Michelle L. Smith

Freelance Writer, Novelist, Humorist

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cover image courtesy of Pen Women Press of NLAPW
~~LETTERS TO MY FATHER is a short story written by Smith that was included in a collection of works titled The Light Between Us: True Stories of Healing Through Creative Expression, published in 2015 by the Pen Women Press of The National League of American Pen Women, Inc.

"The Light Between Us is the open and honest sharing of renewal. Throughout these pages, creative women bear witness to the healing power of artistic and literary expression. These stories will lift your soul and give inspiration to your own new vision." (www.nlapw.org)




~~JOHANSEN FINE ART: ENCOUNTER THE HUMAN SPIRIT, published in 2015, is a collection of works by Jay Johansen, renown portrait artist, that explores the use of ornate costume detail and fluid performance imagery to enhance the stories told by his subjects. Smith is a contributing editor for this fine art book for which Mr. Johansen retains all copyright.

All images and text taken from this book are reproduced on this website with permission from Jay Johansen, Jay Johansen Studio, LLC

All images and text taken from this book are reproduced on this website with permission from Jay Johansen, Jay Johansen Studio, LLC



~~JOHANSEN FINE ART: ESSENCE OF THE HUMAN FORM is an art book profiling the evolution of portraiture created by renown artist Jay Johansen. Smith revised and edited the book, published in July 2014, for which Mr. Johansen retains copyright.





~~SHE'S GOTTA GO GOLF is a new ebook for Kindle or Nook released in November 2011 by publisher Susan Fornoff. Smith's articles appear in the ebook and are excerpted from several issues of GottaGoGolf magazine, an online magazine for women who love the game of golf.

All images and text taken from this book are reproduced on this website with permission from Jay Johansen, Jay Johansen Studio, LLC


~~MELVIN JOHANSEN, SCULPTOR: A LIFETIME OF CELEBRATING THE NATURAL WORLD is an art book written and edited by Dr. Smith. All images and text taken from the book that are represented on this website are reproduced with permission from Jay Johansen (Jay Johansen Studio, LLC), copyright 2007.

ISBN 978-0-615-16111-2


The following excerpts are taken from MELVIN JOHANSEN, SCULPTOR:

I've always been drawn to explore the outdoors. The interaction of wildlife in its natural environment has been a source of great wonder to me. I am fascinated by the intelligence and grace of our remarkable co-habitants on this planet--intrigued by their movements, relationships and behavior. I fear that such complexity can never fully be conveyed, but in my attempt to do so, I have been able to further appreciate these amazing creatures and hopefully share this with others.

Melvin Theodore Johansen NSS, 1915-



Born in 1915, sculptor Melvin Johansen has a sustaining curiosity and ingenious creativity that have propelled him towards remarkable expression and achievement. Johansen is, above all, an observer and engineer--a student of form, function and the impact of their successful combination.

That this mixture of skills eventually brought him to artistic excellence was not a foregone conclusion. Instead, it was a happy consequence of the innovation of his era and the combination of a lifetime of discovery and unquestionable talent. Throughout his career Johansen has shared his enthusiasm for wildlife, and the serendipity of his artistic achievement communicates itself in the artist's work. His sculptures have an unassuming yet powerful simplicity; a confidence based on scientific attention to detail and unabashed love of subject. His work is refined, elegant, succinct and ultimately joyous.

Melvin Theodore Johansen was born during an age of innovation when the horizon of daily life changed at a remarkable rate. His career and artwork represent a synthesis of public interest in the exoticism of the natural world and its scientific and artistic exploration; expanding technology; and the growing impact of the conservationist movement. From his youth to the present, Johansen displayed tenacity for acquiring new skills and knowledge and an unwavering desire to explore new venues for creativity and expression. This nature brought the artist into contact and reputation with the premiere wildlife artists of the twentieth century. Collectively, a group noted for their reinterpretation of man's relationship with wildlife, their work presents the animal as subject and character--independent of its status as game or spectacle--and celebrates wildlife in a manner that communicates environment, anatomical structure and bearing.

Johansen spent his childhood and adolescence in Oakland, California and watched the Bay Area city transform from an agrarian community to a bustling port-centered metropolis. Oakland's population grew significantly in the 1920s in keeping with the national trend, and the city experienced a huge housing boom as the industrial infrastructure that would become the community's foundation began to take shape.

Johansen was inspired by the examples of progress and problem-solving that surrounded him. As a youngster, he displayed a tenacity and creativity that matched the dynamic nature of the time. He had an early love and skill for photography and, like many at the time, was fascinated by flight. At age fifteen, along with hundreds of other Bay Area boys, he entered a contest to design and construct model airplanes. To his surprise, his well-crafted model was purchased by the manager of Standard Oil Company's San Francisco office.

Of all Oakland's emerging landmarks, the Snow Museum of Natural History had the most significant impact on the craftsman and artist that Johansen would become. Founded by Henry A. Snow, the museum represented the end result of Snow's glamorous career as a naturalist and sportsman.

