I learned about Daniel Johnston as a teenager in college almost a decade and a half ago. I remember well when it happened. The award-winning documentary film “The Devil and Daniel Johnston”, deeply moved me and inspired me. Daniel’s music is painfully honest and heart-felt and his voice is unique both vocally and artistically. I sympathized with the young Daniel Johnston that I encountered in the film, driven, adventurous and rough around the edges as is his art and music. I’ve never quite trusted things that were too polished.
Daniels recent work, presented at Redbud Gallery was created in conjunction with his sister, Marjorie Johnston.
Joachim West- We missed you at the opening of your exhibition at Redbud Gallery Daniel and we were sorry to hear that you were hospitalized and couldn’t make it though we appreciated your video that was playing during the opening wherein you explained the situation. I’m hoping that this interview will encourage people to visit Redbud Gallery here in Houston where they can see your art and watch the video but for those who can’t maybe I can ask your sister Marjorie to tell us about your recent hospitalization?
Marjorie Johnston- The last few years have been rough for Dan. He has been in and out of hospitals for mental health reasons but also for brain shunt surgery. (He develops fluid on the brain and that affects his balance). In addition he has been diagnosed with Parkinson’s like our mother had. This also contributes to his balance problems and is part of the cause of the shaking in his hands. Dad’s death this past year was also a real difficult thing for Dan.
Daniel Johnston- I still get confused about it. I keep thinking he is alive and he is going to call me on the intercom to come over for some chili or soup he has made.
Marjorie Johnston- This last hospitalization was a result of Dan going off his meds. He started believing they were causing his problems. At first he was being sneaky about it then he started flat-out refusing them. It wasn’t long until he was clearly a danger to himself and his caregivers. It has been a four month, three hospital process now getting his meds tweaked to where he is stable.
Joachim West- How are you doing now Daniel? Or should I say, “Hi, how are you”?
Marjorie Johnston- Doctors tried a new combination of meds that seem to be working great. He is more alert and coherent than he has been in 4 or 5 years. He is in a rehab center now for observation till the end of next month
Daniel Johnston- And then I may get to go home to my house in Waller, where my cat, Spunky, has been waiting for me for months.
Marjorie Johnston- At the rehab center he is permitted to take excursions with family, so we go out to eat, or to the movies, or thrift store shopping. On the way back to the rehab center we pick up sodas ands ice for the cooler in his room. This Saturday he will be at Redbud Gallery for an artist’s reception in honor of the show that he has there until the end of March.
Daniel Johnston- I am doing fine. I’m listening to old CDs of my music that I haven’t heard in years. To listen again…it’s fresh. I haven’t written new songs in years so I am looking forward to doing new art and music again.
Joachim West- I learned about you and your music and your art through the documentary “The Devil and Daniel Johnston” and as a young artist I found myself fascinated and sympathetic to your lived experience to an extent. I’ve always wondered how it must have felt for you to watch that film and see your story retold through someone else’s voice. I wonder if you enjoyed it and I’m curious to know if you felt like it was an accurate portrayal of your life? How do you feel about the film?
Daniel Johnston- I didn’t like it. I Didn’t like it at all. Too much emphasis on the devil/evil thing, you know? I didn’t care for it. Everything was true but I didn’t enjoy it. It wasn’t upbeat enough. Too depressing.
Marjorie Johnston- I was sitting next to Dan when he first saw the documentary at the film festival. When the lights came on he said “Pretty funny for a tragedy.” As we were leaving the theatre he said he was disappointed that they only played song fragments –not whole songs.
Joachim West- I loved your show at Redbud Gallery and understand that this was a collaboration with your sister who we had the pleasure to meet at the opening. I’ve been following your work for a bit longer than a decade since I first learned about you and I thought that this body of work was particularly brilliant. The idea to tie each image to a song was a great one. As someone who loves your art and your music, I couldn’t resist buying one and want to encourage others to do the same.
Marjorie, could you tell me more about how this body of work came about?
