RALEIGH — Painting is a popular pastime for many people, but to Wiley Johnson, it means so much more.
Navigating his life through the cloudy lens of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), Johnson has had his share of struggles in all facets of life. Johnson likes to now focus on the positives, and that includes his passion.
“I paint to do something with my time. … It allows me to try new things, meet new people, and make connections,” he said. “I don’t drive and am home alone a lot. Painting gives me something to do when I am alone.”
The 37-year-old emerging artist has been getting attention in the North Carolina art scene the last few years for his colorful, abstract works of art that “pop.” He began painting for fun in 2009, but in 2020 painting became more than just a hobby.
“I thought that painting could become a career in 2020 after someone bought two of my paintings for $1,000,” Johnson said. “I thought that if there was someone in Raleigh who would spend that much money for two of my paintings, there must be more people in the world who would like them. I just had to learn how to find them.”
While Johnson’s work has been gaining more attention, his mother, Joy, has been helping him pursue his passion and managing the business aspects of his art. Joy has been representing Wiley in the art world by helping him make connections and meet new people.
“It has taken around 12 years to get to the point that he is now, and I never dreamed that he would get as far as he has with art,” she said. “It’s been a one step at a time journey and a lot of asking myself, ‘What can I do to get his art out into the world.’”
A number of galleries and venues have exhibited Wiley’s paintings, but Charlotte Russell, the owner of Charlotte Russell Contemporary Gallery, has become his most consistent supporter. She featured Wiley along with Mar Hester when she opened her gallery in Raleigh’s Five Points area in September 2021. The gallery hosts art focusing on “process-driven work, vibrant colors, and interesting stories behind the pieces and the artists,” which matched Johnson’s aesthetic and story perfectly.
“What makes Wiley’s work great is how he juxtaposes striking colors in raw gestural strokes evoking strong emotion,” said Charlotte Russell, the gallery’s owner.
Currently displaying his work in the “Color Focus” exhibit at the Sertoma Arts Center along with 4 other artists, Johnson says he has a lot to feel thankful for when it comes to his painting.
“I used to work at NCSU wiping off tables and taking out trash. … I wanted something more to do with my life, so I quit and started painting more,” he said. “I feel proud and grateful that Charlotte Russell chose to include me in her current exhibit along with such accomplished artists.”
His passion for painting connects him to his community while also being an outlet for the strong emotions that can come with ASD.
“I just want to thank everyone who has been a supporter of my art,” Johnson said.
He hopes his work gives others the same “feeling of peace” it gives him to paint. Johnson said he focuses on the happiness and energy he feels while he is creating.
Life hasn’t always been easy for him, but armed with a paintbrush and palette, Johnson feels he can take on the world.
“Life is so much better than it was!”
Q&A with Wiley Johnson
NSJ’s Lauren Rose sat down with Wiley Johnson to get some more perspective on his approach to painting.
NSJ: First and foremost, why do you create art?
WJ: It provides me with an income. It allows me to not only try new things and meet new people, but painting also connects me with my community.
NSJ: What mediums do you work in? How would you describe your work?
WJ: I create abstract paintings that are colorful and energetic. I work mostly with acrylic paint on canvas, and I’ve done one oil. I have sold two paintings on subflooring board with a third soon going to auction by Black Rock Gallery. I also have two small ones painted on plywood that are currently available. I have enjoyed painting small wooden crafts such as houses and crosses.
NSJ: What inspires you to paint? Do you plan out your paintings or just let them happen?
WJ: I like to create something out of paint and colors. I always like to create a new look, new feel to every painting I do. I also like experimenting with [methods of] painting. I don’t plan my paintings, I just let them happen. Painting gives me something to do when I am alone. I know that a painting is finished when the colors “pop.”
NSJ: What’s something you’ve been experimenting with lately?
WJ: I’ve been experimenting painting with paper towels. That is one thing you can do if you really want to get crazy with it. I also use sponges a lot. And rubber bands.
NSJ: Rubber bands? That’s interesting! Can you explain more about that process?
WJ: What I do is cut the rubber bands up, tie them around a pencil, and just fling it everywhere.
NSJ: Who have been supporters of your art around NC?
WJ: Besides Charlotte Russell Contemporary and the in the Sertoma Arts Center in Raleigh, I have been given a chance to present my work to the public in galleries like the Block Gallery, 311 Gallery, Extraordinaire Art Gallery and Emporium, and Visual Art Exchange in Raleigh and the Peel Gallery in Carrboro. My art has been displayed at Golden Belt Gallery and SunTrust Gallery courtesy of the Durham Art Guild including a solo exhibit, Through the Spectrum: A Collection of Paintings. Mercury Studio and the Power Plant Gallery in Durham have displayed my paintings as have Trade Alley Gallery in Hickory and Yadkin Arts Councils’ Gallery, Yadkinville.
Other locations in Raleigh that have also supported my work include Artspace Gift Shop, North Carolina Museum of Art Museum Shop, MOFU Shoppe, Industrious Charter Square and Industrious Wells Fargo, Lucky Tree, Compass Rose Brewery, Raleigh Woman’s Club, Affordable Creative Framer’s Art, Isaac Hunter’s Tavern, and HANDmeUPs, all in Raleigh.
NSJ: How has creating art changed your life?
WJ: Working at NCSU paid pretty well, but I wanted something more to do with my life. So I quit and started painting more.
NSJ: What do you do in your free time?
WJ: I have a lot of hobbies. I like to go places and walk. I like to listen to music and play guitar and keyboard. I like taking care of my cat, Melissa, and the house. I also like to tend to the garden during the warmer months. And, of course, I love to make art!