Sometimes Chris Johnson doesn't sleep. The night before an event — one in which he'll create a live painting, set to music, before a crowd — he stays awake, learning more about the subjects he chooses to paint. He'll do research, listen to music, or maybe just sit and think. It's part of the process.
Johnson, a.k.a. kolpeace, has lived a whirlwind creative life since City Paper first profiled him, back in May 2017. Back then he'd just graduated from Charleston Southern University and was preparing to perform at Piccolo Spoleto.
"After Piccolo I was invited to Rock Hill for Juneteenth. I felt a little bit brave after that, and I wanted to keep going," says Johnson of his work during summer '17. "I didn't get a lot of respect for just starting, it was hard to get. I went to bigger businesses and stuff; I would wake up at 8 in the morning and go to different businesses and say, 'This is what I want to do.' I'd send 10-20 emails a day and I'd hear, 'This is neat,' and then, nothing."
Johnson offered proposals to local arts organizations and galleries and even after showing them what he was capable of, he'd be met with hesitation. Although discouraged, he forged ahead, convinced that patience and hard work would get him where he wanted to be.
- Ruta Smith
And slowly but surely, trusting in that process worked. After Piccolo and Juneteenth in Rock Hill, Johnson performed at the Charleston Music Hall, the Music Farm, and Sottile Theatre in the span of several months. 2017 was shaping up to be a pretty good year after all.
"Charleston Music Hall was a stepping stone, being a painter in there. They told me, 'Do not use fire!'" laughs Johnson, who most certainly uses fire in every one of his other live paintings. "I said, 'This is not going to hurt anyone.' And they said, 'Listen, please do not use fire.' It's funny, but I get it. I trained myself where I wasn't scared to do anything any more. After that was done I went after everything."
Going after everything looked like: performing at April Robinson's restaurant, Butter Tapas; painting for Lowcountry Local First's Good Business Summit; and performing for the Able Life Foundation, which raises money for special needs folks in Charleston County.
After securing these opportunities Johnson found it difficult to operate as he usually did in his everyday life. "The next week I'd be at work and I wouldn't want to be there," he says. "Every day I felt like a dangling rope. I didn't want to feel like someone was beating me across my back every day of my life. I took the weekends off and I would get things together. I would find places to go and realized that people, kids my age and older people, needed me. I thought, 'I feel it in my spirit, something is going to happen.'"
And things did, in fact, keep happening. "Every event I would tell the truth," says Johnson. "Oh yeah, I carry my canvas under my arm, over my head, sweating very hard, it's natural. It's like, 'OK what's next? Then the Halsey hit me up, and I thought, 'Where did this come from?'" Johnson says that he'd always walked by the Halsey and he'd seen other artists' work on the walls, but never anyone from CSU; he talked to his brother after painting there and admits that he started crying, adding "I've gotta stop being emotional!"
Eventually, though, things hit a bump in the road. The community center where Johnson rented a studio — the one whose floor he'd sleep on the night before an event — sold his studio space for office space. "The whole day I got this feeling like I'd just gotten kicked out. I didn't have any work space. God just told me to relax, to chill."
"I was sitting in my house, sad and whatever, and I was like, 'Get up,'" says Johnson. "I got over it. And then I got an email about a documentary, about doing art in Tennessee. At first I thought it was sketchy, nobody wants to pay nobody just to go somewhere." The person on the other end of the line was inviting Johnson to Nashville to create his work for a 'documentary.' After joking with his friends that someone had malicious intentions, Johnson went for the bait, and was flown to Nashville.
"The only thing I needed was my supplies the next day to shoot the thing," says Johnson. "A group of people came and I painted for them and I was like, all right, I'm gonna do my own thing." Johnson stayed up the night before (of course), thinking about what he'd create the next day. He ended up painting two figures at the same time, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Johnny Cash.
"I was going back and forth, sweating. I didn't hold nothing back," says Johnson. "When I start to paint I feel like a whole different person. I started to use the flame which is like the voice of God, the burning bush of Moses. I've started to understand my art a lot more through this process: the black paint is the blood of Jesus, the white background is salvation. It's mostly why my paintings look like they're bleeding or sweating — because they're me."
After performing in Nashville, Johnson assumed his 'documentary' journey was coming to an end. He sat in his hotel room (a really nice one he assures us) rather than exploring the city, just "thinking about stuff." "I thought, 'I need to get back home and keep working. I gotta work with kids.' But I didn't have the financial capability to do that."
Things moved quickly from there. "The next day I was told about Undercover Boss and I met Jewel and everything changed," says Johnson. That whole 'documentary' thing was a fakeout for the real story: Johnson was an artist featured on Undercover Boss who, after performing for Jewel (who was, naturally, in disguise) was asked to join her Handmade Holiday Tour, which recruited gifted artists and musicians and took them on a tour of the U.S.
From San Diego to New York City, Johnson created his art for thousands of people across the country on the Handmade Holiday Tour. But he never stopped thinking about Charleston. "I worked really hard this whole tour and after that I got to come back home, 'What am I going to do when I get back?'"
Johnson knew he wanted to help raise money for kids, no matter what he did. This year he performed at both a middle and high school for Black History Month. Later, he performed at South by Southwest. In the next two years Johnson plans to take his studies one step further by attending grad school to pursue a masters in art. "I've chosen to give back as much as I can," says Johnson, who has plans to donate a portion of proceeds from his events to kids.
"I've been that way since the beginning. I was painting in front of my school until I was invited inside," he says. "I've always painted outside before I got to step in. It's what happens to the underdog. You can try to break me, but it's very hard to do that."