The big, bold, red letters stood out against the white wall, proclaiming: “Not Yet.”
John Strickland had heard of a Buddhist monastery that had printed the same two words over its entrance. The preemptively answered a question that those who studied and meditated at the monastery asked frequently: Had they reached enlightenment yet?
Strickland liked the sentiment that expressed, of realizing that we’re all a work in progress. He also felt like it spoke to his work as a painter.
“Am I any good yet? Not yet. There’s always improvement,” he said.
This sense of humor is the backbone of Strickland’s new exhibition. “Not Yet” is a collection of paintings, including the namesake, hanging inside the Columbus co-working space The Workshop, adding dashes of playfulness, poignancy and a whole lot of vibrant color to the sleek spaces.
For the 81-year-old Strickland, the exhibition has been an opportunity to get feedback from others about work that means so much to him.
“I love to listen to what people have to say about it,” he said. “People I didn’t know were saying some amazing things about them the other night. I’m really glad I brought them out.”
At the same time, the work infuses a sense of wonder into the working space.
“Some of it is whimsical, all of it is really bright; it evokes intrigue. We put a lot of time and thought into the pieces that were there and how they would support our members and our guests throughout their day,” said Liz Cleland, community manager for The Workshop.
Strickland has been a mainstay in central Indiana painting circles for more than 50 years, with paintings included in collections from Edinburgh, Scotland, and London to Seattle, San Francisco and New York to Barbaste, France. In addition, he is well-known in the jazz scene as well. He credits a pair of mentors — photographer Curt Cole Burkhart and jazz master David Baker — in shaping him in both senses.
Burkhart taught him composition, how to affect varying levels of emotion in his work through the manipulation of space, contrast, tension and rest. On the other side, Baker helped him trust his own trained intuition.
Most of all, they taught to find joy in art. Throughout his career, Strickland has tried to follow their lead in his own work.
“You remember the place you got started in the first place was playing with paints,” he said. “I know it sounds simple-minded, but I’m still amazed what happens when you put one color next to another.”
Part of that has been realizing that as his moods and emotions change, so do the approaches that he takes to painting.
“I will do figurative works for a couple of weeks, then just be done with it and turn to landscapes, then I have a silly one to get out of my system,” he said.
His work had captured the attention of the owners of The Workshop. The co-working space offers people who are self-employed or working from home in the Columbus area a place to share equipment, ideas and knowledge among others.
“We saw a need in Columbus for other small businesses such as ourselves to have a place to work, as your ‘third space,’” Cleland said.
The beautiful new space features ample natural light, different types of areas to do work and relaxed, modern furniture. But company officials also realized they had many blank walls to decorate. They opted to work with the local arts community, featuring rotating exhibitions to fill the space.
The Columbus Arts Council curated three shows for The Workshop in 2021, while also helping staff members learn how to organize their own shows in the future. Strickland was chosen to be the first exhibit of 2022.
“One of our owners had been good friends with John for quite a few years, and we wanted to be sure that he had a good outlet to display his work,” Cleland said.
When they approached Strickland about the opportunity, he tried to talk them out of it — you want someone with better credentials, he said.
But they were adamant.
“So I said okay, as long as I didn’t have to do very much work, and Liz has taken care of all of that. They’ve been great,” he said.
Because Strickland has been such a prolific painter throughout his career, curating a show and narrowing down the featured artwork was challenging. He and Cleland worked together, with the two bouncing ideas off of each other back and forth to find the right mix.
“Whether everyone knows it or not, art in many forms, just like the weather, can really influence your mood and how you go through the day,” Cleland said. “It truly is really important.”
Strickland has a few ideas that he felt would work nicely in the space. His collection of bobbing birds — fanciful images placing toy bobbing birds in silly settings — were meaningful for him. One such painting features a field of oil wells intermingled with those bobbing birds. The piece is titled “Extinction By Stupidity.”
“I’d never had to mount in a public place before, so I wanted to see them all together in one place,” he said.
Other pieces have more depth. Another piece is titled “The Lure of Oblivion.” In the middle of an expansive sea, under a blue sky, a small empty rowboat drifts calmly, the oars tucked safely inside.
“I wanted to exercise my realistic chops by putting this boat in the middle of the ocean,” Strickland said. “But people would look at it, say that it was so calm. To discourage them, though there is some truth to what they’re seeing, I always tell them I think of it as a suicide painting. That’s why it’s named that.”
The paintings have been on display since February, and will remain up until May 20. A public reception was held on April 28, which resulted in the sale in a number of the pieces.
Though The Workshop is not open to the public, people can schedule a time to see the exhibition, Cleland said. The artwork is also listed and priced on Strickland’s website.
“The studio is terrible place to see paintings, because they’re all competing with the others. Liz has done such a tremendous job of where she put them,” Strickland said.
AT A GLANCE
What: An exhibition of work by Franklin painter John Strickland
Where: The Workshop, 4389 N. Long Road, Columbus
When: Through May 20
How to see it: Schedule a time to view the art by contacting Liz Cleland at 812-373-6405 or going to columbuworkshop.com/art.
Art can be purchased at johnstrickland.com/works