This painting of a tree in Corrales won second place at the New Mexico Watercolor Society's Fall 2008 exhibition.
Artist Johnny Mullins at home in Corrales. Southwest landscapes are Mullins' favorite subjects.
Wine Festival poster winner brings lifetime of art to bear
—Keiko Ohnuma, Signpost
Corrales artist Johnny Mullins was surprised indeed to win the poster contest for the New Mexico Wine Festival at Bernalillo on his first try. Not because he harbors uncertainty about his talents—he worked as a commercial artist for twenty-five years, and regularly wins awards at watercolor shows.
As a six-year member of a critique group that includes some of the state’s top watercolorists, Mullins knows just how good he is, or isn’t. But “good” doesn’t determine who wins awards, he notes wryly. Fashions in art come and go; sponsors have their agendas—which he knows all too well from his career.
But it’s the public that chooses the winner in the wine festival poster contest, based on four finalists this year whose entries were displayed in Bernalillo restaurants in May and June. Mullins’ “Fruit on the Vine,” a nostalgic painting of a local girl gathering grapes, with an adobe house and the Sandia mountains in the background, struck many as a clever local evocation of prewar Spain or Italy.
“Conglomeration” is what Mullins calls it, this technique of putting different things together in his head. Now that he paints only to please himself, his subjects and styles vary so widely as to seem not the work of a single man. A sharply realistic motorcycle; some fuzzy kittens on a lace tablecloth; an impossibly detailed, graphic meditation of an eagle in a tree (another award winner); a Southwest landscape—all are Mullins‘.
Landscapes are his favorite, he says, but they are neither painted on location nor taken from photographs. Rather, he’ll reference one or two things from photographs and put the rest together from imagination. After a lifetime of painting, he says, what he paints matters far less to him than how.
“I’ve gotten a lot more serious about painting itself,” he says—meaning the art and craft of it. “Painting good” is how he describes it, being a down-to-earth, soft-spoken man who has lived in Albuquerque for most of his sixty-five years. “I think if you paint right, anything can be good subject matter. Over the years, I’ve gotten better at approaching things that way.”
Now that he is more or less retired, Mullins still draws every day, as he has done most of his life. He is one of those guys who just draws damn good—always has been. “Like most artists, I was a terrible student, so art was an escape,” he quips of his early training. After serving in the Vietnam war with the Navy, he went to Eastern New Mexico University in Portales, which offered a degree in commercial art—though he ended up studying fine art instead.
After graduation, Mullins needed to make a living, and worked successively for firms in design, advertising, and illustration. He and his wife, an engineer turned schoolteacher, raised three children, who range in age from eighteen to forty.
When his youngest son was a baby, Mullins’ wife got a job in Phoenix, and they left for nine years. That was when he quit commercial art and decided to be a “stay-at-home dad.” They moved back to New Mexico when she retired in 2001, and settled in Corrales, not far from where Mullins grew up in the North Valley.
So for the last fifteen years or more, Mullins has painted what he wants—though he admits that the habits of commercial art have not left him. That probably explains how he can create a large, two-foot-by-three-foot rural landscape, detailed from the rust on the tractor to the billowing clouds in the sky, in about five hours, almost entirely from imagination. Deft use of proportion wheels and the ability to quickly scale up and down all save him time.
Since 2001, Mullins has also set aside oil painting, acrylics, and ink to work almost exclusively in watercolor. “After you do this all your life, you want a challenge,” he explains. “Watercolor is unforgiving. It requires forethought. I like it because it makes use of all the rules of painting.”
A member of the New Mexico Watercolor Society, he meets with a group of seventeen experienced painters every month for a formal critique session—a sure sign that an artist is serious about improving. “You leave beat-up sometimes; sometimes you do well,” he says of the feedback. Criticism stays with him, he says, and often gets applied to future paintings. “It’s a great experience—a great group of people, all serious.”
Mullins paints now intermittently: daily for a couple of weeks, then not at all for a couple more. In between, he nurtures another passion that calls for just as much detail and focus: restoring vintage cars. He’s been doing it since age sixteen, just like drawing. On the walls of his garage, the two talents meet in precise pencil drawings of fantasy vehicles, which he’ll then set about to create. Tools and parts are laid out as neatly in his workshop as the brushes and papers in the sunny room where he paints.
Three years ago, disaster struck this peaceful, ordered world when a storage shed caught fire, and leaped to destroy Mullins’ studio, office, and workshop. He lost $40,000 worth of tools and thirty-six paintings, not to mention irreplaceable family photos and personal items. What he learned from that, he says, is to document every piece of artwork he makes and every tool he owns.
“Getting going after that was hard,” he notes with typical understatement. Even now, the paucity of his inventory of paintings leaves him visibly glum—not enough to put up a decent size show or fill a booth at a fair, he says.
Viewers will probably not be disappointed, however, with his booth at the New Mexico Wine Festival. Posters of his painting will be on sale for $10, or $20 signed. The wine festival takes place over Labor Day weekend, September 5 through 7, from noon to 7:00 p.m.