There has never been any doubt in Tim Johnson’s mind that he wouldn’t be an artist. Even as a young lad, he was sketching and drawing the creatures of the forest.
“I came from a hunting family, and so early on got familiar with the woods and waters of this land,” he said. “I truly believe my talent is God-given. I was just born with it.”
And what a talent it is. His paintings are jaw-dropping beautiful and capture perfectly not only the animals of this part of the country, but the woods and forest where they live. A ten-point buck peering cautiously through a canopy of colorful autumn leaves; a black bear lumbering through a tamarack swamp; a chick-a-dee surrounded by snow laden oak leaves, all come to life under the careful paint strokes of this wildlife artist.
Tim grew up in Rhinelander, one of six children of Walter and Beulah Johnson. He was always drawing, sketching or creating some artistic creation. “I don’t think there was a board in my father’s garage that didn’t have a nail in it,” he chuckled. “I was always making something or hanging a sketch or drawing up.”
Shortly after graduating from RHS he married Barb Nordquist. “If it wasn’t for Barb I wouldn’t be where I am today,” he said. “She’s the one that has made it possible for us to make a living from my artwork.”
The couple has owned and operated Johnson Wildlife Art and Framing in Eagle River for more than 30 years. Before they opened the gallery, Tim worked as an architectural assistant for Johnson Building (no relation) and Barb worked at Reeve’s Grocery Store. The couple was making ends meet but just barely. Then Reeve’s burned down and Barb lost her job, and Tim knew his career as an architectural assistant was coming to an end. “Straight lines and a ruler was it,” he quipped. “But business was slowing down because the market was flooded with our product.”
It was Tim’s friend, Al Cirilli, who encouraged him to go into business for himself. “Al was a great mentor to me and a very smart man,” Tim said. “He really encouraged me throughout my career as an artist.” Al told the couple to open a gallery showcasing Tim’s artwork. “It just seemed like the right time,” said Tim. “Everything came together so smoothly. It was meant to be.”
But the couple wasn’t naïve about the market for Tim’s artwork. In 1980 they opened their gallery in Eagle River, drawn there because tourists had always been consistent customers. They learned this by selling Tim’s artwork at hundreds of arts and craft fairs in the years before opening the gallery. “That’s where I learned to paint things people could relate to,” he said. “And lucky for me, those were the same subjects I loved painting.”
Steadily the business expanded, and soon the couple was providing custom framing and were even successful in getting dealerships from nationally known artists. “We were one of the top five galleries in the country that sold the most works for Terry Redlin,” said Tim.
And while Tim is a wonder with a paintbrush, he soon learned salesmanship was not his forte. “I used to work on Sundays,” he said with a chuckle, “But I got fired. Barb is better with the people than I am.”
While early on in his career Tim painted with a variety of mediums, today he uses primarily acrylics to complete his artwork. He paints in his own studio that is located in the basement of the couple’s cozy home outside of Rhinelander. Tim finds winter the perfect time to complete his artwork, while in the summer he’s kept busy doing custom framing jobs. But he feels he’s at the top of his game right now.
“I’m painting better than I ever have,” he said. “In the last seven or eight years I feel my work has really gotten better.” And what’s that attributed to? “That’s about the time I got glasses,” he said with a laugh.
In 1990 the couple decided to expand and bought their own building down the street, remodeling it to their liking. Before 9/11 hit, business was good. “It seemed like shortly after 9/11 business really started to slow,” said Tim. “Artwork is not a necessity, and so our business took a hit.”
But this gifted wildlife artist, who has great respect for the creatures he depicts, isn’t ready to still his brush or put his paints away quite yet. In fact, it’s just the opposite.
“I have been blessed in a lot of ways,” he said. “And I hope I can continue to share those blessings with others for many more years.”