Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Featured Artist Interview - Johnny Sutton

Johnny Sutton is an international traveler and artist that occasionally comes back to Wichita to visit his daughter Georgia, his friends, and do interviews with curious young people such as myself. Johnny has been an artist for as long as he can remember, "I started painting - well the first exhibit I had was actually in high school - but I've been doing artwork every since I was tiny." Johnny's lifelong commitment to art has taken many forms over the years - painting, writing, photography - and recently has taken a turn into the realm of mixed media.

A: When did you first get into doing art?
J: I had a lot of exhibits in Wichita during the 70's and 80's, but stopped for awhile in the 80's get married and start a family. In 2000 I started doing photography - my hands were damaged in an explosion, and I couldn't paint for several years, but I could push the button on a camera
so my creativity went towards that and away from painting. Photography just became something that I liked. I still have a bunch of stretched canvases at home in the closet that I take out every once in awhile and put right back.

A: Are you not painting then at all anymore? Or are you doing a little of both?
J:What I've been doing lately is really starting with a blank canvas and putting together bits and pieces from photographs - dozens, sometimes 40 or 50 photographs - I'll take parts of the photographs and then create my own image. It's more like painting because I'm creating my own thing instead of just documenting an object or taking a picture of an object. I know a lot of photographers, but I don't feel like I have much in common with photographers. I feel like I have more in common with sculptors and painters because they're more of the mindset that you start with nothing and then create something. Some of the pieces I end up with are recognizable images, but the image that I've made doesn't exist in reality . Other times I put them together in a completely abstract way.

A: I read a little of your 1st book and know that it was a lot about a certain town and people in Italy, is the second book a continuation?
Johnny takes out his favorite parts of a book, puts the cover back on and only keeps what inspires him
J:  The second book, Stone the Crows, isn't written as a sequel, I call it a parallel story, and the third one is the sequel to the first one. The second book is set entirely in a four towns in western Sicily that continued the feudal system at least up until recent history. The story is about power and a how just a few elite people have the power and are in control. There's no education, no middle class - there's just the upper class and the worker bees. The people in that situation really have no rights or hope of getting out of it. There were a few instances where someone would send their son to overseas - which to them was mainland Italy - and he'd get a construction job or something and would finance his brother to come, then the neighbors would see what was going on and try it to. So then the bosses got wind of it and passed a law that no one could leave. I wanted to know what kind of history would lead to a society like that and I started seeing there were forks in the road, red flags, that lead them to that. Then I began to see there have been some of those same red flags here. It's a story about a few extremely wealthy people having control over everyone else.

A: These stories are insanely dangerous to write, and I can understand why you wouldn't publish them, but why would you keep writing them?!
J: I expect to send Stone The Crows off to agents and publishers to see if anyone is interested in publishing it. But there could be problems with publishing the first one, and I'm just sitting on it for the time being. In fact, I wasn't even thinking of publishing it while I was writing it. The challenge, once I started, was to get it finished. I know a lot of writers who would give their right arm to call themselves a published author, and I've never felt that way. I don't have as such of a big drive to get it published as I've had to get it written. Because of all of the exhibitions I've done in Italy, Croatia and other places - those places have been my outlet to the public. I just don't feel as compelled to do that with writing.

A: You've traveled a lot in your life - your last show at Fiber Studio here in Wichita was of Italian Street art - how has traveling effected your overall outlook?
J: At one point I had an old Volkswagen bus and I was going down to Galveston - there was a cold front in Galveston by the time I got there - so I went on South to Corpus Christi, and it was cold there, so I just went to the border. They wouldn't let me cross because all I had was my drivers license - I was just going to Galveston! So there was a little place down the road that had a notary so I swore, yes I am myself, took that piece of paper to the border and they let me through. It ended up being a 5000 mile trip that I didn't plan and it was great. I've been Italy several times, Greece, Ireland, Malta, Croatia - a lot of other places.
When I was in my 20s, I traveled all over Europe for half a year with nothing planned ahead of time. I landed in Paris and found a room after I got there and then just took things a day at a time. I loved it. Rambling around isn't everyone's cup of tea, but it suited me fine. It taught me that I didn't need to be afraid of the unknown, that I could handle any problems as they came up. I've run into travelers along the way who told me they would be afraid to travel that way. I've never had that fear. I've done so much traveling and started so young I guess I just assume that everything is going to turn out. And it has. When my daughter Georgia was, I think 17 or so, we went to Europe for 3 months together and we traveled that way - we didn't plan anything - half the time we'd sleep on trains. We'd find a good over night route to a town, explore a it for a week or so, then go on to the next one. It happened a couple of times where we'd be in a town for awhile and just look at each other and say "let's get out of here" and we'd just go back down to the train station to see what trains were going where, and get on one.

A: Do you think that your experience with traveling, learning patience, and your 'it'll turn out okay' mindset have influenced how you approach your art?
J: I learned to let the process just carry me along for the ride in hopes it would turn into something worthwhile.

A: Are writing and the art world similar things to you?
J: Writing and making artwork are two totally different things. When I'm doing photography or painting, it feels very natural. I'm running on instinct, and who knows where the ideas come from....

A: You're about to leave again for Italy, what are you looking forward to artistically?
J: I've had opportunities in the past to work with different galleries but never really had any interest in it.This last winter, I don't know but something just clicked, and I decided to start working on some of those projects. I've been working with a group in Venice, Arzana, it's a group of private people that got together to rescue, preserve and save historical boats. There are a lot different types besides the gondola, which is what most people are familiar with, and this group is preserving them in a museum setting. I did a series of artwork that was based on boats - I call it the boat series - I had a big showing of the photographs about four years ago and the Arzana society was interested some of the photos. They invited me into the museum and let me take as many pictures as I wanted. It's in an old boat works and it was really pretty cool.

A: What has changed that made you want to start doing these projects?
J: It makes me feel like I'm part of the community. It feels like home there, I got out of the tourist boat years ago. There's a lot of frustrating things about the business of art and the way the bigger galleries out there, not here, about how they work. There's a lot of reasons why people want to be a visual artist - fame, fortune, to fit in with your peers, oh probably a 100 reasons - none of which have to do with the work itself. I know I could've done a lot more as far as having an art career if I had ever felt driven to. I know I've missed a lot, but a lot of what I've missed out on is the stress and worry that it takes to be in that world. You can't just set it aside and go to Malta. For example when I stopped painting for awhile in the 80's, I got to start a family. Even now I can go where ever I want and when I come back I usually don't pick up where I left off. I come back my artwork and photography are at another level. There's all that world out there, and getting in touch with that through art lets me connect with something bigger than myself.

You can connect with Johnny Sutton on Facebook, check out his work at Emprise Bank and Oeno Wine Bar here in Wichita, and wait with me for his next exhibition when gets back from visiting Italy over the summer. If you have any questions, let us know in the comments!


  1. I'd say that Johnny is a very down to earth, very attentive, humble, kind and sweet man which only comes from a great amount of curiosity, introspection and empathy. His presence in a room... he brings a sojourns smile and a buzz of excitement... we see an old friend and a new friend before us as if he were his own season. I'm not trying to be poetic here but there are few to none that the cliche "most interesting man in the world" would actually apply. Forgive me if I embraced you, it's been a while but I remember that was my impression then! Great interview

  2. An inspiring character who creates for the future. One of the hidden in Wichita


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