JOHN HENSON – One Nail at a Time

By Katie Nartonis

John Henson’s artwork is both spare and rich at the same time. The negative space, elegantly delineated, seems to be as important as the line and contour laid down with single nail heads. The Joshua Tree Voice sat down with John to find out more about his process and his involvement in the art community of the desert.

JTV: Tell us about your latest works and how you started working in this medium?

JH: My art is created by the simple primal act of putting nails into wood, originally done with a hammer (the first ten years), and now mostly applied with a nail gun. Each piece ranges from 5,000 to 50,000 nails. My art – like much art and music – is often about the empty space as much as the lines and contours. My greatest challenge in creating nail art is the dark spaces, as they require hundreds of nails densely packed. For example, on the Obama portrait, the dark eyebrows were the greatest challenge (over 1,000 hand-pounded nails per presidential eyebrow), but looking at the piece, the viewers eyes tend to move to the individual nails in the sparse areas.

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It was my exposure to the thriving creative community of this hi-desert that inspired me to start making art. How I came to specifically creating nail art is too long a story for this article, but if you (or anyone) buy me a drink, I’ll tell you the whole rambling story. Lately I have been creating some “data-driven” pieces, where the number of nails has significance to the subject matter. My “BLM” piece was made with 26,400 nails, representing the number of Black homeless people in Los Angeles. And my latest piece, a tribute portrait of Jerry Garcia, was made with 37,320 nails representing the number of songs he performed live with the Grateful Dead. It is, for sure, difficult to finish on a pre-determined target number of nails, but I like how it adds an extra layer of meaning to the artwork, and how it challenges my dominant left brain.

JTV: You have been active in the arts here in the Morongo Valley, including serving on the Board of Directors for the MBCAC – Morongo Basin Cultural Arts Council. What are your hopes for the future of the art community here?

Photo by: Deva Anderson

Tour since before I became an artist, and it continues to be, by far, my favorite forum for showing my art. Sponsored by the Morongo Basin Cultural Art Council (MBCAC) for the past 20 years, the Art Tour is now the 2nd largest event of its kind in California and is a wonderful showcase of the depth and diversity of the hi-desert art community. It’s also a nice showcase of the Morongo Basin itself each October. I served on the MBCAC Board of Directors the past five years. It was a chance to contribute my experience as a concert and festival producer for 30 years, but more importantly, it was an opportunity to engage with the local community of artists more deeply.

JTV: What are your favorite things about spending time in the desert?

JH: If I had to put my love for the desert in one word, it would be “space.” The ancient open vistas. The vast night skies. The big silence. The space to breathe. The space to think. The space to create.

Throughout my 20s and 30s, I spent each birthday in late March coming to the desert for a solo camping trip in the National Monument/Park for a long weekend. It would always include a climb up some boulder pile where I would spend the day clearing my head, then back to the campsite to sleep under the stars. Now, my wife and I are fortunate enough to have a very special place in Yucca Valley, where head-clearing in the rocks is a daily routine. I even have a nice outdoor bed to sleep on under those same stars.

See you in October on the Art Tour!

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