17 Jul Painting BIG walls and breaking through BIG fears! with Calina Mishay Johnson
My guest is Calina Mishay Johnson. Calina, or Cal, has been doing some amazing work as an artist in Texas. She’s been painting since she was a child, growing up in a small town in West Texas, with a population of 600. That’s right, 600 people.
After years of life-dealt hardships, Cal’s artistic style started to blossom as she gave herself permission to paint with reckless abandon. Her professional art career began back in 2012, as she started to focus on one-of-a-kind commissions.
Then a few years ago, Cal expanded her work and started tackling urban street art, making these huge, amazing, freakishly cool murals all throughout Texas. She’s also infusing new life into these small towns where she’s doing these murals. Heck, her next big dream, which I can totally get on board with is to complete murals on walls all around the world.
So, maybe we DREAM THINK DO-ers can help her out with that.
Hi Mitch, how are you? That was an amazing intro – thank you.
Let’s talk about how this mural thing got started. Let’s go back, and let’s talk about when the art started. Were you an artistic kid?
I was a weird kid. I loved nature; I loved being outside. Like you mentioned, I grew up in a small town. So, we had a lot of freedom. It’s like being the last of the Mohican’s before anyone had to worry about their kids playing. We were all over town. We built tree houses; I had animals growing up. It wasn’t so much that I knew I was super creative, it was just that I would get sticks and make potions in my room. I was always building something. My dad says, “We’d wake up and then we wouldn’t see you until it was time to go to bed.”
My grandmother saved a painting that I did, like an abstract painting when I was probably four. She had it professionally framed; she still has it professionally framed over her bed, until this day. She had that insight to see that I had that creative mind, it’s pretty overwhelming.
I love featuring weird people. I love that you said that. I’m so with you. There are so many people that I’ve talked with that whether it was a grandparent, or a parent, that saw something. And it probably didn’t dawn on you fully back then, but to think about the seed that got planted when someone would take something that you did and put a frame on it, to honor that. How cool to think about that seed that got planted right there, and look at where it’s gone now, is really cool.
She was the first to say, “Hey, this was worth investing money into.” It could have been a $10 frame from Hobby Lobby, I don’t know, but at the time, now looking back on it, I think, “Wow! That’s really special.”
I also liked to doodle, and I liked to draw, and I liked to make things, but it wasn’t my everything. It wasn’t like I was fully immersed. I went to a small school – no art department. It wasn’t until a bunch of drama in my later years of high school when I dove into that gift more and more.
That’s amazing. I’d love to talk about that a little bit too. I saw a little bit of your story. I know that you tried to take some art in college, and you’d been experimenting with all kinds of stuff, your grandma had framed something, but you go to take a class in college and it didn’t go so well. Tell us a little bit about that.
Oh, man. Okay, first off, I was the first to go to college in my family. So, I went off by myself, I have an older sister, who has a gene disorder, so, used to run and play when we were younger, and then it slowly gets worse, and worse, and worse. Now she’s in a wheel chair. Then my family situation fell apart a little bit. I left at a very volatile time to go to college, and I was doing it on my own.
I could have played sports for a couple of smaller schools, but I decided, to everyone’s surprise, to study art. People knew I could draw, sort of, but didn’t think that would be my main interest.
In a small town, everybody has an opinion: “How are you going to make money?” You’re going to waste your time with this art degree.”
I had no idea what being creative meant; I had no idea what effect that would have on everything in your life. So, I study art and do well. I’m in the top percentage of all my drawing classes, I got A’s in all my design classes in that first year.
The start of my second year, I begged the professor, “Please, let me take an abstract painting class. I love abstract painting. I really want to push it.” They said, “No, that’s an advanced class. You don’t need to take that.” But I begged. So they put me in this advanced painting class, this abstract class. And I walk in the class, and the professor said, “You have 13 paintings due at the end of the semester. Go.” That was the direction. That was is it.
That was it.
