[image-1] Christopher Johnson is a self-proclaimed mumbler. He drops his voice every few sentences, and one must lean in closely to catch his words. But he’s also quite glib: Johnson was more than happy, sitting in the middle of a noisy Starbucks on University Blvd. earlier this week, to take an hour to run through his whirlwind origin story.
“It started in church,” says Johnson, smiling, looking down, laughing, “my mom would get so mad.” As a kid growing up in Columbia, SC, Johnson did not take art classes in middle or high school, “I didn’t mess with art, I did the sports thing.” But on Sundays, he couldn’t help himself; he’d draw on church pamphlets until his mother scolded him. It was not for lack of devotion — Johnson credits God for much of his success. It was just that there was something inside of him, begging for release. Something, Johnson says, that didn’t really come to fruition until his sophomore year at Charleston Southern University.
At CSU, Johnson started off as a biology major but soon realized that science was not his niche. He reached out to fellow students, who he says were more “developed, knew how to do [artistic] things.”
“They were so surprised when I asked them ‘Hey, can you teach me how to color?’ But I just didn’t have any practice or training. If I hadn’t met these students who helped me, I wouldn’t be where I am today,” says Johnson. His artistic proclivities, though strong, were totally undeveloped. “I started doing illustrated projects,” says Johnson, admitting his first go was “horrible.” He says that he was trying so hard to do what he thought was art, what the norm was. And then he realized that “my eyes don’t see like everyone else.” This was a breakthrough for Johnson, who was going to school full time and working two jobs while trying to hone his artistic skills. “I stayed up all night for this project, I ended up with these dope robots. I was excited, and people responded really well. I didn’t have confidence in my work until then.”
After some successful school-related events, Johnson said he was ready to “jump out into the real world.” This meant setting up as a vendor at the Night Market, exhibiting at Taste of Charleston, the Black Expo, and more. He was busy, and he was tired. “When I first did the expo, it was the most painful sensation staying up all night trying to figure out what to make. I had two jobs at the time, and had to figure out how to make business cards and a sign.” Johnson was working, studying, making art, and promoting himself. “During the classes back at school, I would be so tired. I wanted to give up.”
[image-3] Johnson says his work was starting to feel “neutral, it didn’t have any meaning, people would look at my work and say ‘Oh, this reminds me of blank’ and that’s the worst thing. You don’t want that. You want to have something that’s yours.” So, one night, Johnson hunkered down in a tiny space in the back of the art building and challenged himself to come up with something new. “I stayed in there all night, to the point where security came back and asked me what I was doing there at three in the morning. I started to paint, really fast. I was listening to music at the same time. Random stuff. I ended up making these three lions. I had to keep practicing. I finally felt comfortable, I felt like it made sense.”
This speed painting — usually sub five minutes — combined with music, and, eventually, fire, would become Johnson’s forte. He’d finally discovered his niche.
“And then I was just doing every event I could, even if it had nothing to do with art,” says Johnson, “I’d ask friends if I could paint at their events and they’d say ‘For how long?’ And I told them ‘I just need five minutes.'” One event in particular was special for Johnson — he was painting alongside a big wig gospel star at Benedict College in Columbia, SC. “It was like a rock scene. I was sitting outside, I was nervous. The whole entourage went through the back and didn’t acknowledge me. I wanted to just leave, but something in my soul said ‘where are you going?'” Johnson ended up making it to the stage, and brought the crowd to its feet when he started painting, using fire and spray paint to create a piece matching the rhythm of the music. “I had never heard the song before, but I knew how to time it; I finished right with the song.”
Johnson had found his confidence — he was using fire and spray paint in front of hundreds of people, after all — but he says another critical element of his work is peace, hence the moniker, kolpeace. “Once I learned confidence,” says Johnson, “then I had to learn peace and stability. I learned that in Thailand. I was there for three to four weeks with my classmates. I would see the people and learn how to value and understand things,” he says. “I wouldn’t get so stressed out. I learned that now, if I forget stuff when I paint, it’s OK, I’ll figure it out. Stuff doesn’t scare me any more.”
Johnson just graduated from CSU this spring, and is looking forward to what the future holds. Recently, he painted (in record time) the Mona Lisa on Lowcountry Live, brought his mother and grandmother to watch him paint at the Junior League’s Night at the Races, and received the 2017 Charleston Southern University Art Award. Johnson will be painting at Piccolo Spoleto’s Family Day this Saturday. Look for him to start setting up around 11:30 a.m.
“I’m not just doing this for myself,” says Johnson, “I want to encourage other artists. Nowadays, people just want everything on the table, for it to be easy. But you have to push, you have to go beyond what you think you can do.”