Tim Johnson is an extremely talented artist and fly designer, a guide at Utah’s Falcon Ledge, and a recreational therapist. As an artist he creates watercolors, oil paintings, drawings, and custom pyrography designs on rod grips, which he calls “TimmyGrips.” Flylords got the chance to sit down with Tim as he described his artwork and encouraged people everywhere to get a grip on their creativity and let it fly. Check out Tim’s artwork and comments below!
Flylords: How have you managed to work fly fishing into nearly every aspect of your professional life?
Tim: The interesting thing is I don’t really tie fly fishing into the things that I do. The things that I do have come out of fly fishing. I’m a recreational therapist nine to five. I work with kids on the autism spectrum and do therapeutic work with them in experiential modalities. I got into that because, while I was a TA for the fly fishing class at BYU, I was a guide and was volunteering at the veterans hospital in Salt Lake City at the PTSD Unit. I was teaching vets how to tie flies and then I’d take them on fishing trips.
[After the trips] I would get letters or emails from their wives and they would say things like “Jim is sleeping through the night which he wasn’t able to do before.” I found that there were all of these reductions in the symptoms of PTSD that were powerful and profound, so I went to my professor of the fly fishing class and said we should be using fly fishing as a tool to treat people. He was actually one of the professors in the Recreation Therapy Department, so he said “Hey, come on in, here’s your new major.” So fly fishing brought me to recreation therapy.
I’ve taught classes at BYU as an adjunct professor and that’s because of recreation therapy, which was because of fly fishing. I’ve helped start non-profits that were based on the same principles, and I’m actually a minority owner and part of the product development team for Tacky Fly Fishing, which was recently acquired by Fishpond. All of these things are connected directly or indirectly to fly fishing. It’s not that I bring fly fishing into them, but rather fly fishing brought me into them.
Flylords: Could you tell us about how you found your way into fly fishing art?
Tim: I didn’t really have a time when I wasn’t in art, and some of my earliest memories are drawing things. I think one of the reasons that people stay in art is that almost everybody is in art at some point in their life—everybody plays something and creates something. Some people get out of that, and I think it happens early on when you start to recognize that other people are looking at your art.
Some of my earliest memories of art are people giving me positive feedback. I remember being in kindergarten and one of the fifth or sixth graders came in to help us do a project. So, I’m a kindergartner and I was drawing an F-14 Tomcat because it was the jet that was in Top Gun. And I remember [the older student] saying he didn’t think he could draw a jet that good. Getting that kind of feedback in elementary school was very reinforcing to me.
I always remember having drawn. Any time I’m in a meeting, even now when I’m doing therapy meetings, I’m always doodling and drawing. It helps me focus and so that’s been something I’ve done my entire life. There’s never been a time that I wasn’t an artist in one capacity or another and I wish more people had continued to do that. I really do feel like we all have that innate artist inside of us and most of us are expressing it as little kids but then it gets shut off at some point. But I just never had it turn off. I’ve been doing hours of artwork forever—it was never really jumped into, but has always been there.
Flylords: Why do you think people lose touch with their artistic beginnings?
Tim: I think the majority of people who stop creating things don’t do so because they never really liked it. It’s because they didn’t feel good about what they were making, but not because they didn’t enjoy the process of making it. They stopped because they were comparing [their art] to other people’s or because they felt self-conscious about it for whatever reason. I think we’d have far more artists in the world and a much more satisfying depth and breadth of artistic work if we encouraged people a little more to keep doing what they’re doing rather than contributing to them feeling bad about themselves.
Flylords: How do you encourage others to foster their creativity?
Tim: One of my favorite things that I’ve ever done I’m doing right now with Orvis. We did an Orvis live Facebook video where I taught people how to draw a fish and I just made it super simple. [In the video] I’m trying to say these ideas of “I don’t care what you think your experience is or how good you think you are, just come try this. You’re going to do a better job than you’ve ever done before because I’m going to break it down and make it easy for you.” So many people showed me their before and after [drawings]. They were so proud. I think people are more open to [drawing] right now, too. They’re stuck at home and they’re willing to try things that they weren’t trying before. They’ve done great.
But, there were other people who were like, “well, I’m not an artist.” I hate that phrase—I’m not an artist. I get that all the time at shows. I’m like “you’ve been an artist since you were born, you’ve just been hiding it for a long time and it’s time to get back on that train.” Every opportunity I get I challenge the notion that somebody’s not an artist or challenge the idea that they can’t draw and let them know that they should regardless of how good or bad they think it is. They should just draw because it’s fun.
Tim’s first instructional video on how to sketch a trout can be found here.
His second video on how to add color and light to the sketch can be found here.
Flylords: How did you come up with TimmyGrips?
