The letter nominating Jim Johnson for this year's Stanislaus Arts Council Excellence in Arts Award for lifetime achievement has a theme of renewal. Its writers, Johnson's longtime Modesto Junior College faculty colleagues Lewis and Shirley Woodward, praise him for in 1981 "re-establishing the entire theater program at MJC," which had been canceled two years before. They also wrote that Johnson, when he was the college's dean of arts, humanities and communications, "played a major role in the total renovation" of the little theater. And "most recently," the Woodwards noted, "he has helped spearhead the renovation of the MJC auditorium complex, which will reopen this fall."
Though Johnson said his wife, Linda, a humanities instructor at MJC, heard from "a little bird" that he was up for the award, it came as a complete surprise to the speech and theater instructor. "I got the letter at home and thought it was a fund-raising letter," he said with a laugh, "so I casually opened it up and read the first paragraph and ... whoa!"
Noting that he and the Woodwards "go way back," he added, "I've worked with Lew on numerous artistic projects, so it's an honor coming from him and Shirley."
Johnson will be recognized at the arts council's awards banquet Saturday at the West Side Theatre in Newman. Also receiving awards will be Glenn Mount in the category of music, Lori Snable for visual arts, Colton Dennis for theater arts, Cleo Griffith for literary arts, Christie Camarillo for cultural history and Randy Siefkin for film.
As Johnson prepares to retire from the college he joined in 1969, he's pleased to witness another process of renewal: "I'm excited that I'm being replaced," he said. "We're hiring a new full-time instructor, and that was a real concern I had. ... These are difficult financial times, yet the college has said, 'We need to continue the program and we are going to hire another full-time theater instructor.' "
It wasn't a given that Johnson would be replaced. The reason he announced his retirement so early — about a year ago — was to give the dean the time to build a case that the position should be filled. As for choosing his replacement, Johnson decided to step away from that process. "That's the future, and I kind of represent the past," he said. "I didn't want them to be thinking about old Jim here and the way he did things."
Last week, after he learned of his award from the arts council, Johnson took some time to talk about his own future — and present and past.
Q: Your leadership in the renovation projects at MJC — is that all part of the job, or are you an overachiever, or did someone twist your arm?
A: It's that I'm so fortunate to have a job where I've had opportunities to do things that I just absolutely love. No one's forced me into any of these things. It's just that I've felt so lucky to be able to contribute and to help bring these things to be. I'm just so excited about the auditorium — it's been kind of a dream for the last 20 years, and to see it finally on the verge of reality, it couldn't be better. I'm retiring at the end of this year but I'm going to stay involved working on helping with the programs going in there.
Q: What's been your specific role in projects like the little theater and the auditorium? Is it artistic, is it a knowledge about things like acoustics and lighting?
A: More of the artistic. My division dean, Mike Sundquist, is more of the technical expert — though also an artistic expert — so he and I have collaborated over the last 18 years or so on this auditorium project, but he's the one who deserves the credit for the technical expertise. Mine has been more administrative and artistic and just trying to do everything I could to keep the project moving forward.
Q: Are there already plans for what's going to be staged first in there?
A: Yes, that's part of my job, too. It's so great to be helping to coordinate that whole first year of activities that are going to go in there. I've got the honor of directing the first theater production, but I'm working with my colleagues in music, speech and theater to plan a whole yearlong series of events.
Q: Can you say what the first theatrical production will be?
A: It's a British mystery called "Stage Fright," and it's an Alfred Hitchcock-type play. I'm directing that with a group of faculty members that are going to be the actors. They're all donating their time because they're so excited about the auditorium. The production's going to coincide with the open house in August.
Q: You were division dean for eight years and then interim vice president of instruction for a year. What led you back to teaching and directing?
A: It was a real desire to get back to my roots after nine years — nine years that I really enjoyed, especially being the dean of the arts division, because that kind of put me in the center of all the artistic activity in this division. The year as vice president was a tough one. I'm glad I did it, but I was really ready at that point to get out of administration and to end my career back where I started — teaching and directing. It could not have been a better exit strategy for me, for my final few years. ... I was looking at "How do I want to end my career?" — and that was going back to my real passion. It's been a wonderful two years. I've directed four plays during that time and reconnected with students. To me, that's what it's all about here.
Q: When you think of "lifetime-achievement award," I can see that being kind of heady, like, "Oh, man, where do I go from here?"
A: Yeah, you know it!
Q: So, where do you see yourself after retirement — what are your goals?
A: I've already made it known that I want to work with the MJC Foundation, because the foundation has been so good to me and the programs here on campus, so anything I can give back to the foundation to help them, I want to do. I also want to work as sort of a consultant to the arts division with the events that are going in the auditorium. And eventually, I might like to do some part-time teaching, but I want to step away from that for a while. And I love to act and hope to do some community acting and maybe some directing. ... And of course travel. My two grandkids are on the East Coast (the Johnsons' son, Craig, works in Washington for the Energy Department) and so my wife and I are really looking to not be tied to an academic calendar. I've really been in school all my life.
Q: So Linda also is planning to retire?
A: Down the road. She teaches classes online — she's not in the classroom. And literally we've had experiences where she's taught her classes from London and Montreal. She can teach them anywhere, so she's going to continue doing that.
