If the definition of “art” is work designed for gallery viewing and presented in a space where people move slowly through a sterile white room, stand in small groups some distance from the work, and speculate quietly about the meanings and motives of the artist, maybe Anders Johnson’s work isn’t art at all. Like the climber who summits Everest because “it’s there,” Johnson-a successful stonemason who spends his days constructing walls, pathways, fireplaces, and patios-goes home in the evening and chisels stone because it’s what he does. “I’m not part of that whole ‘art’ scene,” Johnson has said. “I don’t take myself too seriously.”
Upon entering the airy space of David Shelton Design where Johnson’s work is currently on display, the first impression is of being watched by a series of faces. Smiling animals, distorted visages, and graceful human profiles make up Johnson’s current body of work. It’s simple, it’s accessible, and it doesn’t really mean anything, which in this case proves to be a most grounding experience. As I examined a sculpture of a large mammal with a look of supreme peace and well-being on its face, I noticed my own face relaxing into the same expression. Other viewers ran their hands over the inviting surfaces of polished limestone, grinning.
I had the opportunity recently to visit Johnson’s home studio. We spoke about the show, and his relationship with stone. His house, which he built from quarrying, hauling, and chiseling tons of limestone and flagstone, is adorned with hundreds of sculptures and perched on a sloping hillside, as if calling to be climbed by someone with a rope and harness.
“I’m not all that concerned with the outcome of a piece of stone,” Johnson said of his stone art. “I’m simply grateful to have been able to play with stone my whole life.” As he spoke, I reached for one of the hundreds of small, highly detailed studies resting on the shop’s shelf-a small sculpture of a woman’s head carved in black soapstone. Johnson gasped and snatched it from my hands, only to pour olive oil over it. He rubbed it with a rag and handed it back to me, and it sparkled like a black jewel.