Two Redding artists continue to find new ways of expression

Winter Jewel, painted fabric, by Joni Johns.

Winter Jewel, painted fabric, by Joni Johns.

The abstracted photographs of Richard Lerner and the fabric dimensionals with the quality of mandelas by Joni Johns are the latest works by this artistic couple from Redding. A dozen of his photographs and four of her works, representing each of the seasons, are on view in the showroom of Jewelry Designs in Danbury. A formal artists’ reception open to the public will take place Thursday, Nov. 12, from 5 to 8 p.m.

Richard Lerner has been taking pictures since he was a small kid. He has two brothers who are several years older, and when he was 9, one took a photography class in school and created a small darkroom in the space beneath a staircase. “Watching the pictures develop… it was magic,” he recalled. While his brother lost interest after his class was over, Richard was smitten and made frequent use of his box camera. When he was older, his brother bought him his first 35mm camera.

He was introduced to photographer Brian Haviland in the late 1970s. “I was his assistant for a couple of years, then we worked as a team for advertising companies in New York for a dozen years.” Among the many major advertising campaigns they designed were ones for Onkyo stereos and DiMarzio guitars. “We did creative things that others didn’t; for example, we worked out techniques to take a single piece of film through three sets to get the desired end product before developing so photo retouchers were not needed.”

With the advent of digital photography, Lerner developed an expertise in digital imaging, which he teaches to individuals and corporations as well as uses in his own work. He was also a judge for eight years for the Printing & RIP (raster imaging process) competition for color accuracy and print quality for the PMA /DIMA, Photography Marketing Association / Digital Imaging Marketing Association show in Las Vegas.

The abstracted photos began with an image of a passageway of bleeding hearts. “I liked the image, but when I shot there was feeling of movement and color that wasn’t in the print, so I reshot, panning at a slow shutter speed, which broke up the image. The result was good, but didn’t quite give me what I was feeling. I took the fine art print, brought it into Photoshop and took sections, separated layers, used masking to weave in and out; that brought back the color and movement I felt,” he said.

He developed the process over three years; printing on fine art paper or canvas. He regards Photoshop as another tool, “It is all about design and outcome; what do I want to see, and how do I get it?” He gives the abstracted photos real names so viewers have a sense of influence; his realistic photos have more abstract names.

“The benefit of printing my own work is the completion of the creative process,” he said. “The work tells you how big it needs to be.” While the largest image he prints is 42 x 63 inches, most are 32 x 48 and done in his home office.

Joni Johns grew up in Ohio; while studying theater design for an M.F.A. at Purdue University, an internship in the scene shop at Juilliard brought her to New York City. “I was going to go back, but I liked New York and the opportunities it presented.”

After working with a couple of companies, she started her own businesses with others in the 1980s and went out on her own in 1995, doing fabric painting, dyeing and silk screening and costume crafts — sculpting character heads, animals, creating masks. She also stored and maintained costumes for King Features Syndicate — Popeye, Betty Boop, Batman — Disney on Ice, Barnum & Bailey and Ringling Bros Circus and continues to provide the silk screen capes for Spider-Man at Universal Studios theme parks in Florida and California. She also spent five seasons developing fabrics for Ralph Lauren and Liz Clayborne.

She worked on the sets and costumes for New York City Opera’s production of The Cunning Little Vixen in 1981, based on images created by Maurice Sendak. When the book with his illustrations came out, she recalls, “We got cookies and milk and Maurice read it to us.” She worked on others of his opera designs and, working with Sendak, developed a line of limited edition hand-painted and signed silk scarves based on his theater designs. “It was always fun working with him.”

She has helped create costumes for numerous Broadway shows and ballet productions, as well as individual performers. Among them, Beauty and The Beast, Wicked and Thoroughly Modern Millie. She also translated designer Constance Hoffman’s concept into the tattoo dress worn by Bette Midler in her Kiss My Brass tour.

In 1997, she was asked to create the fabric effects for the Broadway and London productions of The Lion King and ended up creating more than 100 yards of hand-painted material for each used in the costumes of Nala and Mufasa, the singing and dancing lions other cast members, helping to put Julie Taymor’s concepts onto fabric. She also created fabrics for the national tours, a Japanese company and Vegas show as well as extra fabric samples for others to replicate. She continues to produce fabric for many productions around the world as needed, but some fabrics are now digitally replicated, and spandex has replaced the original silk.

The fabric dimensionals she is showing are an idea that grew out of Johns’ previous work and were inspired by kaleidoscopes. The dye and metallic paint are put through a series of stencils to achieve the effect, and mounted on a stiff backing. “I started with a square and the inch-and-a-half-deep objects evolved from there.”

In addition to her other work, Johns was a guest lecturer at NYU’s graduate costume program from 1981 to 1991 and for the last four years has been an adjunct professor of costume technology at WestConn, and helps theater arts students build shows and run crews at the new Visual and Performing Arts Center at Western Connecticut State University’s Westside Campus in Danbury.

Married for 30 years, the couple has a son, Isaac, who is studying dance at the Hartt School. They can be reached at [email protected]

Jewelry Designs is at 86 Mill Plain Road, Danbury; for more information, visit jewelrydesigns.com.

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