Q: Let's look backward now. What led you into the arts?
A: In high school, I had one of those inspirational teachers that are so wonderful. I had no idea where I was going to go, and I took a class in public speaking from a former radio and film actor who was at the end of his career. Just one of those inspirational men who kind of took me under his wing and helped bring me out of my incredibly shy shell I was in and gave me self-confidence and motivated me to seek out speech and theater programs when I went to college. And so all of my degrees have been combined speech and theater — Diablo Valley first, then Cal State Hayward and then finally USC for my doctorate.
Also, I've always loved going to the theater, the movies, and gradually in college started doing some acting myself.
Q: What do you hope to impart to your own students? What's your philosophy in teaching and directing?
A: First off, I want to instill in them an absolute professional respect for acting and theater. This isn't a hobby, this isn't something you take lightly. This is very serious and it's a major commitment you're making. Many of the students have ambitions to go on to four-year colleges or to Hollywood or New York, and they've got to develop a foundation in the art here, and I think we do a really fine job. The other thing is trying to find a meaningful, truthful character that really brings to life the person they're playing on stage. And that takes a lot of coaching and a lot of work on their part.
Q: What are your general thoughts as your look back on your time at the college?
A: That I've been fortunate to go in directions that really challenged me as an instructor and a director, and to have the full support of the deans I've worked under. I've also been really fortunate in the colleagues that I've had here to work with, because the work that I've done, anything I've achieved, is through collaborations extremely talented people.
Bee assistant features editor Deke Farrow can be reached at email@example.com or 578-2327.
GLENN MOUNT, Music
Longtime Modesto resident and Modesto Irrigation District employee Mount is the frontman and drummer for the Knight Sounds big band. Besides regularly entertaining at dances and other functions in the area, the band, which is a nonprofit organization, has a noble mission. "The ultimate goal of the band is to provide scholarships at every high school in Modesto," Mount told The Bee several years back. His nominator notes Mount's love of music from an early age: As young Glenn's "percussion skills improved, he got an entire drum set and the neighborhood would never be the same. Did you know that the city noise ordinance prohibits drumming after 10 p.m.? You would if someone in your house has a drum set."
LORI SNABLE, Visual Arts
Modesto painter Snable has received more than 100 awards for her art and is a signature member of the Pastel Society of the West Coast. At Sonoma Elementary School, she teaches what elementary-education director Pat Portwood last year called the "Cadillac model" of art programs at grade schools. Two or three times a week, Snable works with children in media including painting, sculpting and ceramics. Fund-raising by the Sonoma PTA raises enough money to buy art supplies and pay Snable's salary. Snable has exhibited her art for more than 12 years; her painting career was delayed early on, as she initially worked in medical services and raised a family.
COLTON DENNIS, Theater Arts
Dennis is the founding artistic director of Patterson Repertory Theatre. The Modesto native and Modesto High alumnus is a graduate of the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. Recent directing projects include "Misery" for Patterson Rep and "Someone Who'll Watch Over Me" for Prospect Theater Project. Recent acting credits include Modesto Performing Art's "Forever Plaid" and Prospect's "Spinning into Butter" and "The Lion in Winter." Dennis also has performed with the Modesto Symphony, Columbia Actors Repertory and Tracy Civic Theater, and has taught drama for Modesto City Schools, Merced High School, for Playhouse Merced, and as an after-school enrichment instructor for Razzle Dazzle in Southern California.
CLEO GRIFFITH, Literary Arts
An accomplished poet, Salida resident Griffith has received many awards, including the 2004 Pegasus Award for best overall poem at the annual convention of the California Federation of Chaparral Poets. Her work has appeared in publications including Christian Science Monitor, California Quarterly, Poetry Depth Quarterly and Cider Press Review. Griffith heads the editorial board for Song of the San Joaquin, a quarterly journal of the Poets of the San Joaquin. She frequently serves as a judge in poetry contests and in 2006 was appointed a member of the Modesto Culture Commission. Her nominator calls her "a true nurturer of poetry in our community."
CHRISTIE CAMARILLO, Cultural History
Camarillo is executive director of the Oakdale Cowboy Museum. She is responsible for exhibits, artifact collections and fund-raising, and her nominator, Barbara Painter of Waterford, says Camarillo's "enthusiasm and interest, with skill and ability, make the Cowboy Museum a special place to visit." In 2006, the museum received a community service award for its outstanding service and its efforts in preserving Oakdale's Western heritage. The museum's current exhibit, up through May, is "Stone Fences and Corrals in the South Central Sierra Nevada Foothills: A Living History."
RANDY SIEFKIN, Film
Siefkin is president and co-founder Modesto Film Society, a group dedicated to preserving and screening classic films. Named by The Bee in 2006 as one of "25 to watch in Modesto's arts and entertainment scene, he said of the film society's goal: "We think people are entitled to see classic films as they were intended, on the big screen." The society, with more than 200 members, presents classic feature films, cartoons, newsreels and short subjects. It also holds periodic discussions of historic and contemporary cinema. Coming attractions include "Rear Window" in April and "The Graduate" in May. Screenings are at downtown Modesto's State Theatre, of which Siefkin -- a retired Modesto Junior College political-science teacher -- is a board member.