Artist Interviews 2023
By Johnny Otto
Where do you live and work?
I currently reside in the Washington DC area. I am mainly going back and forth between DC and NYC where I exhibit with a Manhattan gallery, Lichtundfire, that I am represented at. Besides being a working artist for many years exhibiting nationally within the US and internationally, I am also an art educator of over a decade teaching fine art classes in painting and drawing to adults in the DC area at Glen Echo Park and Yellow Barn Studio in a historic park in the DMV area. I do, though , consider myself a global citizen since I am an international person. Growing up, I spent most Summers visiting family in Los Angeles in Santa Monica and Pacific Palisades along with trips to Europe to cities like Athens, Paris, and Düsseldorf. I also travel often to Germany to the Wiesbaden-Frankfurt area and to Berlin. Moreover, I was born in Beirut, Lebanon, and my early childhood was spent in Amman, Jordan. Thus, I naturally consider myself a citizen of the world due to having the opportunity of living in different parts of the globe which opened my mind and eyes to the beautiful and vibrant cultures the world has to offer. This exposure to different landscapes, cultures and heritages has helped in shaping my vision and my identity, and consequently forming the artist that I am today.
How would you describe your style of painting and what inspires you to create?
My style is abstract expressionist with a minimalist lyrical twist. I consider my art as a form of visual poetry. My art style is very much in-tune with who I am as a person, my character and the combination of all the things that make me a visionary person. My medium is mainly acrylic on canvas. I like to work with colors that are soothing and relaxing that bring me to a peaceful place. Colors such as blue and lavender are some of my top favorites since they ignite my love for the big blue sea, and the periwinkle color since it reminds me of the lavender plants I have in my garden. To add, the scent of lavender is engraved in my memory due to growing up in the Mediterranean region.
Moreover, many elements inspire me to create such as my love for nature and the environment. Nature and the world around me has an utmost impact on what I create.
As of late, I find that structure, philosophy, architecture and geometry have been my latest inspiration in my recent works.
For me inspiration comes from many things. Sometimes it is not necessarily a visual thing, it can spring from music. Music I find to be a great source of joy and opens up channels within the brain that ignite the creative thought at least for me. Jazzy tunes from Miles Davis to John Coltrane, I tend to listen to when painting.
Another huge source of inspiration has always been "light" and its sources be it the sunlight, moonlight or the reflective light that hits the surfaces of water and reverberates on waves and gets caught in ripples. How light travels and how it spreads along with sunrises and sunsets make appearances in my abstract work, especially those based on travels by the sea.
My latest paintings are mainly cityscapes based on NYC and my travels there. The paintings are in a sense a love letter to NYC and testimonials of the city's monumental steel structures and landmarks. Furthermore, the work puts an emphasis on hope, having a positive outlook along with the idea of always looking up literally and figuratively.
Beyond that, the recent work that I presented in February 2023 at Lichtundfire gallery was inspired by the concept of infinity rather than a specific place. The idea was to bring perspective to a difficult theory that has baffled many from ancient Greek philosophers like Archimedes and Aristotle, to physicists, mathematicians and even artists. Thus, bringing a matter that very few can pinpoint and projecting it visually through my paintings via an abstract field helps in presenting these deep subject matters. Also, some of my latest works revolve around the theme of belonging along with questioning, "What is a Home?" Is home a house, is home someone you love, is home a country, is home a feeling or a place that you only go to within your imagination. Hence, the latest work abstractly covers such heavy and deep subjects that have layers and multitudes be it the actual structure to shapes and lines, to the poetic and metaphoric aspects of the theme. In a gist, my latest works go after the law of contiguity which is considered the keystone to most scientific theories of space, memory, and knowledge.
You attended Corcoran College of Art and Design George Washington University, Washington, DC. How were those experiences and how did they shape your art?
When I went to Corcoran, the professors I had were some of the best artists in the DC area (unfortunately some are no longer with us like Tom Green and William Christenberry) - these professors were instrumental in my early artistic growth. Those were also my favorite art professors at the Corcoran. I point them out since it was through Tom Green who viewed my portfolio that I got into the Corcoran. I attended the Corcoran on a scholarship. So, it was the keen vision of especially these late artists / professors who noticed my early talent and encouraged me to pursue an art career. I remember taking a figurative painting class with the renowned William Christenberry and even from back then I would abstract the figure in my work. And, I recall Prof. Chistenberry would have the class gather around my work to show the other students what I've done, and he would say, "if you continue doing what you are doing within this abstract style, you'll go far.." I liked these professors since I was a very shy person, yet; they saw my hidden talent and helped me in building my confidence to bring my artistic gift out to the world.