Yeah. Because abstract’s supposed to come from, I guess, something inside. It doesn’t really have rules. So they just gave you all the freedom to do whatever. I didn’t know who I was as an artist yet. I didn’t have that story or that style naturally, yet. So, I was sitting there trying to sketch these paintings, and the professor came over and said, “You need to stop doing that.” I was like, “Well, I don’t know what else to do.” He was like, “You need to let the painting paint itself.” And I had no idea what he was talking about. I just pretty much beat my head against the wall the rest of the semester and ended up dropping the class.
Life kind of happened again, and I was in another situation carrying some baggage from high school. Then I got pregnant young in college and dropped out of art school . That was the end of my art career in college. My art education ended there.
Yeah. It’s one of those things to talk with people about their dream journeys, there are peaks and valleys, but I would imagine that was a pretty low valley. I can imagine there was probably a temptation to never pick up a brush or a pencil again.
Oh, yeah, I think probably everyone goes through this point in their life where you try to fill yourself with other things to make yourself happy. I was about to have a baby, doing other things, dealing with my own family. I just thought, “This is who I am now, and this is what I’m going to do.” That was so far from the truth. I just was too young to realize it at the time.
It wasn’t until that situation fell apart and I moved back to Abilene. I had two young daughters. I left with them, and I moved to Abilene with nothing. I didn’t have a big support system at all. My family didn’t have money growing up, so, I just went back to this general area that was the biggest town near people that I knew. I slept on peoples couches until I found a job and a little house.
I ended up finishing my general studies degree online. I knew at that point; I just wanted to help people. I worked in a nursing home and went through a year-long custody battle. It was just a crazy, stressful time.
I remember this was the moment for me – this is the moment I realized I was an artist. This was the moment that I knew I could never go back. All that weight of everything broke. I was in my house, and I had a canvas I had bought. I took it in the garage, and I laid it down, and at that moment, I didn’t care what it looked like, I didn’t care if it was good, I didn’t care if people wanted to buy it. I didn’t care if it made sense. I just had to get everything out. I just clawed it and threw paint, and I lost myself completely. I don’t even remember that moment. And when I finished, I remember looking back, and it was this first painting that I had done, and it was an abstract painting. It was a cloud-ish, with yellow and black, and it was just raining down black.
This might sound kind of hokey, but, after that, I had that hanging in my house, people would come into my house, and would offer to buy it. I would say, “No, that’s not for sale.” I could feel myself in that painting. That was where my official style as an artist was born, in that moment. It was just raw, and it was imperfect, and it was layered. It was like life to me, not everything’s perfect, but you need to keep going, and you can keep the parts that you like, and you can keep working on it until it’s something that you can be proud of. That’s just kind of been my mantra ever since.
Wow. And you can see that in your art. Some of your art remains abstract. The murals can have abstract aspects. It’s just amazing. I love hearing … It’s almost that breaking point, but also break through point…where you just permitted yourself to do it for the love of the art, as opposed to thinking about a career or anything else. It was just “It’s in me, I need to get it out.”
It was almost a therapy for me at that moment. That was my saving grace through my work. Through a gift that I had kept locked away.
That’s amazing. You’ve continued from there. I’m sure it wasn’t like overnight success, but continued on from there working on the canvas, creating.
It wasn’t at all. I mean, people started taking an interest in the work, and I was getting my feet underneath me and creating and thinking, “I can do this.”
The part about following your dreams, or going after what you want to do, people sometimes see me now and say, “Yeah, you did that.” But if they were to go back during that time, they’d say, “Well, I can’t just leave my job and go after my dreams.” Like, “No, but you can work your job, and go after your dreams from 8 to 10 PM, or on the weekend.”
I did that for six or seven years. I got my Masters; I thought that I could outsmart the whole system, and get a good salary job, that I wouldn’t need artwork anymore. I was working with kids with autism, which I loved, and I was making like 90k a year, and I thought, man this is what’s going to make me happy. Every box is checked.
But I was miserable.
I know for me, I now have my dream job. But I didn’t start that way. I had to work a regular job and work this on the side. It was early mornings, late nights, all of that. I’m grateful for that slow start because that’s what I needed in order to build what we have and to be strong enough to run with what we have. So, I’m grateful for that. It wasn’t easy.
But, I love that your dream, the art chased you down. Right?
