, the moral, Hawthornian – a life of honest hard work is superior to one of corruption.
While the Industrial Revolution generated an entirely new process – mass production – each of Job Johnson’s works is a unique artifact – from handcrafted paper to the frames he fashioned from branches he collected outside his McElhattan home. His work, inspired by the son of a wealthy industrialist (Shoemaker) is also an ironic affront to the same system.
Johnson remained a hermit living in a small, double room shack on several acres of family land until his death at the age of 77. He surrounded himself with his work – his home and shed were covered from floor to ceiling with his art. They became the property of his brother’s widowed wife, Lottie Mae Johnson and have been passed down through the Johnson family of Lycoming and Clinton counties. Issues that Johnson tackles in his works -- conservation, environmentalism, technology -- are still modern problems. Johnson’s images are an echo of concern in an endless chasm that cries foul of the modern world’s affront to tradition -- his works will remain significant for as long as this is a common issue through generations.
-Jessica Lalli, “Pennsylvania Folk Art: The Undiscovered Works of Job Johnson” www.Ducts.org, Issue 20/Winter 07