SEARCY Black House in Searcy came to life Nov. 4 when chamber music echoed through the halls, hors d’oeuvres filled antique serving dishes and paintings by Howard Johnson lined most rooms during a reception that honored the local artist as part of the Searcy Arts Council’s 27th season opener.
“He’s like the patriarch of art here,” said Terri Brannon, executive director of the Searcy Art Gallery at Black House, which houses the Searcy Arts Council. “He has a beautiful body of work that we felt like needed to be seen.”
She added that, like many locals, she took Johnson’s art classes at the Carmichael Community Center.
“He’s always been so encouraging. I had never painted before, really, but he made me feel like I could,” she said. “I know he’s taught many people that I know, young and old, and it’s made a huge impact on their lives.”
Although Johnson has painted for more than 50 years, he said most pieces displayed at the gallery are from the past decade. After guests dined and listened to a few tunes by string musicians, Mayor David Morris gathered everyone into the parlor to proclaim Nov. 4 as Howard Johnson Day and present Johnson with a symbolic key to the city.
“I really became impressed by the deeds Howard does about seven years ago, when I took office as mayor in this wonderful community,” Morris said. “Everywhere you go, anywhere you look up, Howard and [his wife, Sandra Joyner Johnson], are there, and they are great ambassadors for our community.”
Among his many contributions, Howard organizes monthly exhibits of local artwork in the City Hall breezeway, Morris said. Howard, who was described by multiple attendees as humble, said he was overwhelmed by, but grateful for, the honors.
“Thank you to each and every one,” Howard said. “The city has been so good. The school system has been good. The people have been good.”
A Cabot native, Howard graduated from Cabot High School in 1965. There, he learned the heavy impressionist style of oil painting that defines much of his work. He later studied under Gene Hatfield at the State College of Arkansas in Conway, now the University of Central Arkansas.
Howard said Hatfield provided him with a European influence that would grow during Howard’s studies in Aix-en-Provence, France, the hometown of post-impressionist painter Paul Cézanne, who has been a major influence on Howard’s work.
Howard also earned a master’s degree in art education from Harding University in Searcy. He taught art at Sidney Deener Elementary School in Searcy for nearly 40 years and continues to teach art classes to both adults and children.
“There are some children who need [art] so desperately,” he said. “Like sports are so important to some people and give them something to hang their hats on — to have success — the arts are, for other people, their key to a good future and a key to open doors that will produce a good life for them.”
Despite his European influences, Howard’s subjects are distinctly Arkansan. In his paintings, he depicts flowers from his garden, as well as local landmarks, such as a church in Calico Rock and his family’s stomping grounds in the community of Ebenezer.
“You can’t paint what you don’t know,” he said. “For me to paint a scene about New York and not be in New York is ridiculous, so [my students and I] paint all the things that are around us, and a lot of the places are like a diary.”
The family history evident in Howard’s work is one reason that his cousin, Jerry Johnson, said he attended the reception. As Jerry pointed out places he remembered in Howard’s Ebenezer painting, he recalled taking Howard on his first hunting trip.
“I knew he was very talented because we get Christmas cards every year, and we’re always excited about what he has done because it’s always something he had done from hand,” he said. “It’s pretty unique to be able to … rise to that level where people respect your work.”
Sandra said she is proud of her husband, who deserves every honor bestowed on him. Second only to church, art is his life’s passion, she added.
“It’s just as much a part of him as his right arm,” she said. “It’s like God poured all that into him.”