“There was a year when I must have done a hundred paintings, just to keep food on the table to feed myself and my son.”
For the last six years Johnnene Maddison’s paintings have followed a similar style. When viewed collectively, the twenty-seven paintings that she completed in 2020 read like one long sentence made up of brightly-coloured, animated abstract shapes and lines that dance across white space. Yet regarded individually, each piece remains engaging and effervescent.
Although Johnnene did study Abstract Expressionism in her twenties at the Pratt Institute in New York, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in Fine Arts, (and later completed a MFA at the University of Michigan) when she first came to London in the early 1980s, she was known by many in the visual arts community as a skillful watercolour artist. Her watercolours often depicted country gardens adorning a rustic English-style cottage, complete with the occasional well-placed Muskoka chair. Her work in watercolour served her well; earning her early public recognition as well as a reasonable income. But eventually – and mainly as a result of teaching others her skill – Johnnene found herself in competition with many local watercolour artists who were painting the same sort of subject matter.
In the late 1990s, Johnnene turned to textile art, focusing on a project which won her much acclaim. Inspired by her own upbringing during the Second World War when she was cared for by no less that five motherly women who all pitched in to help on what was called ‘the home front’,Johnnene devoted her artistic inclinations to answering the question: What did women do in Canada during World War II? For this she interviewed thirty-two women and documented their experiences; working their stories into various textile pieces that she put together by hand.
Utilizing techniques both traditional and new, Johnnene employed hand-dyed fabric, stitching, embroidery and beading, with some pieces incorporating photo transfer, machine stitching, and acrylic paint. These pieces were displayed in various galleries and museums across Ontario, with a hallmark exhibition entitled, Stitches in Time, of fifteen quilted works displayed at the Canadian War Museum in 2007. Johnnene later brought the best of this work together in a published book, called, Over Here: Women, Work and World War II. The Canadian War Museum subsequently purchased all 15 quilts from this exhibition.
Then in 2008, transferring photos of her own watercolours of the Thames onto hand-dyed fabric, Johnnene was one of nineteen London artists involved in the phenomenally popular group exhibition and book, The River Project.
Always deft at adapting, with a strong sense of moving forward, Johnnene has attracted a significant following regardless of whatever medium she employs. Her abstract acrylics have been featured in numerous recent exhibitions at galleries in London, Kitchener, Bayfield, and Hamilton. Looking ahead, she has pending shows in St. Thomas in April, in August at the Westland Gallery (with acclaimed London artist Eric Atkinson) and another possible show at the Woodstock Gallery next year.
Johnnene’s commitment to supporting and teaching other artists has not gone unnoticed either. In 2015, she received the National Visual Advocacy Award from Canadian Artists’ Representation (CARFAC). That distinguished award is presented annually to a Canadian artist who has a long history of promoting visual art, exhibiting, mentoring, curating, and teaching.
It would be wrong to regard Johnnene’s steady productivity as evidence of a privileged and stress-free life. She has had to cope with many challenges, including a number of near-death experiences, a dysfunctional marriage that collapsed in divorce, a long period of financial struggle as she raised her son on her own, and, more recently, the death of her long-time partner and second husband, Dave Falls.
Dave’s lengthy illness and her bereavement after he passed were emotionally difficult times when, once again, she turned to art to help her process these experiences. She sketched scenes of domestic life with Dave during his illness and without Dave after he died, and also wrote up accounts of how she was coping in a journal. A selection of these sketches and journal entries made up the material for an art exhibition and a poignantly honest illustrated book entitled, Losing Dave.
Today, Johnnene’s challenges continue. In the last two years she was diagnosed with breast cancer followed by two strokes, and more recently a breast cancer diagnosis that has made her near-future perilously uncertain. On the morning I visited her in her studio in the lower level of her bright and spacious home which she designed and subsequently had renovated, we talked about her long career as an artist, the struggles she has faced, how she has adapted to living and working in this rather insular city which she first approached as an outsider, and what she is working on now.
I asked her what brought her to her recent abstract period. “After, Losing Dave, I needed colour,” she replied. “The work about him was greyer with some dark blue. And I worked on that for more than five years. ‘Oh my God’, I said one day. ‘I need colour’. I pulled out an empty canvas, and just started there.”
She has found with more abstract work, her thought processes have changed in a way that seems to be less willful and more instinctively and directly related to the act of painting. “I usually start with a thought, and then go to the canvas and apply colour that reflects the thought, and I work from there. Sometimes I will take a painting I have been working on and I will gesso over different parts of it. And then I will do a new drawing on it and start painting again. I will occasionally weave my own personal experiences into the work.”
At the end of my visit, Johnnene sat her in rocking chair, and as the morning sun touched her face she smiled. It was a smile of deep contentment. The rocking chair rests by a sliding glass door that looks out over a small garden and a heavily treed ravine below. Here, I thought, undaunted and intact, is a female artist who has navigated her own way through the many obstacles that the world has thrown at her and still looks ahead to the next challenge she can meet with curiosity and drive and even a sense of playfulness. She wears it all with such lightness and grace, but hers has been a lifetime of perseverance.
Written by Nida Home Doherty, Senior Writer for Centred.ca
Johnnene’s upcoming exhibition at the St Thomas-Elgin Public Art Centre opens April 17th.
Images courtesy of Johnnene Maddison