Shorefront Center
On Creativity and Discovery with Dr. Charles Johnson
February 24, 2015

—by Carrie Brown

Charles Pad TV show, c1970
Charles Pad TV show, c1970, courtesy Elishiba Johnson

In the 1920s there was a war going on in Evanston, Illinois. Only it wasn’t the kind involving heavy artillery. It was a battle between milkmen and William Johnson, dubbing himself “Evanston’s First Milkman,” was right in the thick of it.

. . .he found his place writing stories and illustrating comics

He came to the Chicago suburb by way of South Carolina as part of the Great Migration of blacks to the North seeking something better. Eventually William Johnson found it and turned his attention from the milk wars to the construction business, founding Johnson Construction Company in the 1940s. Black owned and operated, they constructed apartment buildings and other structures all over Evanston including Springfield Baptist Church.

In time William Johnson convinced his extended family back down south to make the move and join him. Among them his nephew Benny Johnson who, trading hunting and farming for life in the city, eventually went on to join the company.

The work of the Johnson Family left an impact beyond the physical structures they built. Exposure to that type of creativity and industry left an indelible mark on Benny’s son Charles Johnson who would go on to become a noted writer, literary critic, scholar, philosopher and recipient of the prestigious MacArthur Fellowship “Genius Grant.”

Panel in the "Evanstonian" ETHS paper, 2/27/1966
Panel in the “Evanstonian” ETHS paper, 2/27/1966

It started early for Dr. Johnson. Born in Evanston in the late 1940s, growing up on the 1300 block of Dodge Ave. and attending classes at Evanston Township High School he found his place writing stories and illustrating comics. Teacher Marie Claire Davis was an early inspiration, and in 1965 he published his first work as an illustrator for a magic company in Chicago. Dr. Johnson went on to establish the Marie Claire Davis Award for promising young writers at ETHS. Awarded for the past 15 years, he sees it is a chance to preserve her legacy and foster creative writing among Evanston youth.

Like his Great Uncle before him, Dr. Johnson set out on his own his journey – only his took him the route of early pioneers headed west – to the Pacific Northwest. Arriving in Seattle in the 1970s after a drive cross-country from New York where he studied Philosophy at Stony Brook University, he took a route familiar to many in the area. Rounding the bend along I-5 Highway from just south of the city, Seattle is suddenly laid out ahead. On clear days, the mountains are out (local speak for fully visible in the distance) and the city’s sky scrapers and Space Needle stand boldly as the Alaskan Way Viaduct snakes along Elliott Bay which is dotted with ferry boats and cargo ships. Having just been appointed to the English department at the University of Washington, it was the first time Dr. Johnson had ever been west of the Mississippi River and taking in the view “took my breath away,” he said.

Though he’s called Seattle home ever since, Dr. Johnson still regards himself a transplant. He is only now beginning to set his stories in the Pacific Northwest. His Midwest roots run deep and his stories are largely set in the places that have had the greatest influence in his life – Evanston and Chicago.

Middle Passage, 1990 winner of the National Book Award for Fiction
Middle Passage, 1990 winner of the National Book Award for Fiction

Along the way he’s amassed a body of work that includes fiction and non-fiction, on everything from philosophy and religion to race and children’s books. Taming the Ox: Buddhist Stories and Reflections on Politics, Race, Culture and Spiritual Practice was published last fall. Along with his daughter Elisheba he’s also co-authored a series The Adventures of Emery Jones, Boy Science Wonder about a scientific whiz kid who uses his smarts to solve problems.

Now Professor Emeritus at the University of Washington, Dr. Johnson reflects back on his days in New York, noting the difficulty he sometimes had with writing fiction. Upon arriving in Seattle the floodgates opened and he’s not had writer’s block since.

There’s a certain freedom that comes with setting out on life in a new city. It’s a chance for exploration and reinvention. On his visits home to Chicago, Dr. Johnson remarked on feeling the need to be “on” – living with a sense of tension that’s often associated with quicker pace of city life up North. Returning to Seattle he says the “tension fell away like an article of clothing.”

His book The Words & Wisdom of Charles Johnson captures the spirit of the Pacific Northwest through the eyes of an artist noting “its geographic diversity, its breathtaking scale…” For Dr. Johnson it’s the perfect setting for creativity. The climate is temperate enough to offer the bounty of the great outdoors, yet when the weather is gloomy one can lock away and create. Dr. Johnson said of Seattle in a 2008 piece for Smithsonian Magazine, “it is the ideal environment for nurturing innovation, individualism and the creative spirit.”

He urges consideration of how Seattle came to be, populated by pioneers – people heading west to get away from something. It fosters a spirit of independence particularly among artists. It is a city of neighborhoods, where people are friendly yet laid back and sometimes distant – he acknowledges it’s perhaps a throwback to the Germans and Scandinavians who settled here. People leave you alone if you want to work, but if you have the urge to socialize there’s plenty enough for that.

He’s counted some of the countries most celebrated writers as friends including Playwright August Wilson, and Snow Falling on Cedars author David Guterson. Dr. Johnson describes “rich exchanges” with Wilson in cafés in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood. It was a chance for the two men to share ideas, books and films that inspired them.

In a city with such a small African-American population – latest census figures put the percentage of blacks at 8% – Dr. Johnson says it is quite easy to navigate and connect with others. It is a small, but rich and connected community of black artists and professionals. Yet, “it’s not about being black and being an artist. It’s about being an artist,” he says.

As Dr. Johnson puts it if you stay here long enough you start to feel you’ve been here forever. “It’s an easy place to live, work and create,” he says. Recalling the words of writer Jonathan Raban, he says you adjust the city like a pillow until it is comfortable enough for you.

For Dr. Johnson there’s nothing more enjoyable than the creative process. He says creativity is about two things: problem solving and discovery. Surely his Great Uncle William Johnson in those early days in Evanston would have agreed.


Note: Photograph of “Charles Pad”, courtesy of Elisheba Johnson.

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