It’s like you almost couldn’t get away from it. “No, Cal, come back here, we’re not done.”
I know it started on canvas, you started to develop a following, but what made you start working with these murals? What made you go from, pretty good size canvas, to a huge wall.
I have Instagram, and Pinterest, so I would always see all these street art things, and I thought, “That’s just so cool. That’s just the coolest thing.”
I wasn’t doing my behavioral stuff. I was working at the state, and, everybody seemed so miserable. We would go to work in the morning meetings, and everybody just had this look on their face like they’d given up. I don’t understand that. It just doesn’t work in my head. There’s maybe a part of me that thinks, life would be so much easier if I could have just given up. Just zone out, just be like everybody else, and coast out.
But I would talk to colleagues one-on-one, and I would ask, “Do you have a dream, what would you do if you didn’t have this job?” They’d kind of start in, then about three-fourths of the way through it’d go real negative, and they’d say, “Well, it’s never going to happen now, that’s just what it is.”
I remember just one day texting Kevin in the middle of that meeting. I have to quit. I can’t do this anymore. I don’t want to be like this; I feel myself unhappy, I’m done. Somewhere I heard if you’re unhappy more than three days in a row, change something. Who said that? I don’t remember.
I’m not sure, but it’s good. It’s wisdom.
So, I quit, and at that time, I could explore my art. I had a month or two before I can start this other job. Let’s do something crazy. I had been through so much.
I had failed in all the ways that other people told me should be working for me. Being that low left me with little to fear. The fear at that point is not doing, not trying. Fear of living life at that point without doing this other thing that I needed to do that at that moment.
Yeah, so that fear of what other people think, is outweighed by the fear of, “What if I don’t do this.”
Absolutely. So I called some people and asked who would give me an opportunity. I might not get paid, but just give me some time. That was the high school where I graduated. I called them, and I said, “I know this sounds crazy, but can I do this big spray paint mural?” They said, “Yeah, let’s do it.” So that’s where it started.
The first mural is of a man, a farmer’s hands holding soil, and there’s a plant coming out, and it communicates deep roots.
Many artists want to tell their story, and it wants to be just about them, and what they want to paint. Because of where I came from, it’s really important to me that it be about something beyond myself. I had this opportunity, and this gift, but it didn’t have to be about me. I wanted it to be about them. I wanted them to see themselves in my artwork when I left. It would be my style, and everybody would know it was mine because of my style. But it would be about them.
At the first mural, I said, he was just man that no one in town could argue about having him on this wall. It was a 90-year-old man named Arty Earls. We went to his house; I photographed his hands holding the actual dirt-
It was about deep roots, and it was about where we all came from in that small towns. We came from those values and those people, and those people’s hard work, and those hands.
Yeah. I love that. It’s funny; I remember seeing that was one of the first murals that I saw. I had no idea that was actually a person. I assumed you were inspired by an idea, but I didn’t know you were inspired by a real story and a real person. It’s so cool!
That’s where it started. And it was like, a boom happened after that point. People wanted to do more, and more, and more. And so now we’re able to travel and do it. We just had our first out-of-state mural in Missouri. We traveled there, and the sky’s the limit. I want to go anywhere anybody wants us to be. I love it.
I I love that it’s just continuing to grow, but it started out as something organic from the passion for the art. And I can also tell a passion for that small town, and honoring the community, and all of that. So, I love it.
I look at the artwork of these huge walls that you’re working with, and it boggles my mind how you guys can keep perspective, and draw it so that hand actually stays in perspective with the rest of the painting, all that stuff. How do you do it? And I know you’re doing these walls often with your husband, Kevin. How do you guys do it, so you keep perspective?
I do think that there is a learning curve to it. You learn your own tricks as you work on it, because every wall texture is different, some sidewalks are such that you can’t use a lift. There are just all these things you run into, but for getting started on the mural, I have a secret, so listen up!
Yeah! The big mural hack, I love it.
Yeah, a little hack right here. So, some people use projectors. You would have an overall design. The night before you would have a very quick outline of general spacing areas. It would not be even close to being done, but you would have a general idea of where things are going. Other people use stencils, some print out these huge stencils. That’s how they do it in Vegas; they print out these huge stencils and lay them against the wall.
