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Founder of East Austin’s Cloud Tree Studios and Gallery Generates Eclectic Experiences

Longtime Austinite, Brian David Johnson, discusses his journey and contributions to the local art scene

Walking into Cloud Tree Studios and Gallery feels like entering a home. Inside the silver Quonset hut where the gallery is based in East Austin, you’ll find two display rooms with warm wooden tones, a well-stocked kitchen, and a staircase that leads to a two shared studio spaces. You’ll also be greeted by a fierce yet adorable “watchdog” that is Louie the 11-year-old chihuahua.

Originally built in 1948, gallery founder and wood artist Brian David Johnson refurbished the building in 2016 to realize his wishes for a community art hub.

“I think the space reflects my personality,” Johnson shares. “I’m pretty laid back. I like things that are worn and have character while still remaining organized.”

Brian David Johnson

Johnson is a 52-year-old fifth-generation Austinite, and an introspective and warm character. Born and raised in a family of limited means, the idea of becoming an artist never entered his mind. He experimented with a number of different lives before finding his creative practice. He attended UT for a bit, worked on fishing boats in Alaska, and dabbled in the music business.

Eventually, at age 28 Johnson got sober, shifting his perspective and opening him up to build connections and learn new skills. He began working in carpentry, met a master woodcarver and artist, and started studying the craft under his guidance.“

Sobriety was whole new beautiful chapter of my life,” Johnson recounts. “I had all this extra energy and focus. I got so into my woodworking and I studied it so much. I’d buy stacks and stacks of books. Four years later I was ready to open up my own studio. That whole chapter never really ended.”

Building onto this passion is Johnson’s life’s work. He’s successfully worked as an artist crafting various wooden projects such as furniture, wall art, flower vases, and even his own brand of jewelry called Eastwood (named after the historic Eastwoods Park in North Campus). All of his pieces are created from sustainably harvested domestic woods like black walnut and cherry.

Cloud Tree is a labor of love for Johnson

Cloud Tree is an involved project with the intention to support working artists by offering affordable studios and advice as an seasoned creator in the art world. Their exhibits are incredibly varied, frequently presenting new mediums and styles. Guests can explore an ever-changing display of ceramics, modern paintings, digital photography and more throughout the year. Fanciness is not the idea as much as it is to expose people to something interesting and cultivate community. “

The idea of exhibiting work in it of itself is a super important thing to art practice,” Johnson explains. “Ultimately to me, art is about communication. It’s a form of communication. It’s taking something inside you that’s this ineffable thing you can’t put into words, and if you can do it well it goes into the work and then connects with other people. There are so many beautiful things I get to help people put on.”

Other programming at the space includes an array of special events, both public and private, that range from English graduate student readings, independent film awards shows, standup comedy shows, live music and any other cultural experience you can think of. Johnson is devoted to helping with the process in a hands-on way and making sure Cloud Tree is one of the most accessible venues in the city.

“It’s hard to make a really good living as an artist financially,” Johnson shares. “But I get paid in community and culture. I get so much about of being here and establishing a place that people can use.”

Expose yourself to something new and visit Cloud Tree Studios and Gallery, open from 12 p.m. to 5 p.m. every day except Sundays.

MORE: OFC Creative Gallery Opens a Downtown Art Space Dedicated to Austin’s BIPOC Artists