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Issue 668

11/27/2013 at 2:20pm

Gretchen JohnsonIsland Neighbor: Gretchen Johnson

It is always interesting to look at the life behind the artist, in hopes that you might discover what inspires them, what informs their creations. For local painter Gretchen Johnson, it is a compendium of everyday occurrences, familiar icons of beach and family life, and a lifetime of positive feedback from relatives and friends that fires up her imagination.

At the tender age of 87, California native Gretchen trolls her memories with a chuckle, trying to pinpoint when it was in her life that she first started painting. "I guess it was when I was in high school. I took a class with a gentleman who taught oil painting. I think I did two paintings in that class. I didn't paint for years after that, then I took a few classes at the Los Angeles Art Center, but it was more commercial and that wasn't my thing."

More time went by, and Gretchen got married and had her four children - Chris, Sue, Karla and Curt - and husband Stan, to keep her busy. She wasn't painting, but she found a practical outlet for her creativity. "I baked and decorated cakes, and really, I wasn't looking for something new to do." What mother of four would be? But by the time her kids were all in high school, her own mother sent her a set of paints and asked Gretchen why she wasn't painting. "So, I started out with very small paintings of anything that caught my fancy." She began selling her miniatures, mostly florals, at craft fairs. She was painting again, much to her patrons' delight.

When Gretchen's son Chris bought property on Fort Myers Beach, he and his wife Mary invited his parents to come for visits. "They have the Stones Throw Resort on Washington," Gretchen tells us, "and we would stay there for a month or two every year." By 1990, Stan and Gretchen bought their own place on the island and spent the next several years enjoying their new island life together. She made time to volunteer at the hospital, and with the membership to the FMB Art Association given to her by her son Chris and his wife; Gretchen became an active member and a prolific painter. Sadly, Stan passed away in 2001, shortly after the 9/11 tragedy. They say one of the best ways to get over a personal loss is to give to someone else, and whether this was an influence or not, Gretchen began creating original holiday cards for her friends and family.

Sitting at a big wooden table on Johnson's lanai, six floors up, with the expanse of the Back Bay in view, Gretchen arranges a sampling of these very personalized and original cards, most of which have Santa in various scenarios that all feature the Fort Myers Beach Town Pier and the clock in Time Square, in the background. The cards begin as original watercolor paintings inspired by experiences and events in Gretchen's life. "I went zip-lining in the Canadian Rockies one year," which explains Santa zip-lining between palm trees on one of the cards from that year. In celebration of the Town's first anniversary of incorporation, everyone gathered in Time Square on New Years' Eve day, and there is a card that captures that moment. If you look very carefully, you will see Gretchen's husband standing near the group of Boy Scouts who assembled for the occasion, as well as former Mayors Anita Cereceda and Ray Murphy, in the crowd. One of the cards stands out from the rest, capturing perfectly the spectacle of lights created by decorated boats in the Christmas Boat Parade that takes place on the Back Bay every year. The dusky light of winter sunset plays up the colorful lights on the boats and along the shore of the bay. You can see the Sky Bridge over Matanzas Pass, and Bonita Bill's on San Carlos Island.

Gretchen paints new scenes every year to be made into greeting cards. "I started out just giving them to my friends and family. But people began asking for them, so now I do sell them, too." They are for sale at Annette's Book Nook in Santini Marina Plaza, and at Anita Cereceda's store Local Color in Time Square.

When she's not engaged with the FMB Art Association, Gretchen can be found volunteering with Iona Hope Episcopal Church. "I am at the soup kitchen on Martin Luther King Boulevard in downtown Fort Myers two days a week. And I volunteer at the church's thrift shop 'One More Time' in the Big Lots plaza on San Carlos Boulevard." Gretchen was emphatic about the importance of this activity in her life. But truly, it is the Art Association that occupies the lion's share of her interest.

Noting there are currently 200+ members of the Association, past-president Gretchen can't help but crow a bit. "All the work is done by volunteers. All of it. And now there are a lot of young people coming in and stepping up. It's great". Being an octogenarian-plus, Gretchen's idea of 'young people' is quite broad, as suggested by the interviewer, and this makes her chuckle a bit. But she goes on. " We have classes and workshops, special guest artists, juried shows.

In their most recent juried show Gretchen received Honorable Mention for one of her entries; there were about 80 or so entries in that particular show. Gretchen is known for her floral themes, and this special beauty shows that off winningly. When asked what her favorite medium is, Gretchen says, "I am most proficient in oil, but I like to try all the different mediums." To illustrate that point, Gretchen shows examples of work she has done in mixed media, collage, and batik.

The next up for the Art Association is the 'Art Divine' show and sale, opening on November 29th and running until December 13th. Gretchen explains how this annual event, which premiered four years ago, came to be called 'Divine'. "Well, originally, everything was priced at $99 or less, and the slogan was created - Art Divine, Under $99. But this year, it will all be priced under $150." The art is still as divine as ever, but the cost of matting and framing has gone up since the event's inception.

Gretchen says the support of people like Al Durrett and his fellow members of the Friends of the Arts group who help promote the "Paint the Beach" event, and Judy Haataja at Century 21 TriPower and her "Art on the Boulevard" sale, has really brought the Art Association into the spotlight. "Up until very recently, I've had people who live on the island who I have known for many years come up to me and say 'I didn't even know the Art Association existed' or 'I never knew where the gallery was located'. But these events have really changed that. We're really doing well."

Gretchen encourages everyone to visit the FMB Art Association Gallery on the corner of Donora and Shell Mound, just off Estero Boulevard. For more information about classes, workshops and events, call 239-463-3909 or go to their website at fortmyersbeachart.com.

We encourage you to check out the selection of Gretchen's original Fort Myers Beach Christmas scenes available as greeting cards. Your freezing friends and relatives up north will enjoy them as much as you do.

Jo List