A lifetime of painting suits John Long just fine

Nov. 16—He can riff on Vermeer (his favorite), Norman Rockwell (illustrator, not painter), Maxwell Parrish (once very popular) and the Kansas City Art Institute (meh), which he attended for a while, but left before graduating, because ... well, it wasn't quite what he was hoping for and he became a father and needed to work.

But really, all 90-year-old John Long wants to do — has ever wanted to do — is paint, and he's masterful at it.

"My mother liked to say, and this was a joke, that I came out with a brush in my hand. It would have been more [profitable] if I had been a house painter," he said wryly.

Long lives in Canton with his son and daughter-in-law, and paints about as often as he breathes.

"I get up in the morning at 6 o'clock or 7 o'clock, put on my clothes and get to work. I have breakfast around 8 or 9 and I get back to work, and that's what I do," he said.

The fruits of his labor of love will be available for purchase this weekend at the Jingle Bell Market from 9 a.m.-3 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 19, at the Smoky Mountain Event Center, which also hosts the Cotton Tail Market in the spring and the Candy Corn Market in the fall.

The three markets are the primary outlets for Long to sell his popular works, which range from nature paintings to folk art to furniture to commissioned work and holiday-themed paintings and globes, which are hugely popular at the holiday market. (He has a bit of a fan club.)

Long lived in Florida briefly, years ago, but still sells to a couple there who has 36 of his paintings hanging on their wall. He also used to sell his work at Cackleberry Mountain gift shop in Waynesville, and after it closed, former customers would request pieces for him to paint, and still do.

Examples of these commissions sit in his kitchen: a child's wooden rocking horse decorated in a pink-and-white floral design and a rustic potato bin with Long's signature gnomes on the lid. He has painted murals and other decorative touches in houses, and one woman had him paint her whole dining room, he said.

His acrylic paintings lean toward nature scenes — his favorites — such as flowers, birds, trees and bees, which decorate trays, old wooden ironing boards and more. Some of his most beautiful work, however, are illustrations for a book.

Color day is every dayAs long as he can remember, Long has wanted to paint. He remembers the pivotal moment as a child in school when he became enraptured by the idea of laying color to paper.

"I can remember drawing. Every Friday afternoon was color day. That was the day I went to school for. That was the day I loved," he said. "I still love Friday, because it's color day, I swear I do. We got to draw art all day, mostly with crayons. I don't know why they did that. It made my life. It put me on a trail."

The trail took him from his childhood home in Kansas City, Missouri, to college at what is now Central Methodist University in Fayette, Missouri, to appease his father, an alumnus of the school. Long had planned to attend the Kansas City Art Institute, but his father, a Methodist minister, disagreed.

"He said, 'You can't go to art school, art school doesn't teach you how to make a living.' Back in those days, if dad said no, you didn't. It didn't matter what it was. I knew then that art school was out," Long said. "He didn't object to art as a subject. He just didn't think you could make a living. I thought to myself, 'You're a preacher. You've got a B.A. and a master's and you're not making any money.' But I didn't say that to my dad. Of course, he thought he was going to become a bishop, but didn't."

Long graduated from college in 1952 and then was promptly drafted into the Army where he served in Chorwan Valley in Korea as a company clerk on the front lines. He served for two years and was discharged in 1954. He doesn't remember much about it and doesn't want to.

"That's a gift. When you've been in the Army and on the front lines, you don't forget it, you just blank it out. It isn't real anymore," he said.

Pursuing his art

Following his military discharge, Long enrolled in the Kansas City Art Institute to get a master's degree and the art education he had always wanted. He was a fan of the old masters, and he wanted to learn how to paint properly.

"I wanted to learn how to be an official artist. My [high school] art teacher told me they would teach me how to draw and how to paint really professionally. But they didn't. At that time, all this abstract stuff was coming in. Knowing how to paint a face just wasn't important anymore. They didn't do what I thought," he said.

During that time, Long married and his wife was expecting the first of their three children. He quit art school and accepted a teaching job at an elementary school in Oklahoma near his wife's family. Her dad, a school superintendent, had gotten him the job. Long taught for 16 years, but wasn't happy, seeing no future as an elementary school art teacher.

"I got to thinking, I can't do this for the rest of my life," he said. "My wife was 60 percent of me, if not more. When we first got married, she said, 'John, I was born to be your wife. I'll do anything you want to do, but I want to be part of how we do it.' I thought, 'I can't beat this.' I knew I'd be married to her the rest of my life, if not the rest of her life."

He quit teaching and became a full-time artist. His wife, Joan, died 11 years ago. They were married for 50 years.

"When she died, that was it for me," he said.

A new life Long has lived in Canton with his son, Johnny Long, a musician, for 10 years. Before that they were in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, briefly, and before that in Branson, Missouri, for many years, where his son played bass guitar professionally. He currently plays with the Mile High Band and GenePool.

Despite his age, Long has excellent recall when it comes to the influencers in his life. His favorite painter is Johannes Vermeer, the Dutch painter, who painted "The Girl with the Pearl Earring" in 1665, which author Tracy Chevalier turned into a historical novel in 1999, and which Long has read. But even better, he said, are the six Vermeer paintings he once saw at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

"It was like orgasm," he said. "I've got six favorites [of Vermeer], the six I've seen. There are probably eight or 10. He was from Delft. He painted a scene of the waterfront there. It was wonderful. But his portraits of women, I mean next to God, well, the "Girl with the Pearl Earring" said it all, but he said it many times."

How long will he continue to paint? As an answer, he invokes Maxwell Parish as the only painter he knows who continued his craft well in to his 90s.

"I've seen his last painting. It was a great painting. His brain was still working," Long said. "The concept was still there, but his hands wouldn't do it. So he said that was the end of his battle. And he lived for another two or three years.

Long said Parish was likely the last American painter in his lifetime who had such broad popularity across the United States. "I don't know what year this was, but they said one fourth of the American houses had a Maxfield Parish hanging on their wall."

And Norman Rockwell? "To me he's not an artist. He's just an illustrator. They sent him a letter every month telling him what to paint," Long said.

Other than painting, Long has no hobbies or cares to. He once was an avid reader — Anne Rice and Stephen King are favorites — but finds he prefers a brush to a book, to luxuriate in the wonder of color day, which is any day for him.

"I'm not a genius. I'm just a guy who paints," he said. "That's all I have ever done."