Interview

Reflections From the Cover Artist

Oliver Johnson shares his reflections on art and his Buddhist practice.

Photo: Jonathan Wilson


Life is painful. It has thorns, like the stem of a rose. Culture and art are the roses that bloom on that stem. The flower is yourself, your humanity. Art is the liberation of the humanity within you.”

SGI President Ikeda, Discussions On Youth, p. 171.

The son of a carpenter and a nurse, Oliver Johnson was born in Jacksonville, Florida. Throughout his childhood, he was in reform school, and then in and out of prison. But it was in prison where he studied art using books in the library.

In 1977, Mr. Johnson joined the SGI, and in the same year, he was featured in a Bedford-Stuyvesant art show in Brooklyn, where upon his fame sky-rocketed. Now considered one of the great artists of our time, his works are included in major art collections in the United States and Europe. The following are some of Mr. Johnson’ s reflection son art and his Buddhist practice.

Life for me was strictly prison until I met the SGI. After I was released for the last time in the mid-’70s, I learned about Buddhism, received the Gohonzon and got married. Right away, I joined the young men’s behind-the-scenes group, got involved with the stage crew for big performances and joined the young men’s gymnastics group. Through these opportunities, I was fortunate to meet SGI President Ikeda on many occasions.

My biggest impression of President Ikeda was this—he’s fearless. He’s just a human being who wants to spread joy throughout the world. He was always encouraging us to make America beautiful. These experiences empowered me to manifest my own mission. I’ve struggled in my life. But now, I am able to turn any obstacle into a benefit. I am constantly chanting: How can I grow? What more can I do?

I am so appreciative now to be called on to do something and give something to this Buddhism, which is still teaching me the power of human revolution, of inner change. This year will be my 39th year of practice.

Thanks to my wife, Midori, we have raised three beautiful children and five grandchildren in this Buddhist practice. No matter how successful I’ve been as an artist, the life condition I’ve developed is my biggest benefit—to perceive my daily existence, no matter how challenging, without fear.