Fargo - Eric Johnson makes small talk as he takes the stairs up to the printmaking studio inside North Dakota State University's Renaissance Hall.
Since it's summer break, the building is quiet. Johnson speaks softly, but that has less to do with the season than it does with the fact that he's generally a quiet guy.
His demeanor remains unchanged, but the quiet Eric Johnson fades away as he enters the studio and begins pulling print after print out of a storage drawer - each more vibrant and colorful than the last.
Some are thematically similar, like his series of cityscapes in a wavy, almost-liquid style, but they all boast a set of impressive colors that run the gamut from fiery and bright to dark and pensive.
It soon becomes clear that Eric Johnson lets his prints do the talking.
Through an impressive work ethic and highly collectible prints that pop, Johnson has become one of the area's most prolific and recognizable artists whose work has been featured in solo exhibitions and can often be found in group shows and silent auctions up and down the arts calendar.
The youngest of six children, Johnson grew up near Embden, N.D., and went to high school in nearby Chaffee. Like many small-town youths in the state, he had no access to formal art education through his high school years.
"We were a farming family," he said, "We raised cattle and sheep. I was in 4-H and had a pig every year."
Despite the lack of formal art education, Johnson continued to draw the things that attract artistically inclined youth: comic book heroes, large-scale space battles and animated TV shows like "The Simpsons." He was encouraged by his older siblings to keep drawing, and his sister would bring home tracing and drawing paper for him from college.
In essence, nothing has really changed for Johnson since then. He received his bachelor's in art in 1997 from NDSU and in 2001 earned his Master of Fine Arts from the University of North Dakota largely through a simple desire to keep making art and the recognition of his talent to reinforce him.
"(At NDSU) I took a 2D design class, and it was the first time I'd ever done a painting," he said, "I hadn't gotten A's up until then, but I got an A in that class."
He admits his style and perspective wouldn't quite be the same if he'd had formalized training earlier in life, so it suggests that it might just be this background that lends some secret sauce to his approach. His still life and urban landscape work certainly stands out in the world of printmaking, where the low cost of replication and DIY aesthetic make it tend toward the subversive.
"You don't see a lot of work like mine," he said. "Prints normally have more layers and more of a message. I could work that way, but I don't mind being different."
Johnson's work is also more illustrative than most printmakers, a characteristic enabled by his use of the relief printing technique. In relief printing, the artist chisels away the parts of a wooden block they wish to leave blank on the paper, then applies colored ink to the parts they desire. Johnson uses this technique to test color compatibility and can reverse changes if they don't work by simply removing those parts from the block.
"I don't plan colors ahead of time, and the work informs what I do. I'll print one and, if it doesn't work, I'll just change it and print more."
Spider Johnk, a fan of Johnson's who owns several of his prints and is an artist himself, said he can definitely see how that approach pays off.
"His style is so distinctive. A coworker of mine had some of his prints in her office and I became intrigued at that point," said Johnk, designer and owner of the marketing agency Spider and Company. "It's incredible what he does with color. Most artists become a bit tentative with color as they go further in their careers."
Johnson keeps plugging away at that color-filled artistic career, teaching classes as an adjunct instructor at Mayville State University and Minnesota State Community and Technical College in Detroit Lakes. He's involved with PEARS (Printmaking Education And Research Studio), a program out of NDSU that shares printmaking knowhow through community interaction and visiting artists.
He's also expanding into acrylic painting with the encouragement of friend and frequent collaborator, Star Wallowing Bull.
His work is available for purchase through Gallery 4 on Broadway in downtown Fargo.
His advice to aspiring artists who lack formal training? "Don't give up, find a good community of people, and find a place that encourages you," he says with a shrug.
In other words, work hard and let that work do all the talking.
This article is part of a content partnership with The Arts Partnership, a nonprofit organization cultivating the arts in Fargo, Moorhead, and West Fargo, and its online publication, ARTSpulse. More more information, visit http://theartspartnership.net/artspulse.