The Chalkmaster, Dave Johnson
1. Tell us a bit about your background – what did you do before becoming an artist?
Dave: I grew up very poor in a rough part of Toronto. Everyone around me was having babies at 16, drinking and doing drugs but what I was interested in was drawing. As a kid, all I did was doodle in textbooks and draw and I knew that I wanted to be some sort of artist. I decided back then to try to choose a different path from that which a lot of my friends were following in the ‘hood. I started out with regular jobs, including in a printing factory and working at the Ontario Food Terminal as a box boy. I hated those jobs because I knew I wasn’t doing what I should be doing with my life. So I asked myself what was the worst thing that could happen if I became an artist and got comfortable with the fact that I’d be able to handle whatever the worst case scenario may be. I wasn’t into traditional education so I focused on my strengths instead of crying about my weaknesses. I knew that in order to be successful at anything, I’d need to marry myself to idea that there is no Plan B. In other words, I’d need to commit to being an artist and if that failed, I would be OK with that because it would be better than saying “I should have tried but didn’t”. This attitude took a lot of stress away from process. The other thing I had to get comfortable with is the fact that while having money is great, it’s just a tool, not the goal. I had to find the part of life that made me happy and satisfied my artistic side. If money came along with that, great, but I couldn’t make money the goal. So I embarked on my career as an artist when I was about 20 years old and decided to create my own “luck”.
2. What is your background in art?
Dave: I don’t have any formal training or education. In fact, I got a 52% in Grade 10 art and my teachers told me that art was not my thing. But I knew otherwise and understood that it was just that I didn’t know how to do what my teachers wanted me to do. Unfortunately, they didn’t know how to go outside the box they were teaching within and allow for a different kind of creative talent. I wasn’t given the freedom to express myself artistically in school and realized early on that I don’t work well within confines. The education system worked well to teach most people most things but for anyone who fell outside those confines – like me – it didn’t work.
3. Why chalk and why public art?
Dave: Chalk is like dust in the wind. I don’t believe in God or an afterlife so, for me, this life is our one moment and it’s amazing, incredible and beautiful. Chalk art is my way to mimic that moment in time. It allows me to be in the moment, enjoy the moment and share what I have with others and hope to inspire others to do the same. Chalk art represents the cycle of creation and destruction. I create something of beauty and then watch it fade away. It’s all about an experience and enjoying the moment. It’s something you talk about with your friends – like going to the theatre. Chalk art also gave me the ability to take care of myself and grow as an artist. I don’t know what I would have done without it.
4. What inspires you?
Dave: Just being awake. I live in a beautiful home and have an incredible dog who loves me for me. So I have unconditional love from my four-legged baby, I watch the sunrise every day and I do what I love. I have a lot of followers who have watched me go from ‘zero to hero’ and now I’m in a position to inspire others. This means I have to continue to step up and do the right thing. I love the fact that I can wake up and do what I do. I really believe that if one works hard, anyone can achieve great things – this makes me feel good about myself and gives me the energy and desire to keep pushing art out into the world.
5. Talk about your relationship to nature.
Dave: I travelled across Canada when I was 20 and thought it was incredibly beautiful. I drove so that I could see everything close up and came away with the impression that we live in an amazing world. Then I went to Europe, chasing a girl – of course – and got to Amsterdam and ran out of money. The girl lived in Sweden so I decided to walk the rest of the way from Amsterdam to Sweden. I hitchhiked and finally arrived after an amazing journey. Predictably, she dumped me but I was left with an incredible experience and an even greater appreciation for the world we live in. I returned to Canada and started doing sidewalk art in Toronto and then got invited to Singapore to do my art there. I saw palm trees for the first time and then went to Norway and saw the natural beauty there and, with all of these experiences, learned that our world is a gorgeous and mind-blowing place. I stop and appreciate nature whenever I can because this is what really matters. Nature makes me feel both completely insignificant yet so powerful. We give away our strength by being complacent when, for example, we put our lives on hold to watch reality TV. I think we should get out there and explore and learn from nature. Obviously, I have an all-encompassing love affair with nature. The smell of the ocean, the moisture in the air, sunsets, the animals – it’s all amazing. Just being able to walk on the grass outside in bare feet gives me the feeling of a total connection to nature and that fuels my life.
