Midwestern artist blossoms in Idyllwild

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Mandy Johnson in her Idyllwild studio. Photo by Jay Pentrack

Mandy Johnson in her Idyllwild studio.
Photo by Jay Pentrack

Minburn, Iowa welcomes visitors with its maxim, “A small town with a big heart,” and in addition to boasting a grain elevator, a church, two veterinarians, a phone company and a nature center, visitors can also pick up a free cup of coffee from the local library or bank. [Cue “Twilight Zone” theme.]

Minburn, near Des Moines, was the first home of artist Mandy Johnson. A Midwesterner by birth, she embodies much of the storied kindness and values that folk in major cities and along the Pacific and Atlantic coasts admire. The family lived in Cedar Rapids for a time and when Mandy was 9, her parents’ divorce resulted in Mandy being shuttled between Missouri and Iowa until she graduated from high school.

In high school, with an interesting combination of seemingly opposing skills, Mandy had a decision to make. “When I got into high school I was really good at math and I was really good at art and I thought, ‘What do I want to end up doing?’” she said. “I liked art and I had a knack for it.” Her work was composed mostly of painting and drawing and she excelled at it. “Have you ever heard of the Duck Stamp competition,” she asked. “I entered [the contest] in high school and I won several awards which was kind of cool because it’s the whole state.” Duck Stamps (also known as the Federal Migratory Bird Hunting and Conservation Stamps) are pictorial stamps produced by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and were originally created in 1934. And while the stamps cannot be used for postage, they help fund the purchase or lease of wetland habitats. It is considered by many to be one of the most successful conservation programs ever created.

Mandy’s art teacher, Chip Stamper (no kidding, that’s his name), encouraged young Mandy to pursue the million-dollar Duck Stamp grand prize, but her interest in drawing and painting ducks waned and she went on to pursue other means of expression. “I couldn’t see myself just drawing ducks all the time,” she said, laughing.

After high school, Mandy attended Kansas City Art Institute in Missouri. “The only place I applied to was the art institute in Kansas City and I got a scholarship there, but it was really expensive. It was almost $30,000 a year when I entered. It’s a private art school,” she related. “There were just over 500 students for the entire school so it was very small. I got a few scholarships, I had grants and I had loans; I had tons of stuff [financial aid].” A regular on the Dean’s List, Mandy thrived in college, academically as well as socially.

Mandy enjoyed a friendship with Zac Johnson, also a KCAI student from Idyllwild, from her freshman year on. In the summer preceding their senior year, the friendship blossomed. “We hung out a whole lot in that summer before our senior year and we [decided], ‘We should just date.’ Our friends had been telling us [to date] forever,” Mandy recalled. “Within two weeks we knew we were going to get married.”

The “proposal” was more like friendly contract negotiations. “No one proposed. We were on the lawn at the Nelson Atkins Art Museum just hanging out … and we said, ‘We should get married.’ We agreed and then we went out and got rings.” The couple married one year later.

After college, Zac introduced Mandy to Idyllwild where he had been raised, but her first experience did not prove to be a happy one. The couple relocated to Idyllwild where Mandy would have their two children, son, Carter, and daughter, Evelyn, both born at Desert Regional Medical Center in Palm Springs. “When we first moved, [Zac] started at Cafe Aroma, and he was a chef there. He loved to cook, which is nice. Then he ended up working as a ceramicist at Idyllwild Arts part-time,” Mandy related. “I was by myself a lot; Zac was [rarely] home and I didn’t know anybody up here.” Two and a half years later, the couple returned to Kansas City.

A constant in Mandy’s life was her art and despite her unhappy experience living in Idyllwild initially, the Art Alliance of Idyllwild is a pleasant recollection. “Becky [Clark, Zac’s Mom] signed us up. We couldn’t afford it at the time,” Mandy said. “This was eight years ago. Becky was still on the board, she was treasurer.” A vacancy on the AAI board would be filled by Mandy and she worked as volunteer coordinator for the annual Art Walk and Wine Tasting hosted by AAI. “It was a good experience. I like being an artist in the Art Alliance.”

Back home in Kansas City, husband Zac joined the military, which came as a total shock to Mandy. “Within a few months he decided to join [the service],” Mandy recalled. “He told me and I thought he was joking. He’s such an artist and so liberal, I was like, ‘Really? You really think you’re going to join.’” But, despite her misgivings, the Navy proved a good fit for Zac and, as with most military families, they moved frequently, (10 times over a six-year period), which proved taxing. Orders for Zac to relocate to Southern California gave the couple hope that the “roots” they both now craved could be a reality. And while the allure of buying a home near a Southern California beach beckoned both of them, the reality was that inflated prices and suitability for child-rearing proved prohibitive. Zac was justifiably hesitant to suggest Idyllwild, but Mandy was surprisingly open given the change in the family dynamic. Her focus was on what was best for her family.

“I love that we have family here, and friends. We’ve been moving around for so many years now; it’s nice that I can make relationships and I can have a job and the kids can make friends and we don’t have to say goodbye,” Mandy said passionately. She also loves her second go-round with AAI. “The AAI up here is amazing. I’ve been part of several art alliances across the country and this is by far the best,” she said. “I’ve entered into other shows before, and they hardly take anyone, and you have to pay a ton to get in and they don’t show everybody. Here, it is just so open and everyone is friendly and nice. They give everybody an opportunity to be seen. I haven’t experienced that before.”

Last Saturday, Mandy won third place in AAI’s Judged Members Show and Working Artist Tour. In addition to selling the winning piece to an Idyllwild local, she also sold a drawing she entered in the show. “If someone buys your work, it means someone loves your stuff enough to own it and pay for it. It’s a really good feeling,” she said with a smile.

With the kids attending Idyllwild School (like father Zac had done so many years ago), and a new job at Town Hall on the horizon, life is good for Mandy. Throughout the interview for this article, Mandy remained calm and smiled broadly even while 8-year-old Carter climbed onto her back and actually tried to stand on her shoulders all while loudly proclaiming his winning score on the video game he played. Evelyn, 7, rubbed Mandy’s shoulders and asked to have the “peetee” [teepee] her Aunt Halie Wilson made for her assembled all while the new puppy, Riley McJohnson, ran wild as puppies do. Mandy shook her head, laughed and said, “This is my life. If you’re writing about me, this is my world. It’s amazing I can be productive.”



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