Meet Nat Johnson, one of Mobile’s most mysterious artists

When residents of different neighborhoods in Midtown Mobile began to notice an abundance of thrushes sitting on stumps and poles, they were curious. So at least one resident has speculated on social media that the creator of the birds – which weren’t real birds at all – had some nefarious intentions.

Artist Nat Johnson is no more nefarious than Boo Radley in the famous Alabama book with the word “mockingbird” in the title. All he wanted to do with the thrushes, he says, was to spread joy, love and art.

She enjoyed some of the speculation. But there’s nothing remotely controversial about Nat’s desire to make people smile when they spot thrushes around town. She costs almost nothing to make birds from recycled materials. She cuts out the shapes from the discarded political signs, paints them black, and inserts the spokes of the bicycle she obtains from Mobile’s non-profit Delta Bike Project. The rays allow the birds to rotate 360 ​​degrees in the breeze.

Nat calls this project, which he started in the spring, Mobimockingbird. In 2013, inspired by a Halloween parade in New York City where people wore giant skeletons mounted on backpacks, he started another public art project known as Mobi Downtown, creating large wearable puppets to parade through the streets of downtown. of Mobile at the popular LoDa ArtWalk events are held on the second Friday of each month. Take the puppets out – he can only fit five or six at a time in his Subaru Outback – to ArtWalk from October to April.

The puppets have a profound effect on Nat, who admits to being “a little shy” in social situations. “They allow my ‘spirit of me’ to go out and socialize with people in a way that I don’t,” he says.

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Nat Johnson, wearing a mask on his head, sits in the living room of his art-filled home in downtown Mobile, Alabama. “For as long as I can remember, I hated having pictures taken,” he says. “It just creates anguish in me, so I avoid and / or run, but behind a mask I’m fine. I am the mask and the mask is me, so it’s a comfortable place to be.” (Photo by Michelle Matthews/mmatthews@al.com)

The reaction to the 10-foot-tall backpack puppets and “big heads” is also encouraging for her. “The most amazing part is that if they don’t scream and run, their eyes light up and they want photos,” she says. “We say hello to everyone and everyone turns into children”.

Likewise, see Mardi Gras parade attendees turn into children as they watch colorful and creative floats pass by during the Carnival season. For the past nine years, Nat has worked full-time as a float builder with Carnival Artists, helping craft themes for seven different Mobile Mardi Gras organizations. His specialty is sculpture. In recent years, he has sculpted Slash, the guitarist of Guns’ n Roses, as well as the mouse from “If You Give a Mouse a Cookie”, among many other characters.

“You learn while you do it,” he says. “I get better and better every year, more confident.”

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With her artwork, she is self-taught, learning as she goes. His art of him fills the brick ranch house he shares with his dogs, Buddy and Nicki, and his cat, Miss Kitty. In the living room, where we sat and chatted, the invisible eyes of fantastic creatures hung from the ceiling, masks on the walls and art dolls in the corners kept watch. Light filters through colored curtains on each window. These works of art look like stained glass, but are made of tissue paper sealed inside two sheets of Plexiglas. No room has remained intact from Nat’s art, which spills over to the carport, fence, and courtyard.

“I like doing things,” he says. “When I stand still, I feel bad.”

Nat Johnson

Every room in Nat Johnson’s house is covered with faces he has created. (Photo by Michelle Matthews/mmatthews@al.com)

“I wanted to show my art”

Nat grew up in Jackson, Alabama. He watched his mother paint in oils and Nat always scribbled, but he never took art classes in high school. When she went to Auburn University, he had plans to study architecture, but it wasn’t a good choice for her, he says. She eventually moved to Mobile and earned a bachelor’s degree in physical education from the University of South Alabama. During her last term there, she took an engraving class and realized that she “wasn’t bad”.

In the meantime, he took graphic design software lessons and started working for local newspapers. She ended up in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where she worked as a designer for newspapers and magazines, becoming pre-press supervisor until the September 19 terrorist attacks. 11, 2001. “September 11 scared me and I wanted to go back and be with my family,” she says. “I didn’t want to be that far.”

By now her parents lived in Daphne, so Nat, the youngest of three children, has returned to the Mobile area. It was then that she began making needle-sculpted artistic dolls, which she found on the Internet. “They fascinated me,” she says. Watching a DVD, she figured out how she made them herself. “The artist didn’t show you how to put it together,” she says. “People love to keep their secrets.”

Likewise, she learned on her own to make the large puppets that parade at ArtWalk. “Nobody shows you how to make backpacks, but I’ve seen the photos and thought about how to do it.”

“She’s such a quiet, reserved person,” says the friend of Nat Courtney Matthews, a mobile makeup artist. “She loves staying at home and creating.” Courtney was one of the first encouragers of Nat’s artwork, suggesting making her dolls “larger than life”, which led to Nat’s creation of the Mobi Downtown puppets. Nat fondly remembers Courtney standing outside her shop, Lunatix, during ArtWalk nearly a decade ago, wearing her first puppet costume and waving to passersby.

Though an extrovert who “knows everyone”, Courtney understands why Nat prefers to stay behind a mask, giving her the freedom to be something she isn’t. “As for attention,” says Courtney, “I love it in doses, but I also like hiding and absorbing it. I can do it when I’m a puppet. It exudes that you are this creature, not yourself.

Nat Johnson

In Nat Johnson’s bedroom, a puppet stands in the corner as an abstract face glows as sunlight filters through the window. (Photo by Michelle Matthews/mmatthews@al.com)

Nat is looking forward to returning to downtown Mobile during the upcoming ArtWalk in October with her giant puppet troupe.

“The idea of ​​starting Mobi Downtown was a way for me to get out of the house and socialize,” he says. “It’s a way to give back to my city, and maybe in a way I didn’t need to be seen. I wanted to create something that had a great presence, but I didn’t need to be up front shouting for it. Also, I wanted to show my art, so I decided to walk it through ArtWalk “.

Meanwhile, some 250 of its thrushes are quietly roaming around the city, bringing fantasy to the neighborhoods of Mobile and beyond.

“I’m so happy with the positive response people have to Mobimockingbird and the welcome we get with the Mobi Downtown street puppets makes us feel like rock stars,” says Nat. “Thanks for the love.”

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