Believe it or not, 40 years ago, not everybody had a podcast and an Etsy page, since those things didn’t exist. In order to engage a medium, you needed to be dedicated. Things took time, and serious effort. Yet Magnus Johnstone, scenester extraordinaire, excelled on multiple creative spectrums, from college radio to canvases.
Born in 1952 in Chicago, Johnstone relocated to Mass with his family in the ’70s. By the ’80s he was filling hearts and minds with music people hadn’t yet heard much of on terrestrial radio, if they’d heard it at all. From his internationally focused smorgasbords on MIT’s WMBR 88.1 FM to the groundbreaking early hip-hop show, Lecco’s Lemma, that he famously hosted, Johnstone embodied the avant-garde mentality. By the time a trend got played out, he’d been over it for years.
While his radio days are well documented, though, what’s less known about Johnstone is his life’s work as a visual artist. Starting in the ’70s and painting almost through his dying from cancer in 2013, he completed more than 100 intricate oil paintings, all apparently inspired by his musical influences and life in the artistic struggle. Until last year, most of the works had been in storage on Cape Cod. But thanks to some of Johnstone’s old friends, they’ve recently been put on prominent display—on a dedicated site that displays his body of work, as well as in a show last year at the Nave Gallery in Somerville and now in a follow-up event in that venue this weekend.
“A lot of his friends came out for that [reception last year],” Brian Coleman said. A former college radio DJ himself whose show once bumped up next to Johnstone’s, Coleman was among the old cadre of friends who unearthed the works and spurred new interest in them. Sunday’s show is a follow-up to the last-minute event last year, where Coleman said they sold more canvases than anyone expected considering short time they had to promote in advance. On the heels of that success, this week’s opening will feature a discussion with fellow creatives who knew Johnstone, along with eight of the large canvases and some of his small pieces as well. As was the arrangement last time, all proceeds go to the artist’s family and to help maintain the giant works (most are 72” by 55”).
“There are some people who knew him just through music, and people who knew him just through art. There were a small number who knew him through both, but I knew Magnus purely from music,” Coleman told the Dig. “I knew he painted, but I had no idea about these large canvases that he did. He’s probably somewhere right now laughing that I helped with this.”
Not that Coleman was surprised. “A lot of the early punk scene in Boston was started in art galleries,” he said. Johnstone was especially active at the Punkt/Data Gallery in the North End of Boston and Gallery East in Boston’s Fort Point Channel. “That was no coincidence—these galleries could see that a lot of cool stuff was going on.”
As Coleman and his team wrote in their bio for the project, “In 1990, Magnus was diagnosed with leukemia, and in 1994 he received a life-saving bone marrow transplant. After numerous other radio journeys in the 1990s, on WZBC, he relocated to Maine in the early 2000s with his life partner, Mango.” Neither his illness nor the relocation dulled his instincts; in addition to continuing to paint, Johnstone worked days at an art gallery, and even continued to host college radio shows on WERU, a community station two and a half hours north of Portland.
“I don’t get the sense that it was his main goal to sell [art],” Coleman said. “I get the sense that he wanted to sell them, but he painted because of the love of painting, and to express himself. Moving to Maine isn’t exactly the best way to make your art career explode. Honestly, I think he got sick of city living and of carting shit around.”
He continued: “There’s a point in the late ’90s with these medium canvases where he gets so complicated that I can’t figure out how he did it without a computer. … He was prolific, too. He was cranking out one of these every month [in certain years].
“I’ve never seen anything like it. One thing Magnus was not was someone who would copy another artist. He wasn’t a biter.”
MAGNUS JOHNSTONE: LARGER WORKS OPENING RECEPTION. SUN 3.10, 3:30-5PM. SHOW GOES FROM 3.9-3.17. NAVE GALLERY, 155 POWDER HOUSE BLVD., SOMERVILLE. MORE INFO AT MAGNUSJOHNSTONEART.COM.
A Queens, NY native who came to New England in 2004 to earn his MA in journalism at Boston University, Chris Faraone is the editor and co-publisher of DigBoston and a co-founder of the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. He has published several books including 99 Nights with the 99 Percent, and has written liner notes for hip-hop gods including Cypress Hill, Pete Rock, Nas, and various members of the Wu-Tang Clan.