“John The Magician” by Catherine Hill
John Bohnenberger’s version of “John The Magician”
John’s Divisionist Still-Life
A Rare Written Statement about John by John.
What can you say about such a dear friend and great watercolorist as John Bohnenberger. He left us early in January, but his work will always be here. He belongs with the best California watercolorists, such as Hardie Gramatky, Phil Dyke, Charles Phillipi and Millard Sheets. He studied with Roger Armstrong, a great watercolorist and comic strip artist (assistant to Clifford McBride). The first painting you see up top is Cathy Hill’s oil tribute to John Bohnenberger; “John the Magician”. Our Thursday Morning Irregulars Painting group was painting at the home of Guy Rose, another historic California artist, and Cathy was moved to capture the elusive Mr. John B. at work. He always carried an old video display box with him, notched to hold his drawing board. Here is Cathy’s statement to go along with her painting:
I remember seeing his bold watercolor paintings many years ago. I thought, “Who is this amazing artist?”. Finally, in a San Gabriel Art Association show, someone said, “There’s the great John Bohnenberger”–Where? I looked. There! I saw a thin little guy with a hat. I was impressed. Later I got to know him.
Mark and I painted with John on Thursdays in a plein air group from the San Gabriel Art Association. As the group changed, sometimes John and Mark and I were the only ones to show up. John always said if he went a day without painting, he didn’t feel right. If he was really happy with his painting that day, he would slap it down and say: “Eat your heart out!” We loved it! He must have had enough award ribbons to stitch them together to make 12 quilts! John was an inspirational sight–throwing water wildly from his brushes and using his self-made desk table from a VHS display box that he tied around his legs (for wind defense) and folded into a carrying suitcase. The last time I saw him was at Julie Abreau’s funeral. She was a wonderful person and watercolor artist. She gave rides in her van to John Bohnenberger and Walter Zetlmaier on Thursdays. She called them “my boys”.
John’s work had a bold and sure-of-itself quality, but he was shy about his talent, always avoiding doing demos, and was intimidated by professional artists. But all the professional artists were in awe of him. Painting seemed to come magically and easily to him–even abstract watercolors.
He was truly John the Magician.
I was always begging John for a spot at his watercolor classes, but he turned me down. He said, “You don’t want to be in a class with a lot of old ladies.” (He taught at the retirement home where he lived. Here is John’s statement about himself (original is upstairs):
I am mostly self-taught. Been painting most of my life off and on. Had two older sisters who were good painters and they got me started.
Didn’t really get serious until I retired from the post office in 1972. Started going to art classes. Studied with some good teachers. To name a few–Roger Armstrong, Jan Kunz, Bob Uecker, Tom Fong.
Started entering art competitions and immediately began winning awards all over the place. People didn’t want to be in the same show with me. Knew they had no chance to win top award. Just kidding, but for an old retired mail-carrier I don’t do too bad. My favorite painters are Rex Brandt, Eric Weignart, Frank Webb, Tom Fong and Fealing Lin. To go back aways–John Sargent was about as good as you can get. I am a signature member of Watercolor West.
Cathy and I were very surprised to find that John had done his own version of Cathy’s “John The Magician”. My photo of his painting is second from the top. He really expanded the composition, and depicted himself painting by a river, with Cathy’s rabbit keeping him company. This is one of the few watercolors John did of himself painting. I’ve also included a snapshot of one of his fine abstract still-lifes. He was just as good at non-representational pictures as he was at painting “reality”. He actually preferred to work from photographs, painting on location didn’t “feel right”. Yet, his paintings from photographs never feel like he was bound by them, but he used the photo as a point of departure and made beautiful paintings of them. John was a master of value, light and shadow as well as color. He knew what to leave out, as well as what to paint. As he got older, John no longer drove, and he turned down rides he was offered, so we saw him less and less. He was a no-show at his one man show that the San Gabriel Art Association did for him last year. He was in the hospital at the time. However, just before they took the show down, John magically appeared and broke his shyness to chat with the patrons about art. Cathy and I didn’t see him there, as we didn’t know he had recovered sufficiently to be at the gallery. How we wish we could have seen him one more time!
John admired “pro” artists, he often told me he wished he could have worked in the animation industry. Maybe he liked comics too! Here’s some:
Barker Bill, from 12-13 to 12-26-1954, including the rare Christmas strip! Puddy defeats “Queer-money Quimby” the counterfeiter, after all, he’s 1/16th police dog. The little Gelt is still hungry for greenbacks. In the strips from 12/20 on, the sideshow cast is featured in circus gags, including “Peanuts Perkins”, a classic dumb-guy who is sort of the strip’s Zero. In the Sunday page for 12-26, we see Bob Kuwahara’s version of Kiko, the kangaroo! He is drawn a bit more realistically than the animated Kiko, and carries Puddy in his pouch.
Felix from 5-13 to 5-19-1935 continues Danny’s adventures on the Ape’s island. The Ape ties up the sailors who are trying to rescue Danny and Felix, but Felix leads the Ape back to the ship. The mascot is a hero again! In the Sunday, Felix is still cavorting with giants in Dreamland, securing dough for some Elves from the baker Giant. I love the “sock” in the 10th panel, Messmer and Segar really had a knack for action fighting poses.
A lot of good ol’ brick-boppin’ gags in Krazy this time, from 3-24 to 3-29-1941. I like the snake gag in the 3-27, this looks like one of the “iconic” Herriman strips that an author would put in a “high/low” art book. Beautifully designed daily.
Patrick runs roughshod, or is it “supershod”, as Superkid! He lords it over Godfrey, Suzy and Elsa; his brother Nathan can’t understand what Patrick is up to. Maybe Godfrey is right, and Patrick has gone “Ding Dong”. If it hadn’t been for my brother’s unselfish efforts in clipping this strip, we wouldn’t have such nice color scans to read today. I hope the next post will be released under happier circumstances. Farewell John!