Gale Johansen relishes being called an old hippie. The pretty, petite, gray-haired artist has been a free spirit throughout her life.
She’ll happily “go back in the time machine” to show off a 40-year-old photo of her (with long brown hair) standing in the door of the rundown, “but amazing” Olympic View Apartments in Edmonds. Those were heady days. She already knew art was her future.
A 1969 Edmonds High School graduate, Johansen calls Snohomish home and is beloved in Everett, where, starting on Aug. 10, she will be featured at the Schack Art Center as its artist of the year.
The show has a title — My Swirly Brain and Other Oddities — that says much about Johansen.
Her detailed, textured paintings and sculpture are bright, colorful, whimsical and wild, in a style all her own. Eyeballs, not just the eyes, play a part in her art.
Early in her career, Johansen was asked by Seattle’s Lakeside School to speak with students about art.
“I was to be on a panel of ‘visionaries.’ Well, I get stage fright, so I didn’t go,” Johansen said. “But when my friends heard about the invitation and started calling me a ‘visionary,’ the eyeballs started rolling my way.”
Earlier this spring, Johansen went to a craft store and picked up “eight packs of assorted eyeballs of all colors,” she said. “I even had a coupon. Such a deal. I’m all excited and happy to get started using them in my art.”
In an antique cabinet in the dining room of Johansen’s antique house on the hill in Snohomish, a collection of eyeballs stare back at the people sitting at the table. There on a recent day, the artist — whose eyes are green — served cantaloupe and cinammon toast.
She talked about her favorite children’s TV program from her youth, the J.P. Patches show. “I would be insane if I wasn’t a J.P. fan.”
Another massive group of themed knickknacks line the shelves of a built-in cabinet in the home’s kitchen. The wood and glass cabinet has exactly 28 feet of knickknack space. (“And no, I don’t dust,” she said.) The vastness of the collection underscores the fact that Johansen has a lifelong interest in shopping at antique shops and thrift stores. She also has shopped abroad many times.
Johansen attended Western Washington University (then a state college), Edmonds Community College, Burnley School of Art (now the Art Institute of Seattle) and the University of Washington, where she earned her master’s degree in fine art. In between school stints she made art and traveled.
She spent most of one year in Africa. She’s been to Europe eight times with her sketch book. A round-the-world trip took her to New Zealand, Australia, Indonesia, Thailand, Nepal and India. Johansen was planning to go on to Iran and elsewhere, but she got sick in India.
“I had a Mr. Magoo insurance policy,” she said, referencing the haphazard nearsighted cartoon character of her youth. Magoo would walk into trouble and come out OK at the other end. “I was sick for a month in a hospital in India. My mother was worried. When my fever finally broke, they put me in a taxi to the airport.”
To his credit, Johansen’s partner, Bill Schulz, has stood by Johansen and all of her crazy projects throughout their 40 years of “unwedded bliss.” They don’t have kids, but their dog, Schuster, is their baby.
To keep herself in paint and because she likes people, Johansen has done office work for many organizations. She recently retired as a customer service representative for the Public Utility District. (Her cubicle was decorated with sock monkeys, a dashboard Buddha and J.P. Patches memorabilia.) With a job on the side, there wasn’t pressure to sell art for income, she said.
When she was working, Johansen would paint on weekends and primarily in the middle of the night. Now she can paint whenever she feels the inspiration.
Her studio is crowded with projects in transition. In preparation for the big Schack show, Johansen had stacks and stacks of paintings in all corners of the house.
“Obviously, I like detail,” she said as she showed off several Earth globes embellished with barnacles, dots of fabric paint, jewelry, egg shells and eyeballs. “You have to put everything in the right spot.”
Johansen, who employs everything from print to encaustic, does not restrict herself to one medium.
“That would be foolish for me,” she said. “To me, mixed-media means weird stuff, and that is what I like.”
The three-dimensional piece “Candi’s Wardrobe Malfunction Acts as a Perfect Conversation Starter” uses an upside-down bowl found in the garbage for a breast that peeks from the top of Candi’s dress. The piece hangs at the top of her stairwell, and Johansen laughs as she shows it off.
All of Johansen’s pieces have creative titles. A sample: “Fernando’s Unusual Sense of Style Set Him Apart From All Others,” “Horatio Discovers the Cure for Seasickness,” “Bertram Makes His Intentions Crystal Clear,” “Over Time Certain Body Parts Have Developed the Ability to Fly” and “Occasionally It is Necessary to Walk the Line Between Creative Expression and a Bad Hair Day.”
Sometimes the paintings are autobiographical or involve her pets. Most celebrate Johansen’s sense of humor and off-center view of the world.
Along with participating in shows at the Schack, Johansen has exhibited her work at Bellevue Art Museum, with the Lynnwood Arts Commission, at Lowell Art Works and Red Door Gallery (with friends Cheri O’Brien and Jules Anslow), the Solovei Gallery and Revolution Galley.
Johansen was surprised and happy to be named the Schack’s 2017 Artist of the Year.
“It is a huge honor to follow in the footsteps of so many accomplished local artists and friends,” she said. “I am thrilled to be recognized by the Schack, and I promise a fun and exciting show.”
Schack gallery director Carie Collver believes Johansen’s promise.
“Gale has the wonderful imagination of a child — I can only imagine how she must dream at night — along with the technique of a seasoned artist. At the Schack we have trouble fitting her into a category,” Collver said.
“When I first met Gale, I thought she was from another planet. Sometimes when I see a piece by her, and some crazy character is eating a strange bug, I’ll ask her, ‘Is that what you eat on your planet?’ I think I’ve almost caught her a couple of times. But then she gets wise to me, laughs and clams up. I am pretty sure she has some sort of rejuvenating space pod where she sleeps each night, because she doesn’t seem to age either.”
My Swirly Brain and Other Oddities
Open daily Aug. 10 to Sept. 9 at the Schack Art Center, 2921 Hoyt Ave., Everett. The opening reception is from 5 to 8 p.m. on Aug. 10. Admission to the art center is free. More at www.schack.org. To see more of Johansen’s work, go to tinyurl.com/EDH-Gale-Johansen.