Tim: I stumbled across it. Pyrography itself—burning artwork—is a very old practice. The way I got into it is my brother Dave paid for me to go to Alaska with him to go salmon fishing. I wanted to give him a gift back so I got him an 8-weight fly rod that he could use to catch these silvers that we were fishing for. I bought the original Orvis Helios when it had first come out and it was exactly like mine. We had identical rods, and I wanted to be able to separate the two. We met up at my dad’s house and my dad’s soldering iron, which he used to do electronics work, was sitting on his desk. I was like “I can heat that thing up and I can put Dave’s name in here.” And I thought “well why would I put Dave’s name on it? I should put something cooler on it.”
[Dave] is a bit of a Dungeons and Dragons nerd, so I said “if you had a named rod like the named swords in The Lord of the Rings movies and stuff, what would its name be?” And he said Dashnor or something. I inscribed on the top and bottom of the grip “Dashnor is my name. I am the salmon’s bane.” And then I realized if I can burn words into this, I can burn anything into this—I might as well just burn a salmon into it. So I burned a silver salmon into the grip and he was super stoked.
So then I started burning my other rods. Because there’s no eraser, it took me quite a while until I felt confident that I could take somebody’s $800 fly rod and get it just how I wanted it in one try. It’s worked as long as I take my time, and I’ve never had a rod, out of hundreds that I’ve done, that I wished I had an eraser for.
Flylords: Do you have a favorite medium to work in?
Tim: I don’t have a favorite. I have times when I get into one and I feel really awesome about it, but to me the various media of art are like the different forms of fly fishing. There’s one that I may prefer at a time or I may feel like I’ve been away from it for so long that I have to get back to it. Whatever medium I’ve been away from for a long time is probably going to be what I want most in that moment.
Flylords: Are there specific pieces that you’re especially proud of?
Tim: So in terms of stuff that I’m proud of it’s usually an accomplishment that went beyond what I thought I was going to be able to get out of myself. My oil painting “Reflecutt” is a good example because it was my first time in that medium, so I had lower expectations for myself than I would have in other media, but I thought it came out awesome and it sold immediately. Having done really well on that for my first time in oil made me feel really good about it and made me want to do it more.
I’m also proud of the limited edition rod series I did with Orvis. That was hard for me, very hard—it was 500 TimmyGrips. It was the worst summer fishing of my life by far. I feared for my eyesight. I was like “do I need to get a brace to prevent carpal tunnel?” Being able to get through that and seeing what came out of it was awesome.
Flylords: How about any pieces that were particularly meaningful?
Like I said, I’ve done hundreds of TimmyGrips, but every once in awhile I get a rod from somebody that is absolutely irreplaceable. More recently a friend of mine, Mark, sent me his son’s rod. His son was a guide on the Green River and he’s passed away. Mark still fishes with the rod once a year to remember his son. He hands me this rod and says “I’d like you to burn my son’s image into it.” The hardest artwork in the world in my opinion is to do a person. It was intimidating because of the level of difficulty, but also because of the intrinsic and changed value of this rod and how irreplaceable it was. So that was literally like a spiritual experience for me to make that artwork on that particular rod and give it to Mark and have him feel like he was really seeing his son.
Flylords: Where do you find new ideas for your pieces?
Tim: [Finding a new idea will] surprise me when it happens. For example, I can remember when I was a really little kid and I’d only recently started fly fishing. I visited my brother at college in Utah and we fished the Provo River. I caught a 23 inch brown, and in my experience it was the biggest fish of my life at that point. I just remember its pectoral fins being enormous—just huge paddles. I just remember being struck by that and that informing my next drawing.
From then on I’ve been having these instances where I’m just struck by something on a fish that I hadn’t noticed before and representing it in my next painting. I think “that’s a truth of fish that I didn’t know until now, but because I’ve experienced it I’m going to share that same truth through my artwork with somebody else.” Those big pecs on the brown were the first inspiration that I can remember. It’s the same process with fly tying: I’m looking at things, being struck by something like the translucence of a Crane Fly larva and saying “how am I going to find a way in the medium of fly tying to create this facet of this organism that I don’t see in other flies that are available?” I think 80% of artwork is teaching yourself how to see what’s actually there—being able to recognize what my eyes are actually taking in and then convert it to two or three dimensions.
Flylords: What do you find most rewarding about being an artist?
Tim: What I love about it is that I get to take these things that I think that I see and feel, and I get to show them to somebody in a way that I might fail to if I were just explaining it verbally. It’s more fulfilling for me to explain things in a way that you can see—in a way that I’ve created with my hands.
The other thing that’s rewarding about artwork is it’s a trip, man. It’s a trip to say that I can take a blank canvas, piece of paper, some pigments—things that are essentially worthless—and just by using what I have and what I know I can turn it into something that I think is great. And people prove to me that they think it’s valuable because they’ll actually give me dollars that they’ve worked for with hours of their lives and they’ll trade them with me for things that have no intrinsic value—things that I just assembled. I think there’s something ancient and human about wanting to be able to take what’s in your environment and develop it into something greater. I think that fulfills a need for us. I wish more people would get back into doing that. The message that I’m on now is just trying to get people to be more willing to do art and just let themselves be. Find ways to be creative. It makes people feel so much better.