Art back then during those Corcoran college days was more like a religion for the students and for the teachers. Art was at holy level. You had to live, love, eat, breath, pray art 24-7 to be taken seriously. I remember upon enrolling we had to create 80 artworks within a month. This crash course's tough bearing to create relentlessly is still ingrained in me. When my thesis show came around in the Senior year, the work up on the hemicycle walls of the Corcoran Museum was a testament of all the hard work that went into such a collection - many of the paintings that were on exhibit were sold on that reception night. I believe back then, the idea that an artist had to create at least 50 serious works of art before being considered an artist was engraved in stone. Thus, putting in the years and creating a huge and strong body of work was the norm to be considered an artist. I was educated under the old school beliefs that "Pain" is essential in creating a "Painting". And, to be honest, this is one of the main reasons why I ended up an artist and I went to art school, to help me navigate my pain into paintings. Art was and still is till today a visual language for me to bring forth what is within me onto the canvas, be it joyful thoughts or melancholic ones. My life's experience is transparent and transmitted onto canvas so to speak, and painting is a vehicle for me for that transportation.
How does nature inspire your work?
Nature is one of my biggest sources of inspiration. As a child, I loved when my parents, especially my father who is a lover of nature as well, would take us out to field trips - literally "Field" trips in the countryside where we would run free and enjoy the wildflowers and the beautiful Spring of the countryside. I very much have an adventurous nature which goes hand in hand in being outdoorsy and taking in what the environment and the geography around one has to offer. I also feel I am similar to my grandfather, who was an archaeologist living for months on archaeological sites back in the 1940's and 1950's before it was even considered cool. My grandfather was a man ahead of his time, an "Indiana Jones" character of sorts who spoke 8 languages and lived with Bedouins in ancient cities like the city of Petra. Growing up, my late grandmother who lived in Pacific Palisades, CA would tell us stories about his archaeological fun adventures. Thus, this love for the world and one's environment and surroundings is almost genetic stemming from my grandfather to my father and now me. Wherever my travels take me, I like to take strolls and go beyond the touristy areas to really see and feel what that place has to offer. As a lover of art history and ancient history, these passions within me always make me seek to discover new horizons and new adventures. In regards to nature, the Mediterranean look which resembles the Southern California terrain is my favorite. I love to see valleys and curvy roads that overlook huge vistas of panoramic views of land and sea with palm trees and pine trees adorning the roads that lead the eyes into the ever endless horizon line. Sunrises and the morning light that wake us up are especially my favorite. I find the sunrises even more meaningful than sunsets. Sunrises are extremely positive for me since they equate to new beginnings and a new day ahead of us with so many possibilities.
What other artists inspire you or would you like to collaborate with?
Throughout history there have been numerous artists that I find inspiring and brave. Louise Bourgeois and her giant dark spider sculptures come to mind. I like Bourgeois because she dared to go to places in her artwork and create artwork that no one dared to create, let alone being a woman at that time. Artists like her have paved the way for artists, especially female artists to go beyond the frame and to dare to explore the large, the fanciful, the deep and painful all in one. I am also a huge fan of Claude Monet, I find his water lilies, especially the ones at the MoMA in NYC, to be out of this world. I can spend hours just delving and diving in those water lily ponds. Monet is such a masterful artist who redefined especially painting for painters and for the world at large. I am also a huge fan of Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele, and I find their expressive work to be mesmerizing and so meaningful. I also adore the work of American artist Richard Diebenkorn, especially his Ocean Park series that depict the topography and streets of the Bay Area. Frank Stella, Robert Rauschenberg and Joan Mitchell from the abstract artists are up there on my list, and I would have loved to collaborate with them if they were still alive.
As for contemporary artists, Anselm Kiefer is by far my favorite living artist and I would love to collaborate with him on any single thing. Kiefter's work has a beautiful dreamy quality to it, and it exudes such strength and power like no other. Other contemporary interesting artists whom I would love to collaborate with are Vaughn Spann and Takashi Murakami whose work is so different from mine. I believe pairing up with artists whose work is different from one can bring up novel and groundbreaking art.
What is the most difficult part of creating your artwork?
Art production and creation isn't difficult for me. This comes to me naturally. I love everything from mixing the pigments and laying it thick on the canvas to dancing around the pieces to apply brush strokes here and there. The process of actually creating is fun and enlivening for me. Creating art and being one with the art and its production makes me feel alive. Yet, I find one of the difficult and frustrating aspects of creating art is when I share my art on social media - the artwork gets copied so fast and I find variations of derivative works that are based on my creation start popping left and right. This is not mentioning the take of intellectual thought as well - I have seen a number of emerging artists almost copy and paste my statements on art along with my titles and work without giving proper credits and attribution and some even claim that they discovered or came upon this style, when I know unfortunately that some of those artists do ride on one's wave to get attention. I find this unethical part of the art world to be for me the most difficult to deal with. Seeing my art and writings on art emulated is a downer... Although some people around me claim that imitation is a form of flattery, and tell me that if my work isn't effective and doesn't speak to people then no one would even try to imitate it. This I found to be baffling since I believe the whole point of creating art is for it to be a form of self-expression and to be authentic to yourself in the pursuit of finding your own voice and vision. Thus, throughout the years, I have seen my work from my abstracted woodsy paintings to my bluesy rain abstractions and seascapes creating trends in the current art world along with the colors I work with becoming the chosen color of the year. In this, I can say from experience, what happens in the artist's studio does have a domino effect not only on the art world but the world overall.
