Reclaimed—The Work of Duncan Johnson
When Duncan Johnson first set eyes on the town dump of White River Junction, Vermont, he saw gold. Piles of it, just discarded. The old adage comes to mind here—you know, about how one man’s trash is another man’s treasure; in Johnson’s case, his gold was castaway wood—barn board, a child’s bookshelf, a kitchen cupboard. The discovery of this resource of free material sparked an excitement in the artist that ignited a whole body of work. Johnson has spent the decade since that day salvaging scraps of wood to give them new life and purpose in his art.
For anyone who has stood in the lobby at Hotel Vermont, they’ve likely come face-to-face with one of Johnson’s works. The massive seven-by-eleven-foot panel hanging above the concierge, commissioned in 2013, is made up of hundreds if not thousands of pieces of wood hand-picked by the artist. It’s hard to say how long a panel of that size took to complete. Johnson estimates he spent roughly six weeks composing it in the studio. That doesn’t include the countless hours of rummaging in scrapyards or construction sites to gather material.
Every aspect of the artist’s work is slow and thoughtful. Johnson spends eight to ten hours a day creating out of his Bellows Falls studio—an airy 2,500-square-foot space, flooded with natural light. He processes the reclaimed wood first by cleaning and sanding it just enough to coax out the existing color, then cuts pieces into desired proportions and gently nails them down into patterns. He regards the technique of building out a piece to be a hybrid of disciplines—sculpting, certainly, but done in “the language of painting,” as he considers color, texture, and composition. While listening to a playlist of Nick Drake or the like, he works purposefully, the enormous stash of wood he’s amassed over the years at his fingertips. “It’s so much material it’s overwhelming,” Johnson admits. He’s considering modifying the work in ways that might require less material—for example, he’s started new experiments with photographing the wood panels. But a direction that requires less material would mean fewer visits to the town dump, an outing he would miss. “We’ll see. I’m kind of addicted to it.”
Part of Johnson’s artistic skill is his ability to render a vast number of scraps into something that feels cohesive and organized. The visual rhythm to his art is indeed satisfying to look at the same way a beautifully patterned quilt can be. And like a quilt made from patches of used fabric, Johnson’s work juxtaposes times past. Quiet stories inherent in his material become joined and layered with others stories. The tiny nails that hold them all together add a celestial quality to the surface of the wood, as they pick up flecks of light, illuminating those histories.
By the very fact that Johnson sources his material from Vermont, the work speaks of the region. And when you think about it, those pieces of old barns, bookshelves, and cupboards tossed to the wayside were likely hewn from lumber grown in local forests. The artist himself was born in Barre, Vermont, and after spending nearly two decades of his adult life in New York City, where he attended the Pratt Institute and worked as an art handler, he eventually returned to the Green Mountains. Even still, Johnson doesn’t see the work itself as Vermont-specific. “It’s more independent of that. But it’s hard to say really because I’m just submersed in this. I grew up in New England and I guess I have influences that I probably don’t even recognize.”
Johnson is putting his trove of materials to use right now, working on a second commissioned piece for Hotel Vermont. The unveiling of the work is to coincide with the Hotel’s five-year anniversary—fittingly their wood anniversary—in May. For both commissioned pieces, Johnson was asked to work within the framework of a golden rectangle, the geometrical ratio used in Hotel Vermont’s logo and architectural design. The golden rectangle—one that can be cut into a square and rectangle similar to the proportions of the original—was named such by the Greeks because of how satisfying the ratio is to the eye. This was a welcomed framework for Johnson. “I find it inspiring. It’s a pleasing proportion.” It’s also not a stretch for the way he typically uses wood, scaling it down to basic geometric shapes. “I’m lucky that my work just aesthetically blends well with the hotel.”
When you look at Johnson’s art of golden proportions and pleasing lines, it’s easy to see a similar harmony between the artist, his work, and his home. After all, Vermonters are known for their resourcefulness, respect for history, and strong work ethic, and Johnson’s art exemplifies all three. Yet, the work is singularly his own. After nearly ten years of creating in this way, Johnson’s interest in the process of rescuing and rendering forgotten scraps into intricate patchworks of wood hasn’t faltered. He still deeply respects the material and, by transforming them into works of art, allows the rest of us to see that glimmer of potential, the gold he saw lying in the scrapheap, fully realized.