Snow was a pioneer--a big-game hunter who was part zoologist and part explorer. He was also a member of a select group of emerging businessmen who were among the most influential founding members of the Bay Area. He counted as friends both shipyard giant Henry J. Kaiser and then State Assemblyman and future Attorney General Bill Knowland whose family owned the Oakland Tribune. Working with Kaiser and Knowland to secure funding, Snow embarked upon several elaborate big-game hunting expeditions throughout Africa and the Arctic. For Knowland and Kaiser, these trips provided the community with important film work and the West Coast's most extensive collection of exotic animal specimens. For Snow, they provided gut-wrenching adventure as well as ever-widening recognition. ...

When Johansen entered high school he enrolled in a mail-order taxidermy course and also studied drawing. Then considered an unusual subject, the taxidermy course proved to be invaluable when Johansen graduated from high school in 1932 at the height of the Great Depression. Suddenly, a unique skill was a valuable commodity. He first found work stacking produce in his family's grocery store, but when an acquaintance shared with him the rumor of an opening at the Snow Museum, he brought his mounted specimens to the interview as samples.

Johansen met with the museum's new director, Henry Snow's daughter Nydine Snow Latham. Latham had long been the caretaker of the artifacts and specimens collected by her father, and she immediately hired Johansen as an apprentice taxidermist and set him to work preparing the skins that her father had forwarded from his travels in the Arctic and Africa. She once said of the taxidermy collection that Johansen helped create, "I don't feel as if [the animals] are dead because they have been so well-preserved."

Johansen entered the field of taxidermy during a period of transition, when the emphasis was changing from the re-creation of traditionally mounted trophies to that of accuracy and natural poses. Taxidermy is defined in its ability to re-create a hyper-realistic representation, to create a sense of the living entity in a permanent display--particularly for the museum audience. A successful mount involves research, careful construction, and attention to detail. While the skins provide assistance with color and texture, the anatomy, structure and composition of the mount are the domain of the taxidermist. Working with whatever muscle fibers and bones remain on the specimen, the taxidermist sculpts the form of the animal in an attempt to re-create a lifelike version. ...

Johansen assumed complete control of the design and presentation of his mounts, painting murals, developing realistic habitats and supervising the installation of dioramas. This level of involvement provided him with tactile knowledge of the texture and construction of both habitat and animal, and he developed a keen sense of composition and color. Deceptively simple compositions have power and impact through the careful suggestion of species-appropriate habitat or movement; later, his sculptures would hint at such authenticity. ...

In the midst of Johansen's field trips, the United States entered World War II, and Johansen left the Snow Museum to serve at the Alameda Naval Air Station. At the war's end, he returned to the museum and continued to develop its collections, establishing a community for local wildlife and sporting enthusiasts. He founded the museum's Adventurer Club, which provided a venue for amateur naturalists to show films and slides. These meetings served as the foundation for the Audubon Society's nation-wide lecture series, bringing many noted naturalists such as Roger Tory Peterson to Oakland.

As with other notable wildlife artists of his time, Johansen's appreciation of the outdoors was not purely academic. His enthusiasm encompassed a lifestyle of sportsmanship and conservation, and it was through these elements that he further applied his keen eye for detail, design and artisanship. He produced fine engraving for guns, and these early works suggested the sculptures that were to come. In fine detail, and in remarkably small scale, Johansen succeeded at communicating drama and presence. Though the approach was more refined and demonstrated a heightened dergree of realism in comparison with the style that would ultimately define his later work, the use of scientific detail to highlight the essential elegance of nature is a clear and constant theme. ...

In 1969 Johansen, now the Snow Museum's Senior Curator of Natural Science, was given an opportunity to apply his explorations to a new curriculum. A bond measure passed by the city of Oakland merged the Snow Museum with previously independent local museums of art, history and natural history. Under this consolidation, it was determined that the new Oakland Museum would take a specific focus on species and issues native to California. While this meant that much of Johansen's earlier work on African and Arctic animals would be removed from display, his research and knowledge of these species would prove invaluable in his later work, allowing him to sculpt these non-native subjects with almost first-hand knowledge--an opportunity out of reach for many artists of his generation. Further, the change of scope afforded Johansen exciting new research possibilities.

In an attempt to supplement the museum's limited catalog of California specimens, Johansen developed a new program entitled A Walk Across California that focused on zoological and ecological data native to the state. During his research for the project, Johansen traveled across the United States to meet with personnel from major natural history museums, including a director of the Smithsonian. Gathering information from these visits, he brought state-of-the-art preservation techniques to the facilities at the Oakland Museum and helped secure the museum's future as a resource of California wildlife and ecology. Following this accomplishment, Johansen took an early retirement and transferred his knowledge and discerning perspective to the creation of cast bronze sculpture.

The development of Johansen's pure artistic work is tied to his tenure at the museum. Anatomy, structure and authenticity all play a key role; however, his sculptures also suggest the influence of other wildlife artists.