Are there any mediums you have yet to explore but would like to?
Yes, I would love to explore mediums that delve into the 3D world and cinematic productions.
I love mixed mediums and I love pushing the envelope so to speak with working with a mixture of painting
and sculptural elements. Thus, the engineering part of creating art has always evoked my imagination.
A few years back, I created for BG Gallery in Santa Monica, CA (whom I also exhibit with)
a triangular prism of a sculpture depicting a Summer forest titled "Evergreen". I wanted to intertwine
and marry in a way the world of painting and sculpture since I am a painter and a lover of 3D edgy structures.
The prism forest sculpture was innovative where I had to figure out the materials needed to create a
free-standing sculpture that doesn't require a pedestal or installation help. Here is a link for the "Evergreen" work via
The latest works that I presented in Lichtundfire gallery in NYC in Feb 2023 were birthed from
a mixed media approach. The construction deconstruction topics along with abstraction and
especially collage were meant to reshape and provide a new look of alignment and realignment
coming together to form a solid work of art. The emphasis was on structure, lines, gestural
geometric shapes true to my artistic touch along with painted collages attached to the work.
The mixed media artwork intent was to capture the depth of the perspective while being suggestive
to the elements of the vanishing points and lines within an abstract field in such allowing for
the unusual viewpoints and perspectives to come through highlighting the multiplicity of infinity within space.
For me the innovative aspect of almost building up artwork like a puzzle or a building is
rewarding in so many ways. Back in college besides studying fine art, I studied cinema and
I was on the path to becoming a cinematographer but that got sidetracked. Nevertheless,
I keep believing that I will go back to that field and dream of bridging the art world with
the cinematic world in something innovative and exciting - the ideas are brewing up in me.
And, no, this wouldn't be a simple projection on walls with sound effects, it would be something
else entirely. I foresee that for this art project of different elements to come to be,
it would take many elements and collaboration of cinematic production to audio and visual arts
for it to shape up. Perhaps in the coming years, this brainstorming will come to fruition.
Do you have any upcoming exhibitions or projects in the works?
I have a number of future projects in the Washington DC area, I've been invited by embassies to display my artwork in cultural events during "Passport DC" week which is a time in early May where the embassies in Washington DC open their doors to the public through cultural happenings and events.
In the Summer, I return back to NYC in June for a number of art exhibits / events. In June, I will be exhibiting again with Lichtundfire gallery, in an exhibit titled "Lemon Sky" with concept by curator Priska Juschka.
The theme of the exhibit explores the variation of the color yellow and its rendition of lemon Summer in different hues. I am still developing my ideas for the exhibition.
I work fast and I tend to work a few months before the debut of a show where I typically create new work, especially made for the exhibition and its devoted theme.
My ideas for this mainly revolve around my experience as a child taking in the sun and its light along with my childhood memories of my grandmother's garden with lemon trees.
I remember as a child walking around the garden with my grandmother going from one tree to another and always stopping by the lemon tree (her favorite tree) taking in its beauty and scent.
I remember my grandmother picking a fresh lemon from the tree and rubbing it so I could smell its splendid scent. Those memories and that fragrant citrus scent is still fresh in my mind.
With this, I aim to bring this zesty lemon memory to the new work in an abstract and nonrepresentational form through colors, textures and depth.
On this note, I am sharing this recent poem that I wrote in reflection on the exhibit's theme.
The poem captures a childhood memory revolving around the sun and the color yellow. It is titled "Yellow Light":
When I was young
I looked up at the sun
until my eyes melted
The color yellow
it blinded my eyes
The round sun
grew heavy and large
it almost took over the sky
“You’ll blind yourself
if you stare at the glistening afternoon sun,”
I ignored the advice
I was sun stricken
The warmth of that day stayed with me ever-since
That every time I close my eyes
I only can see the big bright
of a yellow light
engraved in my vision
imprinted in my memory
and since then, it has been my mission
to seek the light
of the ever-endless lightness of the sun!
Also in June, I will have a number of my NYC cityscape paintings up in a digital exhibition in Times Square - Broadway Plaza. Keeping my fingers crossed the upcoming events and happenings will go well and be impactful.
Moreover, be watchful for the artwork that I have on the auction marketplaces of "1stDibs" and on "Artsy" where one can acquire my original artwork, and stay posted on the new paintings I create.
Link to my artwork on 1stDibs
Link to my artwork on Artsy