6. What do you get from your relationship with your animals?
Dave: Everything. The feeling of knowing that someone will always be there for you brings tremendous comfort to my life. Dogs live in the moment and just move on and that is a valuable lesson for us humans. Forming a bond with animals can make a huge and positive difference in one’s life. Animals make you feel like everything is going to be OK and they help you cope with whatever is going on in your life. My dog has been coast to coast with me and my relationship with him is as strong as with any person. He gives me a part of life I never knew I needed before I had him.
7. Why paint dogs?
Dave: I am passionate about animals and nature. They speak to me. I started with my dog when I lived in Toronto. I was still exclusively a chalk artist so I could paint only ½ the year (because of the weather) so I made only enough to get by. My dog got seriously ill and I suddenly needed to make money to pay for his vet bills and care. So I painted a picture of my dog and posted it and started doing prints of my work and selling them to pay the vet bills. Then people started asking for paintings of their dogs and it took off from there. Before I paint a dog, I like to get to know the dog so that I can capture the dog’s real character in the painting. So the whole thing started organically with my own sick dog. People started sending me stories about their dogs and then I got involved with animal rescue and everything just evolved from there. I also started learning about the close history and integral ties between people and dogs and their joint evolution and became progressively more and more connected to dogs. I love drawing animals and movement and trying to capture the way their muscles move. The way that dogs walk and move fascinates me. Now I do prints of other people’s dogs and sell those as well.
8. What is your philosophy of life?
Dave: A lot of things in life are fluff and unnecessary. I appreciate what I have and don’t worry about what I don’t have. Back in the day, when I was growing up, it was pretty rough in my neighborhood in Toronto and I was very poor. So now I appreciate what I have and think it’s a good idea to check in with oneself on how you see the world, whether you feel entitled or feel that the world owes you something. If you feel entitled or feel that the world owes you then it’s time to take responsibility for your own life and make the effort necessary to get whatever it is you feel is important to you. Luck is the good fortune you create for yourself through hard work. I also believe in giving back and try to be cognizant of the benefits I receive from others. I remember one woman in particular who asked me to paint a portrait of her beloved dog. I did and she then allowed me to sell prints of the painting. Some time later, I learned that her dog had died and that her husband had lost his job. They fell into a bit of financial hard times and she posted a comment on Facebook that she was really craving some fresh grapes but that they were too expensive. So I went to the grocery store and loaded up on food, including the grapes, and went to her house with the groceries. I completely caught her by surprise and when she thanked me I told her that it was the least I could do. She had allowed me to sell prints of her dog’s painting, one of my most popular prints, and it only seemed right for me to return some of that to her with the groceries. So, appreciate what you have.
9. What advice would you give someone who wants to get started as an artist?
Dave: Be true yourself and do what drives you. Follow your passion and don’t try to be like another artist. Do your own thing. This is how I came up with my ‘splatter’ art. I wanted to bring order out of chaos and the splatter art has worked well with my more traditional painting technique to create integral works of art. I started to do painting in a style that spoke to me and people related to that passion and started buying my work. I had initially tried to conform to more commercial structures but that didn’t work, either for me personally as an artist or commercially. People could see that the passion was lacking in that work and no one wanted to buy it. However, once I threw caution to the wind and started doing what I enjoy, that joy came out to the viewer and my work started to sell. So, as the saying goes, “Do what you love and the money will follow.”
10. What would you want the Onpets community to take away from this interview?
Dave: Appreciate the moment. Embrace what you have – it’s here in front of you. You have to appreciate the tough moments, learn from them and then appreciate the good times. Be willing to die of thirst instead of drinking from the cup of mediocrity.
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