There are definitely tricks along the way. Most of these huge murals are not just done completely free hand. They have some type of grid system or something that they’re using to prep, which saves time. Because you don’t want to be there for five years working on the same mural, right?
Once you have this general outline, that’s where really, people are like that’s cheating. And it’s not because I promise you, I can give you a general outline, and you’re gonna be like, “This is it?”
That’s where the real fun happens. You have to make this thing come alive. So, it comes alive in those next four days when you add your specific style and twist to it, and skill level.
Everybody, if you’re an artist out there listening, y’all give it a try. You could love it.
And you’re using spray paint, a brush, sometimes brushes, all that stuff. It’s the whole thing.
We use a graffiti grade, awesome spray can that comes in different nozzles, and all these different colors. We love those. But, a large area, when you’re working on these outdoor buildings, you just use a really good exterior, high gloss house paint, or building paint. Anything to cover area fast. Our thing is just layer, layer, layer, so it has a less likelihood of fading quickly.
Alright, I’m loving this. I’m loving your story, thanks so much for sharing it. But, also, thanks for the hacks. That’s fascinating to me. Don’t worry; you’re not getting any competition from me, I’m not going out and paint any murals, but I can sure appreciate them more, knowing a little bit about how it gets done.
You got some prime secrets just then.
That’s exactly right; I feel like I jumped some rungs on the ladder. I love it.
I’ve got to wonder, when you and Kevin are traveling, there’s a part of me that just wonders, are you constantly looking at walls saying, “Oh, I’d love to paint that?” Do you walk around towns and think, “Give me that wall!”
Yes, I have wall envy. There are people that shop for clothes and shoes and I see this old beat up wall, and I’m like, “Oh my gosh, look at that. Don’t you want it?” Then we’ll go ask people who own it, how do we get that.
That’s what I wondered. In the spirit of dreaming big, what would be one of your just biggest dreams? What’s a wall? Whether it’s local, whether it’s somewhere in Mozambique or Budapest, or whatever, what’s a wall that you would just love to paint?
I don’t know. I haven’t done a lot of buildings that are just tall yet, like a 14 story building or something like that, where it’s the side of the building. I think that would be cool; if I were talking about right now, there are grain towers that I would love to climb up and down, swinging side to side painting. I think that would be a blast.
I see you’re getting up in cherry pickers and equipment like that. What’s the tallest one you’ve done so far?
It’s just so fun, the bigger you go, the better. I don’t even know. There’s no such thing as too big I don’t think. I don’t know. I would be like, “Prove to me it’s too big. I’ll tell you afterward.”
Exactly. We’ll figure out a way. I love it.
The one thing about the urban street art, in big cities, people are just passing by. They might appreciate a mural, but they have no connection to it. Where, in small towns, we get to be family with these people when we leave. They make us get down off our stuff and come to the family reunion down the street and have steak with them, you know?
I think even if I were to travel overseas, Costa Rica, where there’s just the color. I love color. I would love it to be in this place that loves color.
I think it would be so neat to be a part of a different culture and see how they take to it, and see how art is a language, see how it translates. I think that would be so neat.
Well, I wasn’t really joking in the intro. I do think you guys have the potential of being the next Chip and JoJo, because I love you guys working together. But I think this has so much potential as a story just because, like you said, you’re going into a community, and it’s not like an overnight thing. You’re spending some time there. You’re getting to know the people, you’re telling a story. There’s just so much potential to this.
I love it, and I can’t wait to see it on History Channel some day.
I’d love it.
Exactly. So think about it wherever you’re at in the world DREAM THINK DO-er. Think about the walls in your town, your city, and say, “God, it’d be so cool to have Cal and Kevin come and do a wall.” So, invite her.
I always love to ask one last question. That’s what we call our wisdom of the week. And I always love to reach out to that DREAM THINK DO-er. Maybe they’re like you years ago, where they got an essence of a dream. Maybe it’s art, or maybe it’s something else entirely, and they know they’ve got a passion for it, they seem to be naturally good at it, but maybe they’ve had some setbacks. What’s something you would say to that person to encourage them to keep going?
