You might say Carol Goerke Johnson is a late bloomer. At 81, she is the Burnett Area Arts Group’s Fall 2021 featured artist. It’s been a life-long journey, parts of which are captured here.
She was born in Waukesha, Wisconsin, where she grew up; her first experience with art came in the 4th grade. “We had a once a month art teacher,” she recalled. “I drew a picture of our house. She told me it was the worst thing she’d ever seen. I thought it was perfect. I loved it. That turned me off to art."
Fast forward to junior high. The art project was paper maché masks. “I made a mask and my best friend made one. The teacher held up my friend’s, saying it was wonderful and pointing out all the elements of design,” reported Johnson. “Then she said mine was even more wonderful because I made it ‘from the heart’ – that gave me a new perception.”
In high school, art history teacher Roland Schrupp covered more than just art. “We learned about music, architecture, what foods people ate, how they dressed, their mannerisms,” she said. “I loved the art and architecture parts, but it was the stories of how people actually lived that made me fall in love with [history].”
Johnson got married right out of high school and was mom to four children. After the children started school, she attended Carroll College, majoring in History, Elementary Art Education, and Christian Education – earning degrees in all three.
As part of the curriculum for elementary art education, students were introduced to elements of design and various media. “I wanted to do welding, but they didn’t allow girls to do welding back then,” she explained. “I wanted to do sculpture so badly.”
In 1977, she and her husband, Don, moved the family to the north woods, settling halfway between Spooner and Webster. She continued her career, teaching high school history and elementary art in Minong. A decade later, Johnson was turned on to watercolors when she took a weekend class with Karlyn Holmen in Shell Lake. “She made me think that there was more that I could do. I went home feeling like ‘oh, this is wonderful,’ But then I put it all away again because I had responsibilities and a job. I was teaching and working as an EMT full time. I didn’t have time for art.”
Johnson retired after 26 years of teaching. Then sometime in her 70th year, she and her daughter, Julie, attended an art show in Eau Claire. After viewing the works, Johnson said to her “I can do some of this stuff.” And Julie said “Why don’t you? Go over there and talk to [the artist].” The artist was Patricia Mayhew Hamm and she was about to hold a watercolor workshop. “I can’t afford to do that,” Johnson recalled saying. To which her daughter replied, “you can’t afford not to.” “So I took the workshop, and I’ve been puttering around ever since.”
Her chosen media are primarily watercolor, some acrylics, ink, and collage. “I found watercolor incredibly exciting, but difficult to control,” commented Johnson. Holding up a new work entitled The Light Within, she said, “This one I matted this morning is mostly alcohol ink and gouache.*”
In describing her creative process, she explained: “Mentally -- I don’t plan a thing out. I have a general idea of where I’m going. It’s more an intuitive thing that leads me somewhere. Sometimes I’ll have a piece partly done and I’ll put it across my living room under the TV.”
She continued “I’ll sit and look at it for weeks, thinking it’s not right, and then something will pop and it will come. I think a lot of things are given to me on a spiritual level; something I have to do. I enjoy the process more than the finished product.”
For Johnson, art is also therapeutic. “I think my art has always been an emotional part of my life. Even when I wasn’t practicing art, there were a couple of times I had crises in my life. What I’d do is take crayons and paper and go sit on the basement steps and just draw. You can look at it later and say ‘This reminds me of that time or place’ and it can be a healing process as well.”
Her work is on exhibit and for sale at the Northwest Passage Gallery located one mile south of Webster at the corner of St. Rd. 35 and North Bass Lake Road. The Gallery operates in partnership with the Burnett Area Arts Group, showcasing local artists’ work in many mediums. Hours are Friday 9 – 4 and Saturday 10 - 4. For additional BAAG and Gallery information, visit baag-wi.org or nwpgallery.org or call 715.309.4254.
*Gouache: a method of painting using opaque pigments ground in water and thickened to a glue-like consistency.