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. 

Influences behind the David Dewey Portrait


By  Sjors van Alphen

David Dewey, watercolor, 18x24

David Dewey, watercolor, 18x24

In the portrait of David Dewey, the Stanton Ranch manager on Santa Cruz Island, Harmon's design for this specific painting was influenced by her connection to the land and the buildings of the Island. Most of the structures that still remain on Stanton Ranch were developed between 1888 and 1891, long before David Dewey arrived. Mr. Edwin Stanton, one of the original owners of Santa Cruz Island, oversaw the development of this historic ranch. Upon Harmon's arrival over a century later, she found a remarkable connection from Santa Cruz’s historic ranch environment to the beautiful paintings by the American artist Andrew Wyeth. Born in 1917 in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, Wyeth’s work was heavily based on his rural hometown, which appears very similar to fields and style of housing on Santa Cruz Island. When Wyeth was asked about why he depicted his childhood area in a lot of his work, he responded, “I didn’t think it a picturesque place. It just excited me, purely abstractly and purely emotionally.” Being a fan of Wyeth’s work and Stanton Ranch’s resemblance to it, Harmon utilizes similar techniques to paint her portrait of David Dewey. The Dewey portrait was painted with David standing in front of one old Stanton Ranch building. She uses watercolor, Wyeth’s trademark, to paint this particular portrait, which emphasizes the connection with Wyeth’s work and the culture of Santa Cruz Island.

Christina's World, Andrew Wyeth

Christina's World, Andrew Wyeth

In many of his paintings, Wyeth depicted the building of his farming neighbors the Olsens and the Kuerners.  In his painting, Christina’s World (1948), Wyeth depicted the house of his neighbors, The Olsons, and their daughter, Christina Olson, who suffered from a chronic condition where she was unable to walk. This forced her to spend most of her time at home. When Andrew Wyeth unfortunately passed away in 2009, he was buried next to Christina in a spot near to where he drew Christina’s World

Christy Ranch, Santa Cruz Island,west end

Christy Ranch, Santa Cruz Island,west end

 Harmon quotes, "An observation I have made is that I have seen so many pieces of art because technology makes reproductions accessable through books (and now online.)  I made this connection on Santa Cruz Island.  I had seen a large body of Wyeth's work and then I noticed I was experiencing Santa Cruz Island through the lense of Wyeth’s world.  On one corner of the island I felt as if I was in the painting, Christina's World."

One of the intentions of using social media in this project is to underscore how all art work is influenced by this mellinium's abundance of information.  So Harmon's intention of using watercolor and painting David in his work clothes is a clear acknowledgement that she has absorbed Wyeth into her own painting métier.  This is another example of absorbing culture into our own personal identity."