Thomas B. Johnson was born in Omaha, Nebraska to parents of Swedish extraction. In early childhood he displayed a talent for drawing which he continued to refine throughout his life.
His formal training began at Bethany College in Lindsborg, Kansas, where his mentor, the Swedish artist Birger Sandzen, also became his good friend. Next he studied with Robert Reid at the Broadmoor Academy of Art in Colorado Springs, and later at the Minneapolis School of Art in Minnesota.
At his death in 1968, Thomas Johnson left behind more than 40 canvases, many block prints, and numerous pencil drawings. The latter include a series intended to illustrate a "Hymnal for Black Americans," and another based on American Indian mythology. Several pieces of metal sculpture are considered by many to be his best work.
In 1969, after viewing what he called a "merited retrospective" of Johnson's work at the Koenig Art Gallery at Concordia College in Seward, Nebraska, art critic Leonard Thiessen of the Omaha World-Herald wrote:
Johnson was in several ways a precursor: his life work reveals a variety of well-integrated sources. Born in...[Omaha], he studied with Birger Sandzen at Lindsborg, Kansas.
His painting shows the impressionistic, heavy impasto handling favored by the anti-establishment "Konstnaersforbundent" group in Stockholm, with which Sandzen was allied before emigrating to the U.S.
Long before forged metal sculpture became commonplace, Thomas B. Johnson was creating lovingly crafted iron sculptures sinuously reminiscent of Art Nouveau and prophetic of the "psychedelic" pastiches recently revived.
Before black became beautiful, Johnson was deeply moved by the aesthetic contribution of Black Americans, and pursued his black studies in a series of drawings, "Negro Spirituals."
The "heavy impasto" technique, as Johnson described it, is "the juxtaposition of color" achieved by using two separate colors of paint on the brush at one time.
The mind when subjected to a two color-pattern, shifts from one color...to the other creating a sense of color movement or a shimmering effect. The edges of...alternating bars of red and blue...give a sensory stimulus to the mind creating an image of purple. If we were to thoroughly mix the red and blue pigment the effect would still be purple, but without the movement or shimmer, as there would be no sensory interplay between the colors.
Through the generosity of his widow, Fay Sherwin Johnson, most of Thomas Johnson's work is now the property of the Nebraska State Historical Society, and his paintings, many of which depict Nebraska scenes that no longer exist, have been displayed extensively in recent years.
Thomas Berger Johnson, 1944
Select List of other Thomas Berger Johnson works
at the Nebraska State Historical Society
Good Afternoon Ma'am, oil, 1928
Street Scene, oil, 1930
Sentinel, oil, 1942
Timber Line, oil, 1942
Mirror, oil, 1944
Kansas City Bluffs, oil, 1945
Patron Saint of Beggars, oil, 1946
Ore Mill, oil, 1946
Cathedral Spires, oil, 1947
Glen Eyre, oil, 1948
Pastoral, oil, 1949
Natural Bridge, oil, 1950
Pioneer Cabin, oil, 1951
Tapestry, oil, 1951
Low Sun, oil, 1953
Lake of the Ozarks, oil, 1957
Reflections, oil, 1957
Bayou Reflections, oil, 1960
River Dwellers, oil, 1960
As the Wind Blows, oil, 1962
Patriarchs, oil, 1962
Sky Towers, oil, 1964
Cliffs, oil, 1964
Tipton's Barn, oil, 1964
Sioux River, oil, 1965
Today Shalt Thou Be With Me in Paradise, charcoal, 1952
Hill Top, pencil, 1932
Crow Ghost, pencil, 1967
Fertility Cults - Butterfly, pencil, 1966
The Swallow Clan, pencil, 1966
The Star Maiden, pencil, 1967
Baptismal, pencil, 1967
Footprints I Have Made, pencil, 1967
Mother Corn, pencil, 1967
Ode to the Pasque Flower, pencil, 1967
Rock and Tree - Balzak, block print, undated
Eroded Knoll, block print, 1963
Tree-Wyoming, block print, undated
End of Ridge, block print, undated
Rock and Tree - Balzak, block print, undated
Line Pine, block print, undated
Slit Rock and Mulberry, block print, undated
Shoes or Portrait of the Johnsons, block print, 1965
Rock Ridge - South Dakota, block print, 1963
Rock and Pine Tree, block print, undated
Roll the Old Chariot Along, pencil, 1946
Just a Closer Walk with Thee, pencil, 1945
My Lord's A-Writin' All the Time, pencil, 1946
Hold the Light, pencil, 1946
Keep Me From Sinking Down, pencil, 1944
When I'm Dead, pencil, 1951
O' Rocks Don't Fall on Me, pencil, 1944
Go Down Death, pencil, 1944
Pastoral, pencil, 1949
Was Moses Like That, pencil, undated
He is Not Here For He is Risen/They Took the Money and Did As They Were Taught, pencil, 1943
Descent From the Cross, pencil, 1943
I Am Innocent of the Blood of This Just Person, See Ye To It, charcoal, 1942
Jesus Being Taken to Tomb, charcoal, 1942
T. B. Johnson