NW art giant George Johanson dies at 94

A well-loved painter, printmaker and teacher whose career spanned more than 70 years, Johanson kept creating art deep into his 90s.

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Portland painter and printmaker George Johanson. Photo: Aaron Johanson/2020

George Johanson, a major and beloved Pacific Northwest artist whose career spanned more than 70 years, died Friday night, Oct. 14, 2022, from heart failure. He was 94.

Born in Seattle in 1928, Johanson came to Portland at 17 to attend the Museum Art School (now Pacific Northwest College of Art), where he studied, as art historian Roger Hull notes in an essay on the artist for the Oregon Encyclopedia, with leading regional figures such as William Givler, Louis Bunce, and Jack McLarty. After a few years in New York in the early 1950s, Johanson returned to Portland and taught for many years at the art school while he also built his own practice, and where he was represented by Augen Gallery. His long list of solo exhibitions at Augen and elsewhere reaches back to 1950.

Johanson was known to art followers for his mastery of both painting and printmaking, and also for a few repeating notes lurking in many of his works: long taut leaping cats, for instance; or volcanoes erupting, often in the background. To friends and students, he was also known for his sly wit, and for the pleasure he took from playing the piano.

As much time as he spent in the studio, Johanson was a public sort of artist. He did murals (often on tile), showed up at events, wrote a memoir, and kept up with what his fellow artists were doing. Indeed, other artists fascinated him. “In a lifetime of teaching at the art school and making his own art,” I wrote in a short piece two years ago, “he’s embedded himself deeply in Oregon’s art scene, becoming one of its pillars, and somehow connected all over the place: Almost twenty years ago he published a fascinating book of drawings called Equivalents, which consisted of portraits of eighty Oregon artists, each made during a single hour-long sitting: He was looking less for accuracy of detail, although he’s always had a fine hand, than an impression of personality.”

In the 2015 video “In the Studio with George Johanson,” below, the artist speaks expansively about his art, his life, and his technique. Directed by Michael Annus, it was produced by artist Mark Andres and curator/art historian Prudence Roberts:

“George’s passing leaves a huge hole in the Oregon art scene,” Eugene painter Margaret Coe said Sunday on Facebook. “He was an absolutely brilliant artist from my favorite generation of Oregon artists, and it saddens me that he has left us. I did not study with him but I know he was a great teacher. He certainly was a delightful conversationalist. He had a generosity of spirit on a level that is rare. He was greatly loved, which is as great a legacy as his varied and extraordinary oeuvre.”

Despite his age, Johanson remained active in the studio well into his 90s. “His last artist’s talk at Augen this year was amazing—he stood and spoke extempore for an hour, charming everyone and answering lots of questions,” Andres said. “A whole new body of work of animal images! He remained vital to the last.”

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“George was one of those people who I thought was immortal and who would live forever,” John Olbrantz, director of the Hallie Ford Museum of Art in Salem, said in a Facebook post. “[I]ndeed, he was a wonderful role model for growing old with enthusiasm, passion, kindness, and grace. May his memory be eternal.”

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Bob Hicks has been covering arts and culture in the Pacific Northwest since 1978, including 25 years at The Oregonian. Among his art books are Kazuyuki Ohtsu; James B. Thompson: Fragments in Time; and Beth Van Hoesen: Fauna and Flora. His work has appeared in American Theatre, Biblio, Professional Artist, Northwest Passage, Art Scatter, and elsewhere. He also writes the daily art-history series "Today I Am."

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