This Friday, an unassuming house on 322 N. Arsenal Avenue will open up to the public to display paintings, from floor to ceiling, upstairs and downstairs, in just about every room and hallway. Chances are that there will be a line stretching to the street.
It’s The April Show, a one-night-only annual showcase for Indy artists who’ve faced challenges in life and whose art the public might not otherwise see.
One artist featured in this year’s show, 55-year old Kevin Johnson, is finding his artistic niche after having spent half of his life in prison.
“I was born in Gary,” Johnson says. “My mother left me in the hospital. So I went through a bevy of foster homes. I had very bad social skills but I could do [art].”
Growing up, he painted on whatever surfaces he could find, including highway overpasses, using virtually every type of media.
“You tend to work on everything that you can until you do get the proper stuff,” he says. “I can remember, the first time I had a real canvas in front of me, I didn’t know what to do with it.”
Johnson came to Indianapolis in 1975.
“In 1977, I got involved with a murder,” he says. “When I left Indianapolis in 1978, I was being carried in the back of a sheriff’s station wagon straight to Michigan City. I did 27 straight years.”
He continued to make art while incarcerated, even though Indiana State Prison only had a functioning art program for the first six years of his imprisonment there, he says.
Soon after his release, in 2002, Johnson found himself living on the street.
“I was in Military Park drawing pictures of Governor O’Bannon and selling them for about five dollars a picture,” he says.
The April Show was created in 1997, after David Hittle — the organizer of the show and owner of the house where it takes place — met Harry Blomme, a Canadian immigrant and farmer in Brown County who wound up homeless in Indianapolis.
“As an elderly man he drifted from mission to mission,” says Hittle, who worked with Lutheran Child and Family Services at the time. (He’s now director of planning for Johnson County). “And Harry was involved with a friend of mine who worked with the homeless. I had just got this house and had this idea; here’s this wonderful artist like Kevin, he’d just paint on whatever he found in the alleys, sheds, whatever. We thought we’d have a party for him. We’d put his art on the wall and invite everybody we know.”
Soon after meeting Blomme (who died in 2003), Hittle met two more artists, Jerome Neal and Berry Connell.
“They were really talented artists who didn’t have the cache to get into major galleries,” says Hittle. “So for that first show, we had all three of them, just put up their art all over. And year after year it has just grown organically.”
The April Show, which doesn’t have nonprofit status or a board of directors, is coordinated by Hittle and a group of dedicated volunteers. Twenty-three artists will participate this year. Artists keep all earnings from sales, though most choose to donate 10 percent or more of their take to Stopover, a crisis service for homeless youth and their families.
Jerome Neal, whose work will be featured in a solo show at Gallery 924 in August, may be the best known artist on this year’s roster.
But Johnson’s no slouch. Like Neal, he’s an African-American artist who doesn’t necessarily stick to African-American subject matter. Hittle describes him as a “standout, photoreal” portrait artist. Hittle’s acrylic on paper “Loggerheads,” which shows a sea turtle swimming, adorns the April Show’s promotional postcard. Johnson was inspired to do the painting after seeing a black and white image of said creature on Bing. He was also inspired by his studies in art history.
“I was reading about the Dutch and then the Flemish painters … who painted in the latter part of the Renaissance,” Johnson says. “They were using lacquer, paint, lacquer, in layers like that. I said, ‘Well that’s interesting. Let me try that.’ And I wonder if anyone’s ever done it with acrylics. I do it in that way and it almost always sets up its own 3D quality. As the kids say, you’ve got to have a hook. Well, that just might be my hook.”
The April Show: Friday, April 24, 7 p.m. at 322 N. Arsenal Ave.; admission free, artworks available for purchase, prices range from $8-500