PROFILE: Johan Bjurman

January 22, 2021
By Marcy Shortuse

BY MARCY SHORTUSE – It takes a special person to make a lucrative career in the art world, but Johan Bjurman has done just that. To make it even more special, he still has a very pragmatic and logical philosophy about the decades he spent with a brush in his hand.

“I like to say that when I was 30 the famous people hadn’t called, and I needed to get a job and didn’t want to live on the edge forever. I didn’t have what it took to just put it out there and do the true artist’s thing. I admire people today who have done really well at that.”

In truth, that is a rather modest statement coming from a man who has worked on restoration projects in Washington D.C., completed a famous mural at the site of a Gettysburg battlefield and has been commissioned to create pieces on 10-story buildings. Bjurman has gone through his paces since he started creating art in high school, there’s no doubt about it. His most recent artistic endeavor is to be one of four men showing their work in the Boca Grande Arts Center “Guys Art Show,” which is taking place this weekend. It will be his third year with the show, after being introduced to the venue by the late Jack Horner. Jack had taken a plein air class at the Englewood Art Center that Johan taught, and they developed a friendship.

Johan was born in North Providence, R.I., to a father who worked for the telephone company and a mother who worked for the state. But there was far more going on in their home that helped to shape his artistic future.

“My family is from Sweden; my grandfather was an inventor and craftsman, and that’s what we always did around the house,” he said. “We would sit at the kitchen table and do drawings, or be outside carving stuff out of a block of wood or a piece of a tree. My father pushed those kinds of ideas along when I was young. I had a little studio in the basement. I don’t think there was ever an issue with what I chose to do for a living, as an artist. It was never presented in that way. I guess it came naturally in the environment I grew up in.”

When he was in his late teen years a woman in town who organized art festivals encouraged him to show his work. It was his first real exposure to the public, and it went well.

When Johan was just out of high school he found a job painting billboards and also worked for advertising companies doing sales drawings.

“Sign painting, billboard painting, it was a great trade during that period of time in the 1960s,” he said. “I did not wind up in the military because I’m deaf in one ear. It was the beginning of my realization that you can make a living in the art world. It was also a union job, a real trade, and it was nice to know that I could make enough money to save some for when I couldn’t work any more.”

He was in his 20s when he also started doing studio work. Rhode Island has a prolific art community, and rent was cheap to get a decent-sized studio. He also started taking art courses at some of the various schools there.

“The Rhode Island School of Design is very prominent, and there are other very popular schools there,” he said. “There are also a lot of other artists, and more experienced ones, so there was always a wealth of studios to go to and study. The camaraderie was great.”

Eventually the billboard business started to wane, as photography became more technologically advanced. At that time Johan was in his 30s.

“I started to learn about mural painting, as that’s essentially what a billboard was, back in the day,” he said. “I already knew the craft, so I started my own business. There were a number of companies I did privately-owned billboards for, too, and other big art projects. Then, in the 1980s, I did a couple of 10-story buildings in the trompe l’oeil style.”

One of the works he is most proud of is a 12’ x 80’ mural he was commissioned to do adjacent to a battlefield in Gettysburg.

“I had a friend who was a Civil War historian; his great-grandfather was in this particular battle,” Johan said. “I had also been studying this particular regiment – the 154th – for years, and when we got together he designed it and enlisted me to put it up. It has been there since about 1987 … it’s pretty much a hallmark piece for me.”

Johan said since then they had done two repaints, and about three years ago he repainted it again in the studio as a mock-up.

“I’m 73, I didn’t want to have to do this again when I’m 83,” he said. “So I managed to get the whole thing put together in my studio, and we had an idea that there was this company that would provide a glass infusion service, and we would pay another company to do the installation. Glass infusion is a technique they have been using for outdoor murals, but the only way to get it into the glass was with a photographic process. All of the imagery we had created over the years with the piece at the battlefield was from another period of time; it really couldn’t be enlarged up to 12 feet, the image would just fall apart. I repainted it in the studio back to scale and made a really nice piece. Then we could have it photographed by today’s standards. The mural is now in glass on the side of the building, forever preserved.”

Johan’s projects of note include trompe l’oeil works for the Philadelphia Academy of Music, skyscapes for the Culinary Institute of America in Poughkeepsie, New York, and restoration of the façade of the Fleur de Lis Building of the Providence Art Club in Rhode Island.

Before he retired he had been part of historical renovations of works in Washington D.C. (in the Treasury Department and others), as well as in state houses and mansions around the northeast region of the country. He also, for a time, got into working on movie backdrops.

Five years ago, Johan and his wife, Miriam, bought a house in East Englewood. There is a small enclave of people from Prudence right here in this area and they have a yearly get-together that approximately 80 people attended when the last one was held.   

“That’s how we really came to know about Englewood,” Johan explained. “The amount of development we have seen in the past five years is crazy.”

The couple usually travels back and forth between Prudence and Englewood, but have only gone back once since the pandemic began.

“We didn’t go up to Prudence last summer, but we usually go up for a month to six weeks, depending on how things go,” he said. “We still have family there. We have three kids, and now a few grandkids. One son got married in October. We got to go up for that, terrific experience.”

They are waiting for the next chance to return up north, though, if only to introduce their dog, Duke, to the snow. He is an adopted Labrador retriever from Suncoast Humane Society, and he’s the fifth one Johan and Miriam have owned. Duke has been to the house they rent in Prudence during the summer months, but he’s not a big fan of one aspect – the spiral staircase.

“He had never gone up a set of stairs, he’s a Florida dog,” John laughed. “He didn’t know what to do with it. The first time we were in the house and we went up the stairs he came with us, but when it was time to come down, he didn’t know what to do. Eventually our family and their dogs came to visit, and he watched his cousin dogs run up and down the stairs. He figured then he had better learn how to do it.”

Johan continues to teach plein air and acrylics at the Englewood Art Center, which is a division of the Ringling College of Art, and is a member of the Oil Painters of America, the Copley Society of Boston and several others. He is looking forward to the Boca Grande Art Show this weekend. His pieces to display, he said, are a bit of still life, trompe l’oeil and landscapes.

“I really have much more of a focus now after being retired from industry, as I have more time to consider the kind of work I’m doing, and what I’m interested in,” he said. “I’m really discovering what I ‘do’ as an artist. The work I’ll be exhibiting this weekend is a series of still life paintings of tools. I’m not using a hard, fine trompe l’oeil method, but a projection of it. They are projections of images of reality. A couple of pieces I’m really interested in exhibiting include a work that features a window on a door with an old bolt on it, with chipping and peeling paint, and a sign that says ‘gone fishing.’ I framed it with molding from a door frame, aged it down a little bit and made it look a little rougher. Trompe l’oeil works so well when you have it next to something real. It integrates into the three-dimensional. I like the idea of it, very different kinds of painting that incorporate textural and paint qualities, and use that trompe l’oeil feel to it. I’m drawn to work with a more “painterly” quality, where from a distance it looks perfect, but up close you can see the strokes.  Whether landscape or still life, which is something I’ve really enjoyed doing, because it’s always available. “ 

See the front page or Ballyhoo for details on the Guys Art Show at the Boca Grande Art Center this weekend.