Article by Margaret Day Allen
All Photographs courtesy Fred Scruton
John “Johnny” Culver was born with a “veil” or “caul” (a piece of membrane) over his face. This type of birth is rare and, according to folk tradition, endows the child with spiritual gifts.
Culver, born July 13,1960, grew up in the tiny town of Sparta, Ga. As a child, his nickname was “Eyes,” referring to his ability to see things that others could not. He said the older people in his community always told him that he was gifted with “mother will,” or special wisdom. However, his talent as an artist would not emerge until he was about 20 years old.
Culver grew up with his twin brother, Donny, and three other siblings. His mother was a housekeeper and his father a logger.
As a young child, Culver was diagnosed with Blount’s disease, a disorder in bone growth that causes bowed legs. He had to wear leg braces for several years. As a teenager, he underwent several surgeries that corrected the defect. “I was like the bionic man after that!” he said.
After attending regular school through the 11th grade, he went to a special rehabilitation school, where he was trained as a service station attendant. After graduating from that program, he decided he would rather be a chef, so he attended a different rehabilitation school where he learned cooking. He then went to work for a cafeteria in Atlanta, advancing from dishwasher to chef over the course of seven or eight years. He later learned to be a butcher while working for an Atlanta supermarket.
But his transition from small-town life to the big city of Atlanta was not without difficulty. After living a short time in Atlanta, Culver became depressed after being jilted by a girlfriend and returned home to live with his mother. “I felt rejected,” he said. “All through school I had felt rejected because of the leg braces.”
One day, he saw a sheet of cardboard in the corner. He picked it up and started drawing on it. “Every day I marked on it, I felt better,” he said. At first, people mocked his artistic attempts, but he kept at it, gradually improving until his work became the detailed, brightly colored drawings he makes today.
“Those people who used to laugh at me, they have some of my art hanging in their houses now,” he said. Today he considers this “nervous breakdown” as a gift from God, since it led him to art making.
He returned to Atlanta, working there several more years. During this time, he fell in love with a woman he met on a blind date. That relationship did not last, but it led to the birth of his daughter, Megan Alexandra Culver, who lives with her mother in Atlanta. He speaks of her with pride and dedicates some of his artwork to her. She is now 18 years old.
Around 2000, Culver moved back to Sparta to care for his elderly mother until she had to enter a nursing home. He decided to remain in Sparta, working as a butcher at the local grocery store until leaving that job recently to devote full time to his art. He said he never liked living in Atlanta. “I’m a country man,” he said. “I like nature. When I’m out there, I feel closer to God.”
He said his artistic ability is a gift from God. “I’ve always been a spiritual person,” he said. “It’s not really me [making the art]. It’s God working through me.”
Culver said his inspiration comes to him while he is in a visionary, trance-like state. He draws detailed structures that he describes as time-travel machines and temples. He believes in alternate universes, which his drawings depict. He is careful to say that his visions are from God and are consistent with Christianity. He says his work has the theme “Traveling Through Time in Search of Paradise.”
He buys acid-free art paper for his art work. He draws the design in ballpoint pen and then uses art markers to color it. The colors he chooses are usually red, yellow, orange, blue and green. He colors adjoining segments different colors to highlight the contrast. In a few cases, he leaves the drawing uncolored. He also paints his colorful designs on three-dimensional objects, such as tables and birdhouses.
Appearing in many of his drawings are figures he describes as “micronauts” that do maintenance work on the time-traveling machines. He describes the micronauts as drones similar to the space probes that NASA has sent to explore other planets. His work always includes a “time gate” through which the time-traveling ship will pass. He believes these time gates exist on earth, but most people are unable to see them.
He also adds numerous dots, which he describes as “energy crystals, like raindrops.” He draws plants and leaves, which he describes as being both plant-like and mechanical beings with intelligence. In some drawings, he depicts musical notes that symbolize the harmony and life-force of the universe.
There are occasionally people in his drawings, and sometimes they are seen communicating telepathically through devices on their foreheads. However, his most recent works do not include humans, since he has come to believe that in alternate universes, people will not have human bodies but will consist entirely of energy. “The skin we have isn’t us,” he said. “We’re nothing but energy.”
In one drawing, he wrote the word “Mother” near the top, probably symbolizing the Divine Being. “We don’t know whether God is a man or a woman,” he said, explaining that God is a spirit or type of energy.
There are some hieroglyphic elements in his work that he describes as a secret alphabet. He will not allow anyone to photograph a book he keeps with the complete alphabet, nor will he talk about its meaning. This is secret knowledge that he has shared only with his daughter.
He describes his alternate universes as operating like well-oiled machines with energy flowing between the different parts. “Everything works together, like a vehicle,” he explained.
Although his work was little known until recently, in 2009, it was part of an exhibition by the American Folk Art Museum, Approaching Abstraction.
Through his art, John Culver hopes to communicate that there is life after death, and there is more to life than what is visible to the eye. “The truth is not in a book,” he said. “You have to learn it on your own.”
MARGARET DAY ALLEN is the author of the book When the Spirit Speaks: Self-Taught Art of the South and a member of the Folk Art Society of America Advisory Board. She often writes about self-taught art.
As seen in the Folk Art Messenger: