Artist Keeps Up With Times

September 23, 1990|By Linda Lowe Morris

There are a lot of people around who believe an artist has to suffer -- that if every stroke of the brush isn't agonized over, if every note of the song isn't worried about and every word on the page isn't wrenched from the gut, well, then something must be wrong.

But here's Derrick Johnson -- artist, sculptor and maker of art clocks -- working away in his downtown studio, dabbing black paint around the edge of the face of an about-to-be clock. And he's got the music going, he's singing, he's dancing a little bit and saying things like this: "I have a test. Does that make me happy when I look at it? Yeah, I think so. Then that passes the test."

And yet his works are selling at a half-dozen local galleries like soda pop on a hot day. And he's always surrounded by a cluster of people when he takes his works to Artscape and other local shows and festivals.

As D'Antell Designs ("pronounced dee-an-tell, just like it looks," he says), he makes metal sculpture and paintings and jewelry, but he is best known for his clocks.

These are clocks like no others. They come as table clocks, floor clocks ("tall time"), ceiling or wall clocks ("hang time"), plus a series of clocks that look like old radios and television sets. And although they have a vaguely art deco or retro-'50s look to them, these clocks have squiggly second hands, geometric shapes, sometimes legs, and always, the bright neon colors.

"I like your high contrast colors, your electric blues, your shocking pinks, your screaming yellows, that kind of thing. Those are mostly fluorescent colors I use quite a bit. Teals, fuchsias, yellows. Almost any color to create a high contrast."

He mixes the paints in a special formula and then laboriously dabs the paint on the metal surfaces of the clocks to get an unusual textured effect.

"I want my work to say to people, 'Life doesn't have to be so tight. Loosen up a bit.' Because when you look at these clocks -- I sort of call them anti-depressants -- when you look at these clocks, you've got to laugh," he says.

While he's been selling his works for the past eight years -- he just got back from the National Black Arts Festival in Atlanta and he's thinking about tackling some shows on the West Coast next year -- he never planned to be an artist. Instead he planned a career as a physical therapist and now he works part time with several local group medical practices.

"I like both my jobs. I enjoy physical therapy because I like people and I like the idea of helping. Either one I could enjoy full time and have a blast at it. It's been a rewarding career both there and here. But it's just truly exciting to me to go from that world and then take off the tie and come down here and smear paint on my pants. They're so different. One's pretty straight and the other's pretty wild."

While studying to be a physical therapist at the Community College of Baltimore, he took his first art course. He had always been a doodler in high school, he says, but had never really shown anyone his work.

"I didn't display my artistic ability because as an artist you have to put a piece of yourself on paper and let everybody have a crack at it. You know, you're exposing yourself. They can say, 'Oh this is awful,' and like 'Yeechhhh.' So you didn't want to jump right out there. I would do some drawings but I wouldn't sign my name. I would find out what people thought of it. And after I kept getting favorable reviews I was like OK, cool, maybe I can draw."

While he was in school, he started framing pieces of printed fabric as an inexpensive means to decorate his walls. "I saw some fantastic sheets and thought, man, that could be as pretty as a picture. So I stretched it over a wood frame and it was a pretty picture."

Friends kept asking where he got them and when they found out, they asked him to do it for them. After continuing with that for a while, he grew restless and started looking for new ways to do things. "As you do something, you think, how can I make it better or make it different. I just never thought there was any of the stuff I couldn't do. So I just had to find my niche as to what I really enjoyed doing. And I kept elaborating."

While looking at one of the pieces of fabric, he thought the lines would be interesting if they could be made in metal. He was anxious to try but hadn't ever worked with metal.

"I didn't know how to weld," he says. "I had no experience. And that's a strange story. One day I'm coming back from a club about 5 in the morning and I see a flash of light and there's this old gentleman leaning over his car, welding on his car. So I thought, hmmmmm, maybe I could stop and ask him.

"So I got out of my car, straightened my tie back up and said, 'Good morning, sir. My name is Derrick Johnson. I'm an artist and I was interested in learning how to weld. And I see that you're welding.' He said, 'Well, come on over. No problem.' So this was about 5 and by 11 o'clock I was welding. He had taught me what I needed to know."

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