Zachary Johnson displays his artwork for his Senior Exhibition project at Mount Desert Island High School. ISLANDER PHOTO BY NAN LINCOLN

Portrait of the artist as a unique young man

Zachary Johnson is an engaging young man with curly, light brown hair and a sunny disposition.

The exhibit includes doodles and sketches dating from when Johnson was in middle school, which reveal a natural sense of composition and design. ISLANDER PHOTO BY NAN LINCOLN

At age 21, Johnson, who is on the autism spectrum, is graduating from Mount Desert Island High School, where he has for seven years been part of the school’s SUN (Students with Unique Needs) program.

On Friday, Johnson’s cup of cheerfulness was overflowing with energy and good will. As a final project before graduating, he mounted an exhibition of his own art — recent works he created under the guidance of his art teachers, Dan Stillman and Mary Swift, and drawings he made as a middle schooler.

At that age, he could not yet read or write — skills that are an ever-improving work in progress. He did, however, show a deft and meticulous hand with a pen or pencil. Early repetitive doodles and sketches that fill large sheets of art paper reveal a natural sense of composition and design. His teachers, first at the Consolidated School in Blue Hill, where he lives with his family, and then at MDIHS, encouraged him to try other media — watercolor, acrylics, sculpture, ceramics, etc. — all of which he has embraced and put his own unique stamp on.

As visitors arrived to see his exhibit, Johnson immediately offered to take them on a private tour, enthusiastically explaining each technique and, when apropos, the subject. He was so enthusiastic, in fact, that the viewer had to beg the artist to slow down so they could have a minute or two just to appreciate each work.

There is much to appreciate.

Since his childhood sketches and scribbles, Johnson has developed a fine sense of color — a brilliant palette that may have nothing to do with the subjects at hand but somehow improves them. His acrylic of a subway platform is a grid in shades of pinks and cobalt blue; a marbled acrylic abstract titled “Afternoon” brings to mind a colorful Jeff Koons Play-Dough creation that recently sold for millions. Street sweepers, car washes, fish that practically pulse with fishy energy and a Hershey’s Chocolate logo also are represented here but somehow enhanced by his unique perception and perspective.

“Have you ever seen a street sweeper?” Johnson asked as we stood before his watercolor of a handsome little red vehicle enveloped by a cloud of … yellow dust perhaps? “They do really important work keeping the streets and sidewalks clean.”

Not for sale is his “Hershey Bar Man,” a totemic-like figure with googly eyes and a big scarlet heart that is leaps and bounds more interesting than the original.

That painting reminds him of a trip his family took to the Hershey factory in Pennsylvania, and he’s determined not to part with either the happy memory or the image.

As Johnson led one visitor after another on his whirlwind art tour, his mom, Dede Johnson, beamed with pride in the background. She and her husband, Steve, know better than anyone what an amazing accomplishment this all is, not just the fun art pieces, but the fun young man who created them.

“Zach came to us at a foster child when he was 3 years old,” Dede Johnson said. “At the time, he only had five words, and three of them were ‘don’t hurt me.’”

He also was a wild child,” she said, “as if he was filled with Mexican jumping beans. He had to be watched constantly, or he’d do something like climb up on stuff, like the refrigerator, maybe, and launch into space.”

A good part of Zach Johnson’s communication skill deficit and hyperactivity were due to the abuse and neglect he experienced his first three years, she said.

“When a child is born, he forms a contract with his parents,” she said. “When he cries because he is hungry or has a wet diaper or is frightened, someone is going to come and fix that problem, and a bond of trust is formed. If no one comes, or worse if they come and make the problem worse with physical or verbal abuse, then that bond is never formed. The only person the child trusts is himself.”

Sometimes the damage is irreversible, and Johnson was eventually diagnosed with an underlying condition on the autism spectrum. Still, as difficult to manage as the toddler could be, he did exhibit a deep desire to connect with people, he just didn’t know how, she said. Slowly at first, and then in leaps and bounds, his language skills improved and his innate affectionate nature emerged.

“Now, as you can see, he can be pretty much a nonstop talker” his mom said, watching her son launch into another lengthy discussion about art with another visitor. “Who would’ve guessed?”

When he was 6, the Johnsons adopted Zach, and their adventure with this talented, sweet and quirky boy continued.

For the next 15 years, the Johnsons concentrated on strengthening their son’s bonds of trust so that simple requests and behavior corrections weren’t experienced by him as punishments. The other big priority was finding the best educational opportunities the Hancock County community at large had to offer a child with special needs.

When Zach Johnson had absorbed everything the Blue Hill school’s program had to offer, they enrolled him in MDIHS’s SUN program, where his literacy and life skills continued to improve.

“He certainly knows how to write the word ‘sold,'” Dede Johnson said, watching her son carefully write that word on the label of a painting someone had just bought.

Art, both in the classroom with Dan Stillman and as an afternoon extracurricular activity with Mary Swift, always has been part of Johnson’s integrated education. In addition to honing his natural talents, he has learned valuable lessons about following instructions when he tries new techniques and the patience and perseverance to master them.

These skills will be invaluable assets in the next phase of his life as he works toward independence.

Through the SUN program, Johnson has interned the past couple of years as a dishwasher at Flexit Café in Ellsworth. Now that he has graduated high school, he has been hired to work a regular schedule for pay. Judging by the neatness of his artwork, one should expect very clean dishes at Flexit.

Asked if he will continue his artwork now that he has graduated, he hesitated for a moment.

“I want to,” he said. “But I will be working a lot, so I don’t know if I’ll have the time.” Behind him, his mom’s expression said “oh, he’ll have the time.”

Johnson’s art exhibit has moved to the Flexit Café on Main Street in Ellsworth, where it will be on display for the next two weeks.

Nan Lincoln

Nan Lincoln

The former arts editor at the Bar Harbor Times writes reviews and feature stories for The Ellsworth American and Mount Desert Islander.

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