Analysis of the Portrait of Dr. John Johnson

By Amy Hauldren

Amy Hauldren,  UCSB Intern, Communications Major from Chicago

Amy Hauldren,

UCSB Intern, Communications Major from Chicago

Artist Holli Harmon has created a portrait of Dr. Johnson that reflects both his own anthropological expertise, and the importance of the Chumash culture to the history of the Santa Barbara area.  After thinking about how to represent the field of anthropology and academia in general, Holli decided that the sky was the best way to represent these ideas, because it implies a broad opening of infinite knowledge.  The field of anthropology is so vast, dealing with mysteries of the past that can be uncovered to help us understand our own role as humans existing in the present and future. 


She decided to paint the portrait in watercolor, a very fluid medium that allowed her to embed Chumash symbols into the work.  The fluidity of the watercolor paint allowed her to experiment with the representation of the sky, a very important feature of both the Chumash culture and a symbol of Johnson’s own extensive knowledge.  When examined closely, viewers can make out a couple of white figures created by the clouds of the sky.  These two symbols, which closely resemble a sun and a person, are repeated in many different Chumash cave paintings.  Esteemed anthropologists like Dr. Johnson are still researching the significance of these specific figures. 

Harmon has painted Dr. Johnson himself in a significant and symbolic manner as well.  Johnson is depicted wearing a chambray shirt with khaki pants, his uniform for work, which can also be interpreted as a cultural “uniform” commonly worn by people today.  His shirt has the symbol of a condor on it, which is the emblem of the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History, where Dr. Johnson has been the Curator of Anthropology for nearly thirty years.

As viewers, we are looking up at him, because he is a strong leader in his field.  Holli has included Chumash symbols painted on the rocks below him, as well as those in the sky, representing the idea that their culture existed before him, and it will exist after him as well.  The artist has positioned him in between the Earth and the sky, connecting the knowledge that we have of their cultural history with the mysteries that anthropologists are still seeking to understand.  This connection is also significant because it symbolizes Johnson’s life work in connecting existing Chumash with their ancestors through DNA tests and matching old records at the Santa Barbara Mission.  He connects living people to their ancestors in the heavens in order to strengthen the knowledge of their family and enhance their identity as a member of the Chumash community. 

Painting with Light:The Nakamura Portrait and Gustav Klimt

Terry and I recently went to see "The Lady in Gold," the Simon Curtis film about a Gustav Klimt painting that was stolen by the Nazis from a Jewish family in Vienna. I have always loved Klimt's work and was motivated to learn more about the history behind his paintings. Thank you to UCSB student Hannah Tucker, from the Writing About Art class, as she provides some observations about the process of painting the Nakamura portrait in the following article.- Holli Harmon

Aesthetics of Shuji Nakamura's Portrait

Hannah Tucker, UCSB Student Intern, "Writing About Art",Global Studies Major from San Diego

Hannah Tucker, UCSB Student Intern, "Writing About Art",Global Studies Major from San Diego

By Hannah Tucker

In this portrait of Professor Shuji Nakamura, Holli Harmon employs style and content interdependently to create a visual representation of Nakamura’s Japanese heritage, particularly in the context of art and technology. Oil is her medium of choice in this elaborate layering of colors, symbols, and patterns. This decorative style is a technique that is highly characteristic of Japanese art as well as art from the French Art Nouveau movement. A major figure of this movement as well as Holli’s leading artistic inspiration for this portrait is Gustav Klimt, a late 19th c. symbolist painter from Austria. Klimt’s work is famous for its rigorous layering of symbols and decorative patterns. Like Harmon and other artists working in this modern age, Klimt painted during an era that was progressing rapidly towards higher technological sophistication. It was the same era as Edison's break through with the electric light bulb.

                         Shuji Nakamura, Nobel Prize Physics 2014, oil on canvas, 30x30

                        Shuji Nakamura, Nobel Prize Physics 2014, oil on canvas, 30x30

The ideological impact of this revolutionary period translates into the abstraction in Klimt’s work and the way it merges symbols of old and modern culture. A similar translation seems to be at work in Nakamura’s portrait. Harmon implements decorative elements to relay information about ancient and modern Japanese culture and its influence on Professor Nakamura’s success. While the colors and patterns in this portrait are striking for their aesthetic purposes alone, both elements also have much to offer content wise.  The use of gold again seems very Klimt inspired but the hues of blue and violet have much to do with Nakamura’s life’s work in LED innovation. He is most famous for inventing the blue LED. Also relating symbolically to his inventions are the patterns made up of the Gallium Nitride molecule floating in front of his kimono and in the background of the painting.   The other symbols, such as the fan he’s holding, the kimono and Astro Boy are symbolic of the Japanese warrior, a figure valued highly in both ancient and modern Japanese culture. There is much to tell about Nakamura’s life and heritage.  Without the visual elaborateness inspired by Klimt and other Japanese artists, much of the story would be lost.