Local artist shares experiences and achievements

When Kim Johnston was in the first grade, he spent a year and a half bedridden with an illness. “That’s when I started drawing,” he said. This began a lifetime working in art with achievements ranging from illustrating programs for the Kansas City Royals to being honored at the Pentagon.

Johnston began his professional career as an illustrator in the United States Air Force. “I would provide the illustrations for their presentations,” he said. “Drawing the inside of a missile silo, things like that.” One of his greatest opportunities during his military career came in 1975. “The Department of Defense put out a call to all branches of the service for their best illustrator,” he said. “As a celebration of the bicentennial, the DOD selected what they considered to be the 26 most important moments in American Military History.”

So from July 1975 to July 1976, he, along with one representative from the Army, the Navy, the Marines, and the civil service worked at the Pentagon on individual 6 ft. by 8 ft. paintings of those 26 scenes. They let the artists choose among themselves who painted which scene and Johnson ended up painting the Lewis and Clark Expedition, the building of the Panama Canal, the Battle of Yorktown, the Battle of Belleau Wood, and the first atomic bomb explosion in Alamogordo, New Mexico. This culminated with a ceremony on July 4, 1976, where the paintings were unveiled and the artists were recognized. 

After retiring from the Air Force in 1985, Johnston worked as an illustrator for the Kansas City Royals. “The program manager would call me and say I need something new, and that was the extent of the direction,” he said. “It’s so nice to work with someone who gives you free rein. I actually quit when they got a new program manager who gave very specific instructions,” Johnston said laughingly.

He later spent a few years working as a commercial art instructor, teaching classes at the Omaha School of Commercial Art and Design and Omaha Metropolitan Community College. Perhaps it was his military background, but taking his classes ended up being far more challenging than some of his students expected. “I take my art very seriously,” he said. He expected his students to take it just as seriously, after all they were in school to become professionals. In one instance, he’d given his class a project that they had worked on for a couple of weeks, and he told them the completed assignment was due on his desk at the end of class.

Later one student caught him in the hallway and handed in his project. Johnston thanked the student, grabbed a red pen, and marked the top with an F before looking at it. The student started to offer up excuses, but Johnston gave an explanation. “Think of it this way, that had to be at The Omaha Harold yesterday to make today’s paper. Do you expect to get paid by them? I don’t care if it’s the best thing you ever did. It never got published, and I hope you’ve learned something today.” 

These days Johnston is retired and he and his wife, Becky, moved to Ardmore last spring to join some friends who already live in the area. He still loves to paint and his favorite mediums are watercolor and oil. “I use the watercolors as a smaller study for my larger oil paintings,” Johnston said. He also described a bit of his process. “I go fast and furious for a month or two and then I may not paint for 4 or 5 months, when it hits me again.” 

Another bought of inspiration is, no doubt, just around the corner.