Those influences offer a telling perspective on his work. The two most important artists, Wilhelm Kuhnert and Carl Rungius, have several characteristics in common with one another and with Johansen himself. Both were outdoorsmen, either as naturalists or sportsmen, and both took great pains to observe their subjects in their natural environments whenever possible (a fact that is particularly impressive for Kuhnert who painted in Germany during the 19th century and specialized in lions). Both artists produced work that featured exemplary anatomical representation, and both included habitat and setting within their compositions; however, neither used this realism as the defining quality of their work. It is easy to see why Johansen, former curator of the Snow Museum, would be drawn to these individuals. Demonstrating an appreciation for wildlife that extended beyond the need for a captivating subject, each artist embraced the animal's manifest integrity with its environment, supplying an additional element of interest to his work. Johansen's work, even in its earliest pieces, communicates that same quality--a remarkable juxtaposition of humbled reverence and intimate knowledge.

What is unique about the artists Johansen names as influences is that they are painters rather than fellow sculptors. Taking into account the assumption that we admire that which we aspire to obtain, this distinction suggests that Johansen's work in taxidermy left him confident in his ability to accurately re-create form. However, he admired and found challenge in other elements displayed in the two artists' works, such as composition, the artistic use of texture and the communication of shadow and color. Kuhnert, who painted with watercolor and oil, produced work that is refined and tight, with deep color saturation. Rungius fought to maintain an impressionistic style despite demands from his agents and publishers for truer realism. Clearly, Johansen's work utilizes elements of both styles; it is never overwrought and, when necessary, can exemplify the tight detail of Kuhnert or a loose impressionistic quality. For example, fur is suggested through texture, and not in the replication of tiny hairs. ...

This enthusiasm for communication within the field of wildlife art speaks to an important element of Johansen's artistic personality. Perhaps it was because he came to sculpture late in life, or that he lacked formal training in the field, that he always treated his success with surprise and humility. His wonder at the complexity and beauty of wildlife and his appreciation for the skills of other artists he admired was so great that he believed there was more he could achieve. This spirit guided the path of his career as he moved around the western United States to study his subjects and discuss work with colleagues in the field.

This humility can also be appreciated in a review of Johansen's work. A powerful respect for subject is apparent in each of his pieces. The sculptures never suggest that the artist feels he has mastered a creature through successful depiction. Instead, Johansen takes a secondary role to the utter magnificence of the animal. Rather than producing work that lacks a point of view or style, this humble approach is intrinsic to the effectiveness of his work, successfully communicating the powerful presence of the subject by laying a subtle foundation of reverence. ...

While Johansen's subjects changed based on his location and his access to a particular species, his style and technique remained remarkably uniform. That even his early pieces show confidence and a clear point of view suggests the strong foundation he received from his earlier work with wildlife. Johansen was already secure in his ability to create life in the inert and to design in three dimensions. All that remained was the challenge to transfer these skills into a more personal representation.

Johansen's skills as a technician allowed him to take a comprehensive hands-on approach to his work. He accomplished this feat by immersing himself in a process that would intimately connect him with his medium. Working with the texture of soft clay, he used his hands as tools to create the form of his sculptures--whether it was the fur's bristle or a riddled set of antlers. As a result, his work boasts a trademark sense of movement, dexterous use of texture and remarkable personality. The technique gives each piece a decadently tactile quality, with the crests and peaks of the clay mirroring the palette work of impressionist paintings. For both mediums the technique is successful because it invigorates the finished piece with the energy of the creative process. The sculptor's movements and decisions are laid bare for the viewer to appreciate in the final product. ...

A steady demand for Johansen's work from collectors and gallery owners led to a request for a contribution to the National Museum of Wildlife Art in Jackson, Wyoming. To have his work displayed alongside Rungius' work was an incredible validation of its quality and Johansen's progress as an artist. ...

Johansen's later works demonstrate the introduction of shading and color and an investigation into new patina techniques. Here again, the artist displays a purposeful hesitance, incorporating color to suggest the dramatic play of outdoor light. Subtle impressionistic shading marries with Johansen's loose texture to tremendous effect. When considering Johansen in the greater sphere of wildlife artists, it is his unstoppable devotion to craft and inspiration that distinguishes him and provides the emotional resonance for his work. Johansen has always considered himself secondary both to his subjects and to his craft. His admiration for the transcendent grace and design of nature's creatures is balanced by his faith in the limitless ability of sculpture and artistry. Though confident and assured his work is devoid of arrogance; each piece suggests a freshness born of a new challenge.

With a still-growing body or work, Johansen has reached the echelon of living legend. His work remains focused on the challenge of communicating the instinctual behavior and grace of the planet's most remarkable creatures through his expertly refined technique. Already humbled by the wonder of the mammals he studies, he is equally unassuming with regard to his talent and its attendant recognition. ...

Indeed, Johansen not only conveys his deep appreciation for wildlife through his sculptures, but he successfully shares that awe and inspiration with others in the deliverance of a masterfully reverent form of artistic expression.

Selected Works

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