There are few careers in which having sight in only one eye would be considered an advantage, but Karl Johnson has managed to find his calling and make the most of it.
Johnson is a silhouette artist, one of the most prolific in the country. In his more than 20 years of cutting silhouettes, he has produced thousands, with his client list ranging from celebrities like Angelina Jolie and Tom Cruise to others who simply find the traditional art form enchantingly nostalgic. Johnson will be making four appearances in the islands starting Saturday.
"My world is two-dimensional, rather than three, so I just see the shape of an object as a line," he said. "Without binocular vision, I focus on the outline and the shadow of a shape to judge distance. I guess it’s my way of shadowboxing, which I guess is kind of a pun."
Johnson was born with vision in only his right eye. He has had several diagnoses over the years, with the most recent revealing he had scar tissue in his left eye, probably the result of an infection his mother contracted while pregnant.
His condition went unnoticed until he was 7, when his mother overheard him asking his brother, "Hey, did you notice how it’s weird that when you close your right eye you can’t see?"
Johnson first learned to make silhouettes at age 12 from his father. He went on to study art, got some freelance work doing silhouettes and eventually started making them full time. About 15 years ago, the Los Angeles artist was hired to make silhouettes at a party for "Blossom" actress Mayim Bialik. He was a hit and has since been booked at many celebrity birthdays and weddings.
Working with a pair of German surgical scissors that he got from his father, it takes Johnson about 90 seconds to create a traditional portrait silhouette.
"It’s all about the details," he said. "I just work my scissors like I’m drawing with a pencil. Essentially I’m just cutting a line all the way around the outline, coming up under the chin, the lips, up under the nose … I always include an eyelash — that’s kind of a tradition of mine."
One memorable party sitting was with Oscar-winning actress Reese Witherspoon. "She got the giggles because all the eyes were on her," said Johnson. "I wanted to make this my magnum opus because, well, this is Reese Witherspoon, and I can’t do a good likeness because she can’t stop laughing."
While he will be doing classic portrait silhouettes here, he also does large-scale, full-body pieces, showing people doing their favorite activities, such as dancing or playing sports. He works from photos to create these pieces.
Silhouettes have been around since ancient times, but became especially popular in 18th-century Europe because of French finance minister Etienne de Silhouette. He enjoyed making silhouettes, but also was considered a penny pincher, so "silhouette" came to be a term for an affordable art form.
These days, parents like to have silhouettes made of their children, treasuring the fact that each is a unique piece of art, handmade using a technique that has not changed in centuries, Johnson said.
"Children are very sweet and cherublike," he said. "Mothers want to remember them that way. Even if a child is screaming ‘me, me’ in front of me, their silhouette is going to come out very sweet."