Peter Johnson has been in the art game a long time, but he still remembers what sparked his interest as a youngster growing up in rural Cowley County.
“I had a farm upbringing, and my dad bought a blackboard at an auction at a one-room school house,” says Johnson, now 76. “He put it near the floor so I could sit on the floor and draw. That was the beginning of everything.”
Decades later, Johnson is still drawing — painting and printmaking, too. The longtime Kansan is among the 100-plus artists and craftspeople slated to make an appearance at Sunday’s Summer Fest in South Park, 1141 Massachusetts St.
The fourth annual event, once again organized by the Lawrence Parks and Recreation Department, will be from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday.
“We’re looking forward to a good crowd, a big crowd, this weekend,” says Duane Peterson, special events/recreation/facilities operations supervisor for Parks and Rec. “With this being an artsy community, the community really thrives on these types of activities, this type of event especially.”
Summer Fest is the youngest of the Parks and Recreation Department’s seasonal arts and crafts fairs and has been “a little slow getting off the ground” since its launch in 2014, Peterson says. This year, organizers are trying to create a more well-rounded “family festival” atmosphere, with new additions including a Free State Brewing Co. beer garden for adults from noon to 4 p.m. and, for kids, pony rides.
Activities also include live entertainment throughout the day — Billy Ebeling and the Late for Dinner Band, Kim and The Quake and The Beer Bellies fill out the roster — plus food and drink vendors, an arts and crafts booth for children and more than 100 vendors.
Peterson expects anywhere between 4,000 and 5,000 people to attend Sunday’s festival, among them vendors from as far away as New Mexico, Texas, and Arkansas. There’s always a fairly large local and regional contingent, too, Peterson says, from both the Lawrence area and neighboring Midwestern states.
Peter Johnson, who says he’ll stock his booth Sunday with original prints, drawings and a few paintings, moved to Lawrence about a year ago with his wife, a fellow artist. His childhood in the Flint Hills, he says, continues to inspire him. But Johnson’s odes to nature, he maintains, aren’t typical landscapes.
“It captures the spirit, the feeling,” Johnson says of his self-described post-impressionist style. “And I capture the essence of something rather than the skin of something.”
Art history has remained a point of fascination for Johnson since his service in the U.S. Army as a young man, when he visited Rembrandt’s house in Amsterdam and soaked in the grand architecture of Europe’s old cities. After serving in the military, Johnson returned to his native southern Kansas, where he and his now-wife, Marilyn, studied art at Wichita State University.
After 47 years together, Marilyn, a painter whose work often ruminates on the inherent imagination (and eventual loss of that creativity) in young children, continues to be a major influence on him.
The couple lived most of their married life in the small town of Leon near El Dorado, where Johnson worked as a custom framer and artist while also teaching part-time at Butler County Community College. In Leon, the Johnsons “brought six boys into the world.” So, when half their sons headed northeast to Lawrence, Marilyn and Peter eventually moved here, too.
Now settled in North Lawrence, Johnson says he’s working on a painting of the Kansas River and levee as seen from his relatively new home. He has a 3-year-old grandson here whom he only saw rarely while living in Butler County. Now, Johnson says, “we see him every day or so.”
“We could have made many other choices, and stayed with this through thick and thin and education and then child-raising. And life in general has brought us around to this point now where we’re here in a wonderful place like Lawrence where arts are really appreciated,” Johnson says. “We’re glad to be here and doing what we’re doing.”