North Haven life inspires British-American artist

Orlando Johnson in his studio on North Haven on Thursday, July 21, 2011 with one of his recent painting depicting an aerial view of the Rockland/Camden coastline.
Orlando Johnson in his studio on North Haven on Thursday, July 21, 2011 with one of his recent painting depicting an aerial view of the Rockland/Camden coastline.
Posted Aug. 01, 2011, at 11:49 a.m.
T-shirts and mugs sporting Orlando Johson's designs line a wall at the Hopkins Wharf Gallery on North Haven on Thursday, July 21, 2011.
T-shirts and mugs sporting Orlando Johson's designs line a wall at the Hopkins Wharf Gallery on North Haven on Thursday, July 21, 2011.
Wooden pieces featuring a lobster design created by Orlando Johnson are on display at the Hopkins Wharf Gallery on North haven on Thursday, July 21, 2011.
Wooden pieces featuring a lobster design created by Orlando Johnson are on display at the Hopkins Wharf Gallery on North haven on Thursday, July 21, 2011.

Orlando Benedict Johnson says, only half-jokingly, that there are two long-term relationships in his life: the Arsenal Football Club in London (soccer to Americans) and the island of North Haven. Johnson, 31, has spent his life living half of every year on the small Penobscot Bay island, arriving back in his home city of Cambridge, England, in late September, just a few weeks after the English Premier League season has begun.

“They couldn’t be more different, in a lot of ways. But they represent me pretty well,” said Johnson of his two passions. “North Haven is just peaceful and simple. I can’t wait to get here when I’m not here. But Arsenal is the other thing that’s always been with me. It doesn’t really translate here in the U.S., since no one really watches football here. But It’s part of my life.”

There’s at least one other major force in his life, though, and that’s his art, in the many forms it has taken over the years. The hundreds of paintings, prints and portraits and the line of clothing he has produced make that clear. One month, he might focus on a 20-foot-long landscape of an eerily lighted nighttime view of the Camden Hills, as seen from North Haven. Then he might knock off 10 or so prints of his two-tone lobster motif, an image seen across the island, on boats, in hallways and on barn doors.

Since 2005, he has devoted most of his energy to creating art, in whatever shape it ends up taking. Before 2005, he was a Formula Ford race car driver in the United Kingdom, with dreams of going on to Formula 1. Clearly, he’s the kind of guy who, once he’s into something, must see it through.

“Once I get something in my head, I have to get it out,” said Johnson. “When I was younger, I wanted to be a footballer or a race car driver. After three years, I got that out of my system. And, I wasn’t really terribly good, though it was thrilling and terrifying and all that. So I decided that I’d focus on art, which is something I’d been doing anyway at that point.”

Johnson’s family has spent summers on North Haven for three generations. Johnson, who holds dual American and British citizenship, relishes his island summers, when he can clear his mind, enjoy a cup of tea on his porch and the sunset and fireflies in his backyard overlooking western Penobscot Bay and the distant Camden Hills. If he wishes, he can take a jaunt downtown in his Jaguar E-Type — once a car person, always a car person, after all. But mostly, he can focus on his art.

The affable, unfailingly polite Johnson always has been a creative sort. He studied architecture at university. After his race car days were done, his burgeoning interest in visual art took over, spurred on by his love of the work of artists such as Robert Indiana, David Hockney and North Haven’s Eric Hopkins. One of the first projects he worked on was the two-tone lobster motif, which he chose for its unmistakable outline and its deep connection to Maine culture.

“You see lobsters everywhere, and it’s usually right alongside lighthouses, and it’s very commercial and kind of cheesy,” said Johnson. “What I like about it is that it’s so simple, and it’s totally recognizable. It’s malleable, for my purposes. It can work in many different places.”

For example, one of the hallways at Nebo Lodge in North Haven is lined with 10 differently colored prints of the lobster. Others are for sale in the Eric Hopkins Gallery, near the ferry terminal. And, of course, it’s featured prominently on the high-fashion T-shirts, scarves, belts and jackets that Johnson began designing in 2009.

“It started as a way to more easily get my work out there, and to make something that more people can afford to buy,” said Johnson, of his small but growing clothing collection, printed on silky cotton and available at the Eric Hopkins Gallery. Eventually, he would like to enlist the help of some of the talented seamstresses on North Haven and create an extremely limited-edition clothing line designed, printed and sewn on the island.

Johnson’s love of the Arsenal Football Club resulted in an interesting collaboration of sorts with the club itself. In 2009, he introduced the Highbury Library Collection, focusing on the places and people of Arsenal. A large circle encloses iconic images of Arsenal players in particularly triumphant or important moments, accompanied by a quote appropriate for the situation portrayed. The full collection has been displayed at the Mall Galleries and at the Royal Academy in London, as well as at Emirates Stadium in London in May 2010, as part of a charity auction for a children’s hospital.

In North Haven, however, Johnson does simpler, more thoughtful work, as in the landscapes and portraits of his beloved island. He has completed portraits of island residents such as Eva Hopkins, daughter of painter Eric Hopkins; Doug Stone, a builder on the island; and Hannah Pingree, a local business owner and former congresswoman. He also has painted countless landscapes of varying sizes, of sunsets and rises, ocean views and nighttime scenes, most recently his large-scale evening view of the mainland from the island.

“I quite enjoy the solitude of living out here half the year. It’s just nice to sit out here and watch the field and the ocean,” said Johnson. “Painting and designing is a pretty solitary activity. If I want to, I can go across the island and meet people or go to the mainland. But I’m pretty content to just be here.”

A small selection of Orlando Benedict Johnson’s work is on display at the Eric Hopkins Gallery through the summer; some of his lobster T-shirts, scarves and belts are also on sale there. For more information, visit http://www.orlandojohnson.com/Intro.html.

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