BERT JOHN is living proof that you should chase your dreams.
While in medical school, the Jacksonville native decided he’d rather go to school for interior design and dropped out to attend SCAD. After finding success in that field, he switched it up yet again and created a career in painting.
Now, John’s dreamy marsh paintings with gold and silver leaf corners are sought after for collections across the country. “Viewpoints,” now up at the Savannah LGBT Center’s gallery, shows a mix of John’s marsh scenes and his newest foray, bold color-blocked paintings.
We spoke with John last week.
How did you get started painting?
It all started because of my friend Liz. I painted just one painting for a show house, because my other job was design. I went to SCAD for interior design from ’03 to ’06. And I quit med school in 2002. I painted that one piece for my show house, and Liz came in and saw the painting and loved it. So she got the piece.
So she started doing projects, and they needed a specific piece of art that would be over the mantle of some Southern Living entertainment spread. She sent me the color story, and I did the piece and sent it to her. She started cattle-prodding me, like, “I wonder what would happen if you did that full time, if you tried to paint art to sell for a living.” That was seven or eight years ago, and in that year I sold 54 paintings.
But of course, I didn’t want to stop doing design work—that’s why I went to school! So I painted on the side just a couple times a year, which turned out to be a good thing. It’s like a slow release. People know there will only be a few batches of paintings, so they need to buy them.
Fast forward, the curves intersected and the design side went down and the art side went up. If the universe is saying to paint and you can afford to do it, do it. That was the whole point of me quitting med school.
What’s the story behind these gold leaf borders?
It was a serendipitous accident. The guy who taught me at SCAD—you could call him a mentor—used gold leaf to represent a deity or spirit. I was just going to do the edge as an homage to him, but the paintings were still sticky, so I literally flipped over the edge and it stuck. That would turn out to be a happy accident, as Bob Ross would say [laughs]. I started doing gold and silver to make it a pre-made frame. People are just intrigued by that gold leaf.
Have you always painted marsh scenes?
They're all some sort of waterway or marsh scene. It's just because I grew up in Jacksonville, so I like waterways. I like that sort of, in the art world they call it atmospheric perspective where it's sort of blurred out.
The most common feedback I get from my clients is calming, surreal, ethereal. I think that’s great. They’re going to be buying it because it’s emotional to them.
You seem to be very business minded about your art.
I really look at it like it’s a business. If I’m strictly looking at it like it’s a business, I have a good model. Before it was just my immediate surplus I’d sell through. Now there’s a whole group of people looking at my stuff, talking about my stuff and buying my stuff.
At a show a while back I saw all these little paintings going out the door and meanwhile, my big paintings were still sitting there. The way I paint doesn’t translate well to small—I paint with huge brush strokes. If you try to translate it to a small canvas, it becomes a very different painting. I was just like, “Let me try something.” I like midcentury modern color blocking, so I laid out three or four panels and shot them off. You’ll see those in the show.
You can’t be a one-trick pony, especially if you’re trying to make it your business. Look at fashion—it changes year to year, decade to decade.