Dorothy Churchill-Johnson's "Survivor."

Dorothy Churchill-Johnson’s artwork isn’t easy to describe upon first viewing. And looking closely at her pieces, why that is, slowly becomes clear. On the micro level, Churchill-Johnson’s works employ fine-grained detail we recognize from the real world, but on a macro level the details are assembled into startling, unusual compositions we don’t. The Indy caught up with the Santa Barbara painter just before her first major retrospective, which opens at the Bakersfield Museum of Art (BMOA) on Thursday, September 11.

“When I was studying art at university I’d have been ridiculed for doing anything representational,” Churchill-Johnson recalled via email. “Back then, we painted with brayers and popsicle sticks, but I’ve always been able to draw, and I wanted to capitalize on my natural strengths.” Having stuck with realism through the years, she’s put her own spin on the genre’s conventions in order “to use observation as a tool for meditation and transcendence.” “I think of it as a forensic approach,” she wrote, “finding evidence of life in its everyday remains.”

She’s well aware of the effect realism has on the viewer when it’s combined with compositional surrealism. “It’s unsettling and a bit mysterious to view both at the same time,” she explained. “The viewer might feel a sense of timelessness and infinity along with a bleak fragility of the moment in some of these virtual landscapes. They speak to change and the impermanence of beauty.” The union of the real and the unreal brings to mind the literary genre of magical realism; the artist noted that works such as Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude “may have been an unconscious influence” on her artistic evolution.

Assembling the BMOA’s retrospective was a joint effort between the artist and curators Emily Falke and Nicole Saint-John. The show features more than 30 pieces spanning her painting career, but it also reaches as far back as Churchill-Johnson’s early ink drawings, one of which the museum will add to its permanent collection.

Transcendental Observation: The Paintings of Dorothy Churchill-Johnson runs from Thursday, September 11 through Sunday, November 30 at the Bakersfield Museum of Art (1930 R St., Bakersfield). Visit or call (661) 323-7219 for more information.


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