Painter Paul Brett Johnson brought Kentucky mountains to his canvas

Paul Brett Johnson grew up in Mousie in Knott County, which he described in a 2003 interview as “over there around Onion Blade, Dismal, Possum Trot, Sassafras and Right and Left Beaver.”

It’s a sentence that sums up Johnson: richly descriptive, full of love for the area where he grew up and a little bit droll.

Johnson, whose work is currently on display at the Carnegie Center, knew early in life that he wanted to be an artist. His parents arranged for him to get lessons at nearby Alice Lloyd College.

After graduating from the University of Kentucky, he started his professional life as a school art teacher, which he quickly decided was not for him. His success came as a painter for private collections and particularly as a children’s book author beginning in the 1990s.

Johnson’s first published book, The Cow Who Wouldn’t Come Down (1993), helped him break through as a children’s author. Johnson became a popular speaker in schools around the state and produced books including Mr. Persnickety and Cat Lady, A Perfect Pork Stew, The Pig Who Ran a Red Light and The Goose Who Went Off in a Huff.

Johnson also is known for a series of 1970s paintings and prints based on material from the Alice Lloyd College Photographic Archives that depict the spare life and culture of communities dependent on coal during the early 20th century.

“The coal-mining series was his breakthrough that gave him a name, a reputation,” said Johnson’s partner, Tony Huston. Johnson died in 2011 after a brief illness. He was 64.

“The mountain landscape he grew up in was his inspiration from day one,” said Johnson’s sister, Cheryl Mickey. “There’s a reason it strikes a chord. That was his environment.”

He said, ‘I’m not going to be a Rembrandt or a da Vinci, but I can paint pretty pictures, and I’m going to be happy doing that.’

Tony Huston

Some of the paintings in the Carnegie exhibit had hung in the last home Huston and Johnson bought together, on a wooded lot in west Lexington. Huston said Johnson was modest but encouraged others to develop their artistic talent.

“He said, ‘I’m not going to be a Rembrandt or a da Vinci, but I can paint pretty pictures, and I’m going to be happy doing that.’”

Neil Chethik, executive director of the Carnegie Center, said the Johnson display includes 16 to 18 pieces of the artist’s landscape and portrait works in addition to several illustrations from his children’s books.

Although Chethik never met Johnson, “I came to him through the children’s books. But then I saw the rest of his art, and I was blown away by the range of it and the beauty. I especially was just blown away by the color. ... The way he experimented with that color work and that great fantasy stuff to me seemed like such a huge leap in skill.”

Debra Hensley, sponsor of the Johnson exhibit, used to give Chethik signed copies of Johnson’s children’s books for his son Evan, now 22 and a student at New York University.

Hensley used to have some early Johnson work hanging in her insurance office but donated it for a charity auction.

“I knew him when he was real young,” Hensley said of Johnson. “He was just a gentle giant.”

Cheryl Truman: 859-231-3202, @CherylTruman

If you go

Dreaming in Color: Paintings by Paul Brett Johnson

When: Through May 1

Where: Carnegie Center, 251 W. Second St.

Cost: Free. All art is for sale unless marked otherwise.

Call: 859-254-4175