Marjorie Johnston- I am Dan’s day to day caregiver—butler/chauffeur. I take him to doctor appointments and on outings. One of his favorite outings is thrift store shopping. One time he bought a huge box of dress patterns—you know—Butterick’s, Simplicity, McCall’s. He said he liked the drawings on the cover. Since one of my duties is to keep Dan’s house livable (he hoards), I began to tear off the covers and trash the bulky patterns pieces. In the process some of the drawings got torn. I was gluing them back together by attaching them to some of his drawing paper. I got distracted from the task and when I returned I found that Dan had drawn on the parts of the figures that were missing. It was magical looking. Then he told me it was a lot of fun to see what he could create by adding on to the fragment. He wanted me to make more and more and more. When I ran out of pattern covers I used a silent films book that was coming apart and then I tried magazine images of all kinds. He said it was the most fun he has had in years. I have always loved his artwork but I noticed that this method took his drawings in a new direction. His iconic characters were included but there were others appearing. I absolutely loved them. I showed them to a few of his artist friends and they loved them too and encouraged me to continue. From there the project (now four years long) began its development and evolution. As his mental state changed, the art changed in its appearance. There was also a period where he used opaque watercolors (gouache) before adding the black outlines. Those drawings have a different look. He began to request certain fragments like cars because he enjoyed drawing groups of ducks riding in them and fragments of females as he enjoys drawing them into his fantasy scenes. I became more confident to contribute my ideas with Dan’s encouragement. Sometimes I added color or added dialog bubble or collage elements beyond the initial ones. Eventually I got the idea to put lyrics from his songs on the drawings that expressed the same emotion and we have been doing that for two years now.
Daniel Johnston- It’s really fun since we started doing this art together with the collage and drawings and lyrics. It works out really well. That’s why I think we should keep doing it for a long time. It was mostly her idea but she understands my style and it’s good stuff we create.
Joachim West- This question is from my lovely girlfriend Teresa Megahan. She is curious to know more about your experiences with celebrities in the music industry. I know that Kurt Cobain played a part in getting your name out and that you have made a lot of famous friends. In fact, I saw in the news that in your hometown of Austin that there was recently a “Hi, How Are You” Day concert headed by the Flaming Lips. Of all the celebrity musicians that you have met, who are some that have been the best friends and most supportive?
Marjorie Johnston- Dan’s hometown is actually Chester, West Virginia. He spent some years in Austin, in the 80s, participating in the music scene. His name became connected with Austin because that is where he was as his fame developed.
Daniel Johnston- Some of my friends in Austin were the Butthole Surfers and the Rhythm Rats and Bill Anderson and Kathy McCarty. Matt Groening also encouraged me but I haven’t seen him for years now.
Marjorie Johnston- Kurt Cobain actively promoted Dan as a song writer. Other musicians that became “Dan fans” were David Bowie, Sparklehorse, Jeff Tweedy, Flaming Lips, Beck, Tom Waits, Eddie Veddar, Death Cab, and Bright Eyes. Ron English was one of the first artist’s to notice Dan’s art and do some collaboration. Dan also collaborates with Jeff Wheeler. Joo Young Choi and Trenton Doyle have been supportive friends.
Joachim West-Marjorie, what’s next for you and Daniel? Do you have any upcoming shows, articles or big plans?
Daniel Johnston- I just want to get home where I can write music and draw.
Marjorie Johnston- Dan has two art shows in Texas right now. Redbud gallery in Houston where our collaborative art is displayed for the first time and Volcom Garden in Austin where his Jeff Wheeler collabs are showing. There may be an art show during SXSW this year. Also a possible show in Dallas soon and a possible retrospective in New Orleans.
We would like to publish our Redbud show (‘Drawings to Listen to and Songs to Look At”) in book form with hopes for additional volumes of this project. We have actually started work on this.
We have also begun working on an adult coloring book of Dan’s art. It will have therapeutic value as dialog bubbles will be left blank for personal expressions. There may be a children’s version as well.
There is also a potential TV series/Movie in the early stages of planning.
You can find more about upcoming events on his website-“Hi How Are You”.
I am going to be brave and share some of the ideas on my “dream list” for the coming years:
-Article in Juxtapoz magazine
- Article in Raw Vision magazine
-Show at the Visionary Arts Museum in Baltimore
-Groening/ Johnston show at the Contemporary Arts Museum in Houston
Daniel will be speaking on March 2, 2019 from 5-7pm at Red Bud Gallery 303 East 11th Street in Houston and his exhibition will continue at Redbud until March 31st.
Daniel will be exhibiting his collaborative work with Jeff Wheeler at Volcom Garden1209 E 6 th St.Austin, TX 78702 beginning on Saturday, February 9th.
Thank you Daniel and Marjorie!!