Dean Johnson’s art of seeing beauty
By Jim Dodson
“Flowers restore something vital in me,” says Paul Dean Johnson with a gentle smile. “I might even say they make me believe in God. Georgia O’Keeffe said flowers should be painted large. And then there’s the famous Monet quote – ‘Flowers and more flowers and never enough!’ But, of course, Monet was mad for flowers.”
And so, in his own deeply and grateful way, is artist Paul Dean Johnson.
In his cozy basement studio in Pfafftown, a radiant sunflower set against a brilliant blue sky sits on the easel awaiting the artist’s finishing touches. Just outside the door in his home office stands another easel bearing a stunning unfinished oil of a purple coneflower shown from the perspective of a passing bee. His visitor — a gardener — is gently gobsmacked.
“Glad you like it,” says the artist. “It still needs work. Jean Marie [his wife] says it’s a little too technical. She’s probably right. She always gives it to me straight. I’ll be softening it somewhat, making it more natural.”
A blazing fireplace cuts the chill of this late winter day, and Johnson’s oversized botanical paintings inject the additional warmth of approaching Carolina springtime to his handsome office in the form of a spectacular rose of Sharon that occupies most of an inner wall behind the studded leather couch, with a bold sunflower acrylic anchoring the adjacent wall. Next to this hangs a framed inscription: “The bend in the road is not the end of the road unless you refuse to take the turn.”
Whatever else may be true, Dean Johnson’s diverse and accomplished life as an artist, teacher, successful marketing executive for the furniture trade and historic innkeeper has followed many a bending road home. “Not so long ago, if you’d have told me where I would be today, I probably would have laughed and said ‘not a chance.’ But the thing is,” he adds after a thoughtful pause, “this is exactly where we needed to be. The universe seemed to fully understand that.”
Ultimately the road in question brought Johnson and Jean Marie to a place they scarcely could have imagined a decade or so ago — to a seemingly ordinary yellow brick ranch house in the unincorporated village of Pfafftown that the couple never even laid eyes on until the day before they purchased it in late 2017.
“The house was a real surprise,” he allows with a soft chuckle. “We’d looked at dozens of houses across North Carolina, from Cary to Winston-Salem, where I have a history. But this wasn’t anything like we’d had in the past or expected in the future.”
“I couldn’t even pronounce the name of the town for the longest time,” chips in Jean Marie with a laugh. “But it’s worked out beautifully. I love living here. It’s like we’ve finally found home.”
Indeed, the story of their long and unexpected journey to Pfafftown is one of homecoming and something akin to an artist’s spiritual rebirth.
To begin with, the creative pair — who gave up the award-winning historic inn they’d spent 14 years (and a small fortune) restoring and operating in picturesque Norfolk, Connecticut, before relocating to North Carolina — has completely transformed the 3,000-square-foot ranch house into a living palette of sophisticated color, eclectic charm and floral serenity. Filled with favorite furnishings and select antiques from estate sales and auctions over the years, every room evinces a warm and curated intimacy, invariably highlighted by one of Dean’s stunning paintings of flowers in bloom.
The entry atrium, for instance, could double as the foyer of a small private British Museum, dominated by a stuffed peacock and a massive gilt-framed painting of lush, creamy, pink-tinted roses in riotous bloom, a passage that leads to an inviting sitting room furnished in elegant Victorian style, a comfy couch and divan above which hangs Johnson’s dramatic rendering of a monarch butterfly. There are also exquisite drawings of a lady slipper, a passionflower and a conch shell. Centered on an adjoining wall, however, hangs a stunning oil painting of a deep red rose that has special meaning to the couple, who have been together for 26 years.
But let’s finish the walking tour.
Jean Marie appropriated the house’s former dining room for her home office, where she works as a communications specialist for one of the nation’s leading medical firms. Lustrous red Orientals cushion underfoot, a stout Victorian revival desk, an ornately carved screen from India and splashes of Modern art give the room an an air of a cozy bungalow. The adjoining kitchen is done in soothing hues of cream with a sunny bow window, a sign from their former enterprise – Mountain View Inn — hanging over the sink and, nearby, Dean’s abstract of a rhododendron on the wall.
Through a separate door is the narrow sunroom that the former owners used as a storeroom. It came with “vomit green walls and a Carolina blue ceiling,” Dean explains with another laugh. “My sister-in-law came to visit and we spent the entire time redoing the room in quieter tones.” Today, the elegant sitting room is where Dean greets the day each morning with his green tea and grateful meditations. But more on that, too, in a moment.
If a house is essentially a thumbprint of the lives that shelter there, then perhaps the most important transformation lies down the unusual circular stairway in the foyer to the basement where Dean the painter is once again at work.
You might even say reborn.
“Where does this passion for flowers come from?” asks his visitor, admiring that unfinished coneflower once again.
Johnson points to several photographs of his mother and father displayed on shelves of the handsome bookcase that crosses the room with artifacts from his journey, honest faces from America’s heartland, his forebears on the edge of the American prairie.
“Out there is where it really started.”
He was an only child of a hard-working couple from Batavia, Ohio, who got stuck on the farm when the Great Depression hit. “My father was a laborer, maybe the hardest working man I ever saw. He was bright, incisive, no bull whatsoever. He could have been anything if the Depression hadn’t trapped him. His love was music. His favorite thing was to get dressed up and go into town on Saturday night and dance.”
Dean’s mother ran the farm and grew flowers, looked after home, Dean and his father. “She was the hardest-working and most disciplined woman I ever knew, the biggest influence on my life. She taught me about hard work. I started sketching things when I was still pretty young, but neither of my parents knew anything about art, nor any relatives that I knew of. Maybe there was an ancestor.”
