VERSAILLES — Norman Rockwell's classic Saturday Evening Post covers helped inspire Eric Johnson to study illustration at a California art school. After moving back to Lexington, he decided to put that inspiration and training to work for a special Christmas gift to his parents.
Mimicking Rockwell's style and humor, Johnson drew a picture of his parents, Bob and Ruth Johnson, for their 1982 Christmas card. It showed Ruth mischievously holding a stocking with Bob's presents as he dozed over the newspaper in his easy chair.
The card was such a hit with their friends that Johnson created another picture the next year. And the next. And the next.
Bob was president of Appalachian Regional Healthcare at the time, and he had been an administrator at the University of Kentucky and the University of California at Berkeley. They knew a lot of people.
"Our Christmas card list kept getting longer and longer because nobody wanted to be dropped off as long as Eric was doing those pictures," Ruth Johnson said. The mailing eventually exceeded 350 cards. "It got to be ridiculous," she said.
Johnson stopped making cards for his parents after his father retired in 1993, six years before his father's death. Then, in 1997, Johnson created a Christmas card illustration featuring himself and his wife, Becky. He has made them every year since 2002. "Once I started, it was hard to stop," he said.
All of the illustrations are on display through Jan. 11 in the upstairs gallery of the Woodford County Library. They chronicle nearly three decades of the Johnsons engaged in holiday gags that everyone can appreciate.
The 1989 card shows Bob holding a chain saw in one hand and a small Christmas tree in the other. Beside him, Ruth holds a full-size tree and a hatchet.
In the 1991 painting, Ruth has just hit Bob's thumb with a hammer while they hang a wreath. For 1993, Ruth cleans up the mess Bob has made of the kitchen while baking a single frosted cookie.
"You can see my dad was a great clown," Johnson said. "I could get him to do anything."
Ruth's favorite painting usually hangs in her living room. It shows her and Bob in a dark theater, watching a performance of The Nutcracker. At least, she is watching. He is asleep.
Their 1990 card shows Bob with a glass of eggnog, begging Ruth for a little bourbon. Johnson echoed the gag in his own 2007 card, which has Becky holding an eyedropper of eggnog over his glass of bourbon. "Just a little!" his expression seems to say.
In this year's card, Johnson slouches in his easy chair as Becky heads out to shovel snow. As with most of the cards, the family's current dog plays a supporting role.
"One thing you can see in all of the pictures is that it is a happy family," Johnson said. "I have been very lucky."
The process of making each card is almost as funny as the result, Johnson said. Once he has an idea, he stages people and dogs in elaborate poses and appropriate expressions, and takes a lot of photographs.
"My poor wife puts up with a lot to get these things done," he said.
Johnson makes sketches from the photographs, blends and finishes them in his computer, and puts a grid to the picture. That becomes the guide for the final painting on canvas.
Johnson, 59, has painted professionally for 12 years. Becky is a pediatric therapist at Cardinal Hill Hospital in Lexington. They live in the Woodford County community of Nonesuch.
From his studio and gallery on Main Street in Versailles, Johnson has a great view of the Woodford County Library, which was rebuilt and expanded behind its historic façade in 2006. After lending several of the pictures to the library for display in the past, Johnson suggested a gallery show with all of them. Library director Karen Kasacavage said it has been quite popular.
Johnson likes seeing all of the pictures displayed together for the first time.
"This was the year to do it because I used every bit of wall space," he said. "One more wouldn't fit."
But there will be another painting next year. And the next. Otherwise, the 160 or so people on the Johnsons' Christmas card list would be very disappointed.