Johnson’s Artistic Touch
His Talented Hands Create AAPG’s ‘Face’
AAPG’s graphics designer Rusty Johnson.
Ever wonder what it would be like to meet a modern-day Frederic Remington or Charles Russell?
Just walk into the office of award-winning woodcarver, designer and artist extraordinaire J.H. “Rusty” Johnson at AAPG headquarters and you will find out -- quickly, but in keeping with the artist himself, quietly.
“Modest” doesn’t begin to describe the quiet and unassuming Johnson because, as is the case with many artists, he lets his work speak for itself.
And what a tale his work can tell.
You may not recognize his face, but Johnson in many ways provides “the face” of AAPG, because for the past 22 years he has been AAPG’s graphic designer.
That means that for the past two decades he has been the creator and the creative touch responsible for the “look” of AAPG. That includes EXPLORER and BULLETIN covers, AAPG logos, special publication slipcovers, various PowerPoint presentations and, in his “spare” time, t-shirts for the AAPG General Store.
Other notable AAPG designs of Johnson include the Fred Dix Plaza plaque at AAPG headquarters in Tulsa; the AAPG Explorer award, which was based on a cover he once created for the EXPLORER; the newly created Michel T. Halbouty Leadership award; and most recently, the new neckties for the AAPG Foundation Trustees.
And that’s just what he creates for AAPG.
When he goes home, the artist switch stays on -- except there, Johnson gets to create for himself.
Johnson's “Abe Lincoln Bobble-Head” captured a first place award in the Caricature Carvers of America’s national competition last year.
At home, Johnson puts his creative designing skills to work as a master woodcarver.
It’s a talent that developed at a young age. Johnson, when a counselor at Boy Scout camp in high school, had fun carving his own neckerchief slides.
Others noticed. And others liked his work. And Johnson discovered that he could supplement his $8-a-week counselor pay selling the neckerchief slides that he had carved.
Johnson eventually developed a love of nature and wildlife, studied art at the University of Tulsa and following a stint in the U.S. Navy started his career as a graphic artist.
After his son became an Eagle Scout about 10 years ago, Johnson started carving seriously -- no more neckerchief slides.
“I found woodcarving was a way I could have a creative outlet -- one I enjoy and can do when I retire,” he said, “and I found I was good at it.
“Woodcarving poses a creative challenge,” he added, “more than a production challenge.”
For him, it wasn’t a sophisticated approach; for years -- right up until joining the Eastern Oklahoma Woodcarvers Association (EOWA) in 1998 -- Johnson was using a Swiss Army knife to carve.
“I was working on a complicated piece and getting nowhere so I joined the EOWA to learn about other tools I could use to carve,” Johnson said.
“I also picked up a lot of technical help and tidbits by surrounding myself with other wood carvers, folks who knew what the heck they were doing.”
‘It’s A Zen Thing’
At that point his life-long study of art began to manifest itself in his work.
Influential artists to Johnson include: Charles Russell, Winslow Homer, Frederic Remington with Michelangelo being his all-time favorite.
“Russell’s work inspires the human element for the ‘old West,’” Johnson said, “and Remington was a wonderful illustrator.”
And, like most artists, choice of palette for Johnson is critical.
“I mostly use basswood because of it’s fine grain. It doesn’t split, it’s semi-soft and it takes detail well,” Johnson said.
“Certain woods, such as cypress knees and driftwood, will dictate what you carve. It’s what’s in the wood trying to get out that requires you to be one with the wood,” he said. “It’s a Zen thing.”
Johnson has a unique edge in woodcarving. He basically creates “wood caricatures,” and he prides himself on his woodcarvings being his own design, his own pattern.
This is not surprising since he has been sketching caricatures and cartoons on paper for years.
“The hardest part about carving is the working in three dimensions,” Johnson said. “You’re subtracting from the piece of wood, and you can’t put it back on.”
Johnson says he dedicates two to 10 hours per week on woodcarving, averaging about 20 hours per project.
Johnson has obtained countless awards for his woodcarvings -- including several on a national level. Ask him about it sometime, and you’ll find out he’s been judged to be among the country’s best.
But you’ll have to ask. And even then, that modesty thing kicks in.
For example, when asked how many national, regional and local awards he has received, Johnson quietly replied, “Shoeboxes full. Too many to count, really.”
That’s it -- but his creations are nothing short of remarkable.
From the two-inch square piece of wood that he carved into a Mark Twain miniature, to the much larger “Welcoming Committee,” Johnson’s humor, love of nature and designing expertise are exuded on the faces of his wooden caricatures.
Consequently both pieces won national awards from the Caricature Carvers of America.
Even in his leisure time, Johnson seeks out inspiration for his wooden creations. For example on a recent trip to Italy he visited San Francesco a Ripa, a small church in Rome, in search of Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s masterpiece Ecstasy of Blessed Ludovica Albertoni.
“For me, seeing it was the artistic highlight of the trip,” he said.
And then he turned his creative touch on yet another EXPLORER.
And the artist was once again quietly creating one more reason for AAPG members to smile.