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When Stu Johnson was in middle school, a family member gave him a camera. “They weren’t sure what would happen,” says Johnson’s artist-collaborator, John McKee. “All of a sudden he started taking all kinds of pictures. He would set up things in the refrigerator and take pictures of food.” Now a 2007 graduate of Indianapolis’ North Central High School, Johnson’s photographic hobby has moved out of the refrigerator into a serious profession. With McKee’s supportive expertise, Johnson is preparing, exhibiting, and selling his work. He specializes in Central Indiana subjects, from black and white shots of architectural landmarks, to picture-postcard fall landscapes, to prints of trucks and buses digitally enhanced with tie-dye colors.
Johnson and McKee are at the heart of a new family-run, small enterprise: Stu’s Studio produces Johnson’s photos and prints while offering digital reproduction services to other artists and galleries. The new Ashland Gallery, 6537 Carrollton Avenue in Indianapolis’ Broad Ripple area is part of the business as well. Its lovingly refinished wood interior gives visitors an immediate sense of the dedicated labor required to launch this ambitious enterprise.
“The nuts and bolts of the operation are family run,” explains McKee. The photographer's, Candy Johnson, handles the finances. She and his father have had a hands-on role renovating the house they purchased into a gallery showcasing the work of their son and other artists with and without disabilities. In addition to exhibition space, the 1890’s era building will provide office space and facilities for the fine art digital reproduction service.
Johnson shoots all his own photos. McKee is instrumental in taking what’s in the camera and turning it into the final product. He is careful to retain Johnson’s trademark compositions, avoids cropping and makes an effort to faithfully realize Johnson’s artistic vision. “It would make it a lot easier on Stu if he could talk… if he could put a word in and say what he’s all about.” Nevertheless, McKee has gotten to know Johnson, who has Down syndrome, very well.
He was in junior high when I first met him. I was a substitute teacher at his middle school. I worked a lot in the special needs program, and then I kind of moved myself through the system to work at North Central High School.” Johnson went on to the high school too, and they got reacquainted.
They moved me on to be job coach and that’s where Stu and my relationship really started to blossom.” The family hired him for a few summers to spend time with their son; Johnson and McKee did volunteer work together. McKee has also been Johnson’s employment coach for 5 years at his part-time job preparing silverware at the Butler University cafeteria.
McKee holds a BFA in photography from the Herron School of Art and is on the faculty of the Indianapolis Art Center. Recognizing his and their son’s shared interest in photography, Johnson’s parents asked McKee to take him on outings with his camera. One of the ways McKee first got Johnson comfortable with the process was taking Johnson to the park with Mr. Monkey, one of his prized possessions, for a photo shoot “and just had fun with it.”
Johnson has been fortunate to have other supportive individuals in his life too. Mary Jo Wagner was his transition teacher at North Central. McKee says her encouragement of her student and his goal to work as a photographer was “amazing.” “This is kind of a lofty idea, really, for somebody coming out of high school with significant needs,” observes McKee. Bill Messer was another key person at the high school who taught Johnson the mechanics of holding the camera and keeping still.
Johnson became a client of Indiana’s Vocational Rehabilitation Services (VRS), utilizing the agency Easter Seals Crossroads. Employment professionals Becky Bell and Theresa Stinson “have been huge” in helping Johnson get his self-employment underway, says McKee. At the time Johnson emerged from high school, the VRS’s pilot Customized Employment Project was underway in Central Indiana. Although the project has since been discontinued, it enabled Johnson to purchase the digital studio equipment and software that is essential to his business.
Technically an employee of the business, the family has recently appointed McKee Gallery Director. He characterizes his work with Johnson as a “pretty pure collaboration.” “It’s been a great relationship, a very unique relationship,” one that has evolved as he supports Johnson in his new professional identity. “He’s really used to school and that environment, and to have to go out and use some of that creativity -- it’s a new thing,” McKee explains.
Part of the learning process has been going to galleries, and even looking at home décor products at Target. They’ve spent much time at the Indianapolis Art Center, including some volunteering. “The more that we do things, he’s started to get in that role of artist and he understands a lot.” He is absorbing some of the etiquette associated with galleries and exhibitions. Although Johnson “likes the party atmosphere,” it’s taken some time for him to get comfortable with events around his own shows. Now he initiates going up to people and offering a business card and a handshake. Johnson has taken to making sure McKee meets the person as well. “More and more he’s kind of my etiquette coach,” McKee says with a smile.
Now that the renovation of the gallery space is complete and Stu’s Studio print services is up and running, McKee, Johnson, and his family will have more time to focus on getting the word out. There has been lively interest in the giclee print art reproduction service from potential customers such as the nearby Hoosier Salon, the Indianapolis Art Center, and area galleries.
What does the future next hold for Johnson? McKee has noticed Johnson’s deep connection to painting and wants to see him explore some new media. Production of Johnson’s imagery on items such as T-shirts and mugs will be in the works soon. McKee would like to see Johnson learn more computer skills so that he can master “what he needs to do to get something in print.” McKee, in turn, might spend less time on the computer. “I’ve seen in the past few months more sophistication in his composition.” “I think he’s getting so much more adept at using the camera that I would like to mess less with his images and let them be more Stu’s images.”
The Ashland Gallery’s next show, “Toys,” opens at 6:00 pm on December 5th, 2008. This multimedia group exhibit will feature work by Stu Johnson, Megan Perry, Kristin Tuller, Emily Schwank, Patrick Flaherty, John McKee, Merle Pace, and William Lawson.