When I first met and interviewed Western sculptor Stan Johnson 14 years ago, I noted he was wearing a white hat. A few minutes into the interview, I became increasingly aware that the white hat was appropriate; he was definitely one of the "good guys." In fact, one cannot find a nicer guy than Stan Johnson.
At that time, Johnson was relatively new to the sculpting profession. However, he was enjoying the sweet smell of success. He owned an impressive studio and foundry; was being represented in a number of local and national galleries; would soon be accepted into the American Indian-Cowboy Artists Association and the National Western Artists Association; and was capturing first-place awards in every show he entered."Then, suddenly, the carpet was pulled out from under me," Johnson said when I interviewed him again last week.
The problem was, Johnson was such a nice guy he trusted his business partner implicitly. However, he was completely unaware that his partner, who was in charge of the orders, was accepting collectors' money but not delivering the goods. Johnson suddenly found himself in debt for more than $1 million.
He knew that the easiest way out of this predicament was to declare bankruptcy.
But nice guys like Johnson don't opt for the easy way out. They know that following the course of least resistance make rivers - and men - crooked.
"I lost my foundry and my studio," he said.
He also showed true grit by contacting all the buyers who had been left stranded without their sculptures, eventually filling all of their orders.
`It took me seven years to pay off the debt, but the art collectors seem to be most appreciative for what I have done," he said. "I am now totally out of debt."
Today, you won't find Johnson advertising in arts magazines; nor will you see him exhibiting and winning awards in art shows across the country (except for Utah's "Days of '47 Western Heritage Art Show").
And you'll find only a handful of his works in a few galleries - Spotted Horse Gallery (Sugarhouse), Lido Gallery (Park City) and an antique/art gallery in Kalamazoo, Mich.
Now, his approach is low key.
Four years ago, Johnson opened his own gallery at 122 N. Main, Spanish Fork. It's also his studio and his home - the place he hangs his white hat.
He says he's been pleasantly surprised at the number of collectors and others from across the U.S. who walk through his gallery doors and place orders.
Once exposed to his sculptures, people can't forget them. "Make a better mousetrap . . . and the world will beat a path to your door" applies to Stan Johnson's sculptures as well.
Just like his bronzes, Johnson has gone through a refining fire; not only has he struggled to get out of debt, he has experienced the emotional trauma of divorce.
But no matter what challenges he faced during those difficult times, he continued to sculpt.
"I've been producing all along," he said. "And, fortunately, during those stressful years, my sculptures held their value."
For example, when he completed "Eagle Boy" in 1982, it sold for $6,500. It didn't take long for this impressive sculpture to increase in value to $18,000. Although the edition of 37 has been sold for some time, today the resale value is $25,000. (Did he say "held their value"?)
"Eagle Boy" and other earlier sculptures attracted a lot of favorable reviews. One of them came from Springville Museum of Art's director Vern Swanson. When putting together a catalog for the 1983 exhibit "Sculptors of Utah," he wrote, "Johnson's work is extremely complex and narrative. Both elements allow the artist to portray the American Indian with great clarity and historical accuracy. He attempts to imbue his work with a higher meaning and message through a wise selection of subjects and content."
His more recent works continue to reflect those characteristics. But Johnson says his style has matured over the years. "It started out a little rough, but has become more refined in surface design, texture, quality and definition."
And that's certainly obvious in "Victory Dancer," a bronze of an American Indian performing a dance. Although completed only last year, all but five in an edition of 50 have not been sold.
Other works completed within the past two years include "Soaring Eagle," "Anasazi Hoop Dancer" and "Sidon Monument."
This last piece is a one-third life-sized sculpture measuring approximately 40 inches high and 5 feet long. It shows four horses pulling a plow, a family of four and a dog.
Johnson said he worked on it for two years, and the completed bronze has been placed in the Visitors Center in Cody, Wyo.
Also, city officials of Spanish Fork have asked Johnson to do a large sculpture of his "Nauvoo Woman." Funds are currently being raised for this commission.
And last weekend, he signed a contract for an exciting commission. However, it's a bit premature to divulge specifics. He says, "It will be the largest bronze sculpture I have ever done; and quite possibly, the largest by any sculptor in the United States."
Not only that, but Johnson will be getting married "very soon" to Polly, a woman he met a year ago.
The sweet smell of success appears to be returning to Johnson. It's just about time for him and his future bride to don their white hats, point their steeds to the west where dark clouds have all but disappeared, and ride hand-in-hand into the sunset.
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Stan Johnson was born July 14, 1939, in Murray and raised in Crescent, Utah. He attended the University of Utah where he majored in commercial art and minored in sculpture. The next four years found him immersed in commercial art; the next two, teaching commercial art and sculpture at Utah Technical College.
He gave up teaching in 1978 to embark on a sculpture career. Since then, he says he hasn't worked a single day. "How can you call it work when you're having so much fun?" he asks.
In addition to sculpting, Johnson loves research. He's made a lifetime study of muscles and bones - not only of humans, but animals as well. He even teaches classes in anatomy.
His desire for accuracy has resulted in researching Indian tribes, their customs, their dances, their attire.
He has also been fascinated with Indian signs and has found remarkable similarities between American Indian and Egyptian signs. He is currently writing a book in which he has carefully compared 300 of them.