“How do we keep intrigued?” ponder Anders Johnson.“How do we find ways to be excited every day?”
Anders is a beloved Santa Barbara mason, quarryman, and sculptor who has collaborated with such renowned Santa Barbara architects as Jack Warner, Bob Easton, and Jeff Shelton, his childhood friend. “I’ve been carving stone all my life,” he says excitedly. “I come home and chisel and carve stones. The exfoliation of a stone is alchemy.”
We are sitting outside of the entry to his house, surrounded by his beautiful sculptures, and he’s playing like a young child with pieces of silver. His latest self-discovery is that he’s a decent silversmith too. “Such a cool process: making jewelry out of silver,” he says. “Brand new to me, a new horizon. I’m so excited.”
Anders, or Andy, is 60 years old and was born on Hot Springs Road. His father was congressional candidate, traveler, and peace activist Vernon Oliver Johnson, a World War II B-17 pilot who, after losing his crew in a crash, dedicated himself to solving global political tensions via face-to-face dialogue.
During the height of the Cold War, Vernon traveled the world for 20 months with his wife, Anne Beckwith Johnson, and their eight children, promoting peace and world diplomacy through personal interaction. Andy’s mom wrote a book about their journey entitled Home is Where the Bus Is. “We traveled 14 countries in 20 months,” Andy recalls. “I was three years old. Dad believed we were ambassadors to the world.”
After returning home, his dad purchased the Oaks Hotel in Ojai, with the vision of creating an artists’ retreat. Unfortunately, the hotel went bankrupt first, and the family had to sell off their properties to pay debts. The family moved to “The Castle” on Mountain Drive, which was then the“the epicenter of the bohemian life,” says Andy. “A lot of people who owned homes up there were vets. It was a generous community.”
Andy was just 11 years old when he started to cut stone. “I was self-taught,” he states. “It was a complete fascination.”
Between 11 and 12 years old, he went to Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula with famed photographer Macduff Everton. “There was no highway or road,” Andy says. “We stayed in the jungle for two months, and we saw all the archeological sights along the way.”
He shows me the scrapbook from their trip, including some of the photographs that became part of Everton’s 1991 book The Modern Maya, which shed light on the Maya people in a time of globalization. The photos are striking, especially the one of a blonde, tanned Andy playing on the beach with a young, dark-skinned Maya boy, acting like brothers. The impact of this period on Andy’s life is evident in how pre-Columbian style still influences his sculptures.
When Andy got back, he could use a machete to clear brush efficiently, and started doing so as a job. “I could make more money than my mom,” says Andy, who attended Montecito Union, Roosevelt, Cleveland, and Cold Springs schools, where he met Jeff Shelton. “I spent most of the time at the principal’s office,” he shares grinningly.
One day when he was 18 and walking on the beach, he saw someone building a stone wall and offered to help. “I was so excited I would have done it for free,” says Andy about the moment when his career and purpose in life crystallized. “Masonry is fun. I love to create spaces and create environments. I get to make some beautiful things. We make zen gardens, outside kitchens — it grows from what needs to be done, some really cool stuff.”
He’s been working for the past two years at a property on El Cielito, where “where every day is a new space and a new area.” As for his sculptures, his friends often force him into doing public exhibits. “I don’t care about showing my work,” he says. “I find it hard to put a price to my work.”
Following the devastation of the January 9 debris flow, Andy proposed a memorial to the Montecito residents that succumbed to the tragedy. His nephew is Abe Powell, who’s on Montecito Fire’s board of directors and leads the Santa Barbara Bucket Brigade. Andy envisioned one large centerpiece boulder circled by 24 smaller, bench-like boulders, creating a site of remembrance and mourning.
When I ask of an update on the ambitious project, Andy answers, “I’ve backed away from it.” He says some people wondered if his motivation was for career advancement. “I thought it was a good idea,” he says. “Sometimes we just have to wait.”
In the meantime, I’m happy to sit in his garden and soak in all of the beautiful things that Andy has created.
Anders Johnson answers the Proust Questionnaire.
What do you like most about your job?
I love my job. When I was 11, someone gave me a piece of soapstone and I carved it with a pocket knife. I’ve been carving and cutting stone for 40-plus years and have enjoyed creative freedom and making spaces with stone for people to enjoy.
What is your idea of perfect happiness?
A world where people live in harmony and peace and where we collectively work together to make the future bright for successive generations.
What is your greatest fear?
The opposite of the previous question.
Who do you most admire?
I admire anyone that cares for others and is prepared to share their gifts.
What is your greatest extravagance?
Living in Santa Barbara.
What is your current state of mind?
Concern for the fate of the planet, ecologically, politically, and hoping that we will find a path to peace on earth one day.
What is the quality you most like in people?
What is the quality you most dislike in people?
What do you most value in friends?
What is your most marked characteristic?
Which words or phrases do you most overuse?
Fucker, transference, overlay, and I love you.
Which talent would you most like to have?
The ability to give it all up without attachment.
If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?
Holding on to material and emotional excess.
What do you consider your greatest achievement?
Kindness and caring for others.
Where would you most like to live?
Right where I am.
What is your most treasured possession?
I have way too many possessions so I believe that truth is my most treasured one
Who makes you laugh the most?
Children. They have no filter that prohibits them from true expression.
What is your motto?
To be is to do.
Which historical figure do you most identify with?
Not one in particular but all that have selflessly fought for justice and the care for others and the planet.
On what occasion do you lie?
I can’t remember an instance that I would have to.