Molly Johnson: The Glow That Comes from Art

Donna Fischer

donna fischer | the artist next door | april 2017

It's hard to say whether Molly Johnson gets more enjoyment out of creating a beautiful portrait of her own or witnessing one of her students make a breakthrough with his or her artwork. Either way, the owner and executive director of the Academy of Fine Art has found a seemingly perfect balance with her career, family and art; she's able to grow as a gifted artist as well as teacher for those willing to roll up their sleeves and immerse themselves in the study of drawing and painting.

Johnson's children and grandchildren can be seen in some of her portrait work. The delicate beauty that childhood flaunts is abundantly represented with Johnson's brushstrokes. Sunlight splashes on cheekbones while expressions show a range of emotions. Farm life has captured Johnson's imagination since she was a child growing up in the Chicago suburbs. Chickens now populate several of her paintings, with their plumage lighting up the scene.

This is the work of an artist who started attracting attention back in her school days. Aside from the attention, Johnson noticed something in the nature of art that made her into a storyteller. She liked that part very much.

“I liked capturing and telling a story, almost like a writer but I was putting it on canvas,” explains Johnson. “One of my favorite artists was Norman Rockwell. He's so revered now as a storyteller in his illustrations which are phenomenal. He was my favorite when I was growing up, with his ability to capture Americana. He wanted to be known as an oil painter but he was known for his illustrations.”

Johnson didn't hesitate to pursue art studies after high school. She graduated from the American Academy of Art in Chicago, and also from the Academy of Fine Art in Denmark, Wisconsin. Though she focused on having a family for many years, Johnson became the owner and executive director of the Academy of Fine Art in 2011. As one of the instructors, Johnson gets to guide artists through the fundamentals of portrait and watercolor painting.

“It is a struggle to find time because I also have a large family. I have five children and six grandkids and they're very important to me. With the school, I'm here before nine, and then I'm here until four—thirty, and then I stop school things right there and it becomes family or my own studio time. We're closed three days – Saturday, Sunday, Monday, and then I work on my pieces. I'm lucky because I get to be surrounded by art all day. I still get to do what I love to do and earn a living that way.”

After reflecting on what art brings to her life, Johnson put it down to one concept: luminescence.

“For me, I get a certain glow, a feeling of warmth and light when I create art,” she explains. “There are certain things that make me feel that way: my children, my grandchildren, my husband, but my students, and when I see them cross a bridge and create something that they were stumbling on and just see that happiness and joy. You know how they say that knowledge is power? A school like this is intense and there is a long time when the students are working very hard and they're not seeing progress in any way. When they cross that bridge that gives me a sense of satisfaction and joy. Art gives me that sense of luminescence: 'I did this, I helped them, I created this.' Someone found joy and purchased my piece and every day they look at it I hope that feel that luminescence.”

The Academy of Fine Art is located in what has to be one of the best reclamation projects I've ever walked into. Johnson happily shows me around what used to be a full-scale feed mill in the small town of Denmark. There are marks on the floor and support posts from a fire that blazed here years ago. Thick wood beams are everywhere and the open floor plan seems supremely suited to house groups of people working on their art. Upstairs, each student can nestle into their own studio. Johnson is proud of what she and her husband have created here.

“For our small community, they love that we're here. We have the high school students come out and draw, we have girl scouts and boy scouts come on tours, the homemakers, the Red Hat Society. We work with the foster care system in Green Bay. The kids model for portraits. I always try to have an open door policy around her, and have open houses and things like that. And we did save one of the original buildings from Denmark, which is important.”

And for those who wonder what an art academy is doing in a region more accustomed to dairy cows and football games, Johnson says there is a need for art here, too.

“There's a movement starting, which is exciting. We are under the shadow of the Packers, and I love the Packers. I think Green Bay is fortunate to have the Packers and hopefully, we (artists) can find our niche here in town and keep the young people coming who are suffering for some culture in this area. Every form of art gives the artist that opportunity to express themselves, whether they're hurting or happy. There's a healing in any form of art.”

Johnson tells her students not to quit their day jobs when they start their work as an artist. For her, teaching has been a way for her to keep art fully in her life, though finding the balance is always a challenge. Next, she's embarking on a project for a lady in Australia who gave her a photo of a seascape. Johnson admits that it's a bit intimidating and that every brushstroke will need to matter, but the look on her face reveals the unique thrill this kind of challenge gives her.

To learn more stop by The Academy of Fine Art at 217 Broadway Street in Denmark or go to

Donna Fischer is an avid fan of music, film and art. When she's not writing on these subjects you'll find her gardening or snowshoeing around Green Bay.

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