Artist in Profile: John Cannon
5 Points artist uses strong, bold colors to convey an emotional image
Of all his paintings, the one that John Cannon may favor the most sits almost hidden in the window of his 5 Points studio. Titled Light in Fog, it’s displayed prominently enough for any passerby to take notice, and sports a price tag of $495. But on this warm December Saturday at The Idea Hatchery on Woodland, where Cannon has had his art studio and gallery for more than three years, the painting would be mostly unseen by anyone venturing inside Cannon’s doors.
It’s a captivating piece, one that draws a viewer’s eyes to a bare tree illuminated in white against an otherwise foggy, dreary background of grays and browns. Cannon isn’t sure it’s something he really wants to sell, and that’s part of why it is more or less hiding in plain sight. Though Cannon insists his professionalism would outrank his sentimentality if an offer came forward, he believes Light in Fog is just too personal to part with — it’s a piece he painted in memory of a dog he once had, and no other viewer or would-be buyer could grasp the same symbolism it evokes in the man who
“That’s one I painted after I lost Sweetie,” Cannon says of a rescue dog he had had for 11 years before she died in October of 2014. “I really just need to take it home. It’s kind of about her. I called it Light in Fog because I felt that she was oftentimes a light in the fog for me. When you have a dog that has really, really bonded with you and is incredibly sweet, you can’t really have a bad day. She would jump up on the couch and cuddle up in my lap, and there’s no way on earth you can be in a bad mood after that. So when I painted that, she’s the little white tree.”
His attachment to Light in Fog reveals a couple of things about Cannon’s approach to painting, a hobby he pursued around 2001 that eventually led to a full-time profession after he retired from a law practice some five years ago. For one, painting is a very personal and introspective practice for Cannon.
“I just really enjoy creating something,” he says from his cozy space at The Idea Hatchery. “I don’t care what it is, if it’s a building, a dog, an abstract. It doesn’t matter. I love the process of combining the colors and the paints and coming out with something that someone looks at and goes, ‘Wow,’ or even goes, ‘What is that?’ The process of creating something tangible with paints is like an act of meditation. I get lost in a different world, a different time, a different conscious space when I’m creating something.”
His passion for Light in Fog and the whole idea of paying honor to a beloved pet led Cannon to a new niche for his art. “I’ve kind of become the dog painter,” he says. “It started out as a request for a friend and has grown exponentially over the years. Commissioned pet portraits are undoubtedly my biggest area right now. I’ve been very fortunate that it’s become popular. I’ve shipped them all across the country. I’ve done many East Nashville dogs, but I’m kind of getting a national reputation for it.”
Growing up in East Nashville, where he attended Inglewood Elementary School and Stratford High, Cannon didn’t envision himself as the next van Gogh or Monet. In fact, he graduated from Belmont College in 1974 with a Bachelor of Arts degree in English and was actually more interested in written words than brush strokes. “I had no interest whatsoever in art and thought I was going to be the next great American writer,” says Cannon, who later earned a master’s degree in Literature from Middle Tennessee
Cannon did study art for three years at the University of Tennessee-Nashville, and that opened his eyes toward the possibilities of visual arts. However, he launched a career in teaching English before eventually getting a law degree and beginning a law practice with his wife, Grayson, that would last for 25 years. The law firm Cannon and Cannon had an office in Goodlettsville, and Grayson is now a lawyer in Gallatin. The couple moved from Goodlettsville to East Nashville eight years ago.
To help nurture a passion for painting that had returned during his law career, Cannon took lessons from a well-known artist in Goodlettsville “to get back in the flow of things,” he says. He opened a studio and gallery in The Factory at Franklin in 2006, and stayed there until coming to The Idea Hatchery in September 2012.
“I’ve been really happy here,” says Cannon, adding that his commute is by bicycle when weather permits “It’s been fabulous. I can have my own music, control my own air and heat, which wasn’t the case when I was at The Factory. I get to see people and paint. It couldn’t be better.”
Several of Cannon’s paintings are placed throughout his gallery, and visitors are wandering in and out on this unseasonably warm afternoon just before Christmas. Ludwig in Red, an abstract that reveals the face of Beethoven when just the right focus is used, transfixes one onlooker. A group of young women are impressed by Determination, which depicts a bride and several of her attendants holding umbrellas and braving what is obviously a downpour. “This was when I was at The Factory, and my studio had a window that looked on the back of the courtyard,” Cannon explains. “They held weddings there at the time. It was pouring down rain, and these ladies were determined to get their picture taken [for the wedding]. I snapped a picture through the window, and thought, ‘That is determination.’ ”
His gallery also holds titles such as Infusion, Emerging, and Dance, among others, all with radiant colors that can emit varied emotions depending on one’s viewpoint. “The thing that I’ve discovered as years go by is that the emotional responses from color is subjective,” he says. “Part of that is based upon the literal physical structure of the viewer’s eyes and their visual cortex. Twenty-five percent of men, for example, are color-blind, in at least some sphere. I may paint something that to me is very powerful because it’s red or bright orange and really warm and strong and pushing out at you, and someone else may look at it and see nothing because they may not be able to see the red that I do.
“That’s another thing about being an artist,” he adds. “You produce it by what you’re seeing, and you may never really know how other people see it unless they tell you. A lot of people who don’t see it the way I do may not tell me. And I’d love to find out: ‘What do you see, do you feel anything when you see that?’ So for me, it’s a question of trying to put really strong, bold colors out there to make a very strong, emotional statement.”
In addition to his space’s function as a studio and gallery, it also serves as a classroom for a variety of students Cannon teaches each week. He has a class on Thursdays of 9- to 11-year-olds from a home school program, and on Saturdays he teaches adults. Their skill levels and interest vary widely, and Cannon adapts to individual needs.
“He understood who I was as an artist and where I was in my progression,” says Carl Hoffman, a Goodlettsville resident who started taking lessons from Cannon about three years ago. “I had had a year of lessons [before taking from Cannon] with several art instructors. John was the one who, instead of me adjusting to the teachers and their nuances, he adjusted to me. I was able to see improvement in my work.
“Most of the classes you go to everybody is doing the same thing,” Hoffman continues. “With John, that’s not the case. Everybody is doing something related to their level and what they want to do. For example, there would be three people in the class. One is drawing, I’m doing abstract, and another is doing realistic. That’s as far spread apart as you can get, and John is on top of all of that. Because of his instruction, I can call myself an artist. His instruction is impeccable.”
Cannon’s effectiveness as an instructor owes largely to his passion for art. Whether it’s his dog portraits (and cats, too, for that matter), his absorbing abstracts, or his eye-catching landscapes, it’s easy to see how much fun he’s having.
“I didn’t really see painting as a professional career choice, but it has become one,” Cannon says. “I considered myself very fortunate to do something I always wanted to do while I still had time to do it. I’m having the childhood I never had.” Cannon pauses and looks around his gallery, then adds, “I can’t believe how much fun this is.”