Wherever it came from, art classes at tiny liberal arts Cornell College on a hilltop in Iowa unlocked the door to his passion. Able to travel the world for the first time, he visited the great museums of Europe on five dollars a day. Next stop was an M.F.A. at the Pratt Institute, the celebrated Brooklyn college known for its architecture and design programs. While he was there, one of Johnson’s pieces captured “Best of Show” at the distinguished Memphis Brooks Memorial Art Gallery in Memphis, Tennessee, awarded by a judge from the Whitney Museum of American Art.
He went on to teach drawing and design and art appreciation in Springfield, Missouri, at Drury College, and then Missouri State and the University of Delaware. Along the way, he won several regional and national awards, before migrating to the commercial world of home design, joining Armstrong World Industries to forecast color and design for the burgeoning commercial furnishing industry.
A colleague introduced him to a man named Jack Glabman, marketing director of Chatham Manufacturing Company’s furniture division. Glabman hired Johnson to handle marketing for the company in the Northeast. “He was a real character, a tough old Jewish guy who was a throwback in many ways, a kind-hearted man with boundless energy who eventually informed me he was moving to Winston-Salem and thought I needed to move there, too.”
The move was one of those bends in the road.
Contrary to what he expected, life in Winston-Salem of the 1970s was a charming surprise. The Johnsons lived in a pretty house off Peace Haven Road, raising their two sons and enjoying the cultural gifts of the city. “There was a strong artistic vibe here even then, especially in music. I remember strolling through a street festival down on Trade Street and coming upon Muddy Waters just sitting there strumming his guitar. We had a pleasant chat. People were so friendly. I thought we might stay here forever.”
That lasted five years. After a divorce, Johnson moved to Connecticut and became a salesman for Chatham, bumping up his income as he embraced the bachelor life. “Basically I left my wife with everything from the divorce. Looking back on those years, I made a great six-figure income and gave myself a single social life I missed because of my young marriage.”
He pauses and glances at the coneflower sitting serenely upon on its easel. An unfinished painting is like an unfinished life. Both need time and revision to reach full flowering.
“Looking back, I can see that was a time in which I was searching for the kind of happiness that in the end is fleeting. I had money and freedom and met lots of attractive women but it all left me feeling . . . empty. What was clearly missing from these years, though it was always in my heart and mind, was my art.”
Unexpectedly, at his lowest point, the muse or God — or both, he says — began to whisper his name, to call him back.
“One night I had this thought, kind of a vision in which I saw myself running a beautiful inn and having the time to paint the way I always believed I would someday paint, every day. Don’t ask me why, I had this powerful urge to paint a flower, a beautiful red rose, thinking that I perhaps would someday give it to the woman who was destined to be the love of my life, my true soul mate.”
He smiles. “Funny, huh? Well it happened. That was the second part of my epiphany.”
hey met in the buffet line of a swanky singles event in Greenwich that neither planned to attend. Call it serendipity or the universe playing Cupid. Also divorced, Jean Marie had a demanding career as a human resources director and corporate communications specialist, and finding a second marriage wasn’t in her plans. Friends had to convince her to go.
Dean, who decided to attend on the spur of the moment, spotted her as she entered the hall, maneuvering himself in the buffet line where she was headed. “I just had this powerful feeling about her. I said ‘hello’ and it went from there. I remember thinking, ‘Good heavens, someday she could be my wife.’ The feeling was that strong.”
“I saw him across the room. I wasn’t looking to get married again. But who can explain these things,” Jean Marie adds with laugh of her own. “I just knew that we belonged together.”
One of the first things Dean gave her was his painting of the deep red rose.
They married in 2005 and bought the Mountain View Inn a short time later. For the next 14 years, restoring and running their award-winning country lodging dominated every aspect of their lives. “I had a nice studio and thought I would paint, but it never seemed to happen that way. My art came a distant second. It had to. When you own a popular inn, your life is not your own. The inn owns you. There was always something. You wake up with the phone ringing and it rings until 10 o’clock at night.”
Jean Marie operated a vintage clothing shop in the Inn. “It was fun. I loved the people but the inn took over our lives completely. It took everything we had, time and money and energy. Something had to change. I could see that we needed a new place, and Dean could too. He needed his art.”
So they sold the inn and began the search for the next bend in the road that brought them home to Pfafftown.
Dean began painting again and recently began showing some of his new portraits of flowers at Artworks Gallery on Trade Street in Winston-Salem.
Jean Marie continued her career while transforming the house that transformed them. Together they’ve found peace of mind, great neighbors and a book club that meets in their Victorian sitting room.
She places it all into lovely perspective.
“It’s been a 27-year journey for us, one we’ve grown closer throughout. I love how his passion for painting has returned with a renewed energy and commitment. It’s hard to describe what Dean puts into a painting of a flower. It comes from deep within him, a pure feeling the way he goes through life, honoring beauty. We made a deal when we came here. I would do my thing and he would finally devote the rest of his life to his art — those flowers.”
To that end, his goal is to develop enough new work to fill a larger exhibit of his paintings, a bouquet of huge painted flowers that would put anyone in mind of Georgia O’Keeffe or the perspective of a bee passing through the garden in springtime. Several galleries have expressed interest. Though he suffers from gradual hearing loss, Johnson entertains the idea of perhaps teaching again — the art of seeing beauty where it exists.
“Mine is a life of deep daily gratitude,” he explains simply before getting back to work on that gobsmacking purple coneflower. h
Editor Jim Dodson’s garden ambition is to grow coneflowers like the ones in Dean Johnson’s paintings.