Artist Pursued Passion of Painting Galena’s Architectural Gems
Galena, Illinois is an eclectic small town overflowing with talented people with fascinating personal tales. Artist Carl Johnson certainly fits that mold as a Main Street mainstay since the early 1970s.
Fate and luck have a funny way of revealing and guiding one's pathway in life, so it was for Carl Johnson.
Raised on Chicago's southside, torn between his father's desire for him to study engineering and his aunt's artistic talents, Johnson was on the more practical path in junior college when he volunteered to help decorate for a dance. There, an instructor saw a sign of talent and encouraged Johnson to pursue art over the more practical engineering or architecture.
After a stint in Uncle Sam's army, Johnson pursued an advertising degree at the University of Illinois. However, he chose to take additional coursework covering a broad spectrum of artistic mediums, including a summer watercolor painting class.
Like many, he got busy with life, marriage, family, and a career at a prominent Chicago advertising studio, where he rose from apprentice to Art Director.
The hectic pace forced him to put his painting aside until 1969 when he and his wife were able to enjoy a kid-free three-week trip to Italy and Greece. It was while on this trip that Carl began sketching again. He returned from the trip with 65 drawings and a renewed spark of creativity.
Feeling guilt for leaving the kids at home, the family headed to Galena for a weekend getaway. Soon after that, Johnson's history-loving wife convinced Carl to rent a home in Galena for a change of scenery. Not long after, the family was selling the Chicago area home to take a chance on a new life in Galena.
Amid a home renovation, a snowstorm shut down the town for a month, and Carl took the opportunity to pick up his paintbrushes once more. But, this time, the help of a Dubuque Telegraph Herald article about his upcoming art show suddenly opened new doors to help him become a full-time artist.
In 1973, Carl and his wife bought a Main St. building to house their art studio and gallery. This decision has led to a pursuit of painting Galena's "architectural gem," as Johnson calls it. In addition, Galena inspired him to develop his pen-and-ink and watercolor techniques to record historic architecture.
Over the years, the Johnsons were quite active with the Chamber of Commerce, art organizations, and other community interests, including providing a commemorative print to Galena High grads and getting a footbridge built over the river.
"I paint what I like, and the people who like what I create buy my artwork," said Johnson. "I'm now 91 years old, and it's been one helluva fun ride."
Johnson shared how he has witnessed Galena's transformation from 25 antique shops to today's trendy boutiques. Yet, he wouldn't change it and accepted the town's evolution and the influx of visitors, saying tourism saved and helped preserve the small historic town he and his family fell in love with five decades ago.
"I've lived the artist's dream and have had tremendous support from the community and visitors for the artwork and gallery business," shared Johnson. "We have three generations of customers, and many became our dear friends."
Johnson shared that he has always looked at the world through a square lens, stuck to his path, and painted what he liked without pursuing or trying too hard to please a specific audience. Carl Johnson can be found regularly, especially on weekends, at his Main St. Gallery.
202 1/2 S. Main Street - Galena, IL 61036-2227
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