I really believe that if you give up on your passion, or your dream, or your craft, or whatever it is, that you think about in the quiet at the end of the day. If you give up on that, I do think that’s when people get hooked on other things to fill that void. Because you were given a gift to fulfill you, and what you were supposed to do on this earth. If you turned away from that, it’s never, ever, ever too late. You can’t mess up; you can’t miss your opportunity to the point that you can never catch another bus that comes by. You just have to start, and you just have to be open to it.
That might mean late nights and weekends, or when you can catch five-minute break. The lady who wrote Harry Potter wrote on napkins. You know what I mean?
Until she collected them all and wrote her first novel. Don’t give up on yourself, and get positive people in your life. Ask them for help, and put yourself out there, and you’ll never know what can happen.
If you work hard, and you have big goals and big dreams, you can make those happen. I’m talking to you right now. Who would have thought that? I would have never thought that, ever. I think that’s amazing and everyone just go do it. Go do it. Follow me, I will be there. I would love to encourage someone that has a dream that needs some help. I would love to help in any way I can.
It’s exciting to see other people doing what they love to do.
Yup, I love it, and that’s why we do DREAM THINK DO!! It’s like we want to feature cool people, doing cool stuff. But, we appreciate it when those cool people are also willing to talk to us about the times when it wasn’t so great.
I so appreciate the fact that you gave yourself that permission.
I’ve been there. I’ve gone home and the electricity hasn’t been on.
I’ve had people had to help buy me groceries. I get it. But you look back at that, and you’re still okay in those moments. Then you look back on it even longer, and that’s the part that you want to talk about. You don’t want to talk about the success; you want to talk about those time when you think, “Wow, things really could have gone a different way, and they didn’t.”
I so agree. And I can only imagine your art is so much better because of those experiences too. I agree with you. I think sometimes one of the greatest gifts of those seasons, is just to know you’re going to survive.
I can remember, I grew up in a pretty conservative household, my mom was an accountant, my dad was a warden in a prison. Awesome, awesome parents, but we didn’t have a lot of entrepreneurial blood in our family. So, when I stepped out and started a business, it went well, and then it went poorly. I can remember those days where, we had zeros in our checking account, and I can remember coming out the other side going, “Oh, my gosh, I didn’t die.” I would have thought growing up; I would have thought, I would have not survived that, and realized, it wasn’t comfortable. I didn’t like it, but I lived. There’s a gift to that, to know on the other side you will be ok.
Yes! Because you have to learn how to appreciate the smallest details of beauty and joy. That is the biggest gift no one can ever take away from you. Because, when you get where you’re going, you don’t need all of the bells and whistles. You can still stop and appreciate a flower blooming, or appreciate whatever it is.
My enjoyment now is seeing people that I love to be able to do things for them, that I never thought I could do. I’m okay. It’s being able to do things for other people. It’s always about other people. You know?
Yeah, that’s awesome. And you can see that in your artwork too.
I love it, Cal, thanks so much for being on DREAM THINK DO, and for walking out such a cool dream. You inspired me, and I know you’ve inspired the whole DREAM THINK DO Community too.
That’s so sweet, thank you so much, and I hope everybody out there is just having a good day, just keep on fighting the good fight.
Alright. I hope you enjoyed that as much as I did. She’s got such a great story, great heart, and doing some really cool things. As I was talking with Cal, this idea just popped into my head, I had like this light-bulb moment, ping, over my head. I thought, how cool would it be, if we DREAM THINK DO-ers could get behind this dream and help to make some big walls happen for Cal? Right?
But here’s what I’d love to do. I wonder if there’s a big wall, wherever you’re living, big cities, big towns, small towns, whatever it is.
I wonder if we can get behind this dream and help her to connect with some businesses, cities, or organizations to get some big walls painted all around the world.
How cool would it be to know that a DREAM THINK DO-er got her connected?
Share this particular episode and let’s see if we can get some more big walls painted, and some more big dreams happening.
Thanks for being in this together.