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Carrying a torch for characters

Jan Johnson seems a rustic, with a down-home accent and the ways of a man from west of Sooke. His sculptures are welded together from cast off-machine parts, yet I find them profound and compelling.

Jan Johnson seems a rustic, with a down-home accent and the ways of a man from west of Sooke. His sculptures are welded together from cast off-machine parts, yet I find them profound and compelling. In a recent visit with him, the depth of the artist's intelligence was revealed.

The subjects of his steel sculptures, now on show at Collective Works Gallery, include Salome dancing before King Herod; Don Quixote and Sancho Panza; and allusions to Danté and Kafka. He admitted that mythology and religion provide him with "a good line of material."

Johnson had a busy career working in Canada and in Asia as a transport economist. Since the mid-1970s he has enjoyed country properties in the area around Shirley, where he found a good supply of scrap metal from the mines, sawmills and logging shows around Jordan River.

"There's plenty of good stuff still out in the bush," he noted. The chain and gears that carry the little welded characters round and round his action sculpture, The Global Round, are from a manure spreader. Irony is never lost on Johnson.

The sculptor says his taste for recycled machine parts was inherited from his father, a farmer who "saved everything he ever owned." As a boy, Johnson delighted in taking things apart and putting them together differently. "Adding people came later," he told me. Inspired by dioramas he saw in museums, he created his own scenes. For anyone even half awake, the last 50 years have provided an irresistible wealth of political content for narrative sculpture.

One of Johnson's new pieces, mounted on a metal disc from a farmer's harrow, presents a bull and bear. Is the bear wrestling the bull to the ground? "Maybe he's whispering stock tips in the bull's ear," Johnson chuckled.

The subjects of the sculptures are sometimes suggested by the bits of steel he saves -- fan rotors, bird cages, shovel blades. A writhing nest of chromed rods, like a crushed grocery cart, reminded him of a storm-tossed sea, and he welded up his version of Gericault's Raft of the Medusa to add to it. Rusted-out shovel blades have become a series of masks.

Though he concurs that the objects play their part, Johnson is usually inspired by something he has heard -- a phrase, a song, a radio report -- and then he looks for a part that might fit. The odd and intuitive relationship between a cast-off metal flange and the idea of a ship sailing off the edge of the world is just about the definition of surrealism.

Johnson works exclusively with steel, cutting and melting and sticking bits together with an oxy-acetylene welding torch. "I can heat 'em, bend 'em, beat 'em -- it's almost like working with clay. I blow it around and use gravity to make it flow in a certain direction."

Johnson's work first came to my attention years ago at the Fran Willis Gallery. His new creations show a more sculptural use of the welding torch, creating organic forms that mimic cast bronze. Considering its tensile strength, there's almost nothing he can't do with steel. "I have to keep it down to where I can still lift it," he concluded.

Here is an artist surrounded by an abundance of material and no end of ideas. "I like stuff you can play with," he told me, turning the crank on The Global Round. There was a very satisfying clank-clank-clank as the chain engaged with the gears and brought a bishop, a gladiator and a dancing girl joggling by in quick succession. He's dreaming of building a ferris wheel and a merry-go-round. For more information,visit

My apologies to Jenny Waelti-Walters, who introduced me to Johnson. Next time I'll write about her unique and attractive prints, also on show, which are well worth your attention. Meantime, visit

Jan Johnson and Jenny Waelti-Walters, Different Stories, until July 30. Collective Works Gallery, 1311 Gladstone Ave., 250-590-1345