Magnus Johnstone was born on July 14, 1952 in Chicago and spent his early years in Dearborn, Michigan. In 1961, his family relocated to the East Coast, settling in Duxbury, MA.
After graduating high school in 1970, he attended Wayne State University for a year and then moved to Boston, to attend the School of the Museum of Fine Arts. He left school after a year and spent the bulk of his time in the early to mid-1970s copying works of the old masters and drawing for hours every day, a habit which he kept until the end of his life.
One day in the early ‘70s, the young artist looked out his apartment window and saw into the apartment of a fellow art student named James Stuart. He was inspired by James’ work and impressed with the large canvases he saw. In response, in 1974 Johnstone began creating his own 6 foot tall by 4.5 foot wide oil paintings. Magnus continued to create these large oil paintings until September 1994, after which he gave up painting with oils, for health reasons.
During the late 1970s and early ‘80s, Magnus was involved and associated with the Punkt/Data Gallery and Gallery East, among others. In the early 1990s, he founded and co-ran The Speedway Gallery in Boston’s North End.
Once described as an “Atlantian,” Johnstone’s fantastical and psychedelic artwork was influenced by sources as diverse as Renaissance art; German expressionism; surrealist painting; naive painting; writers like H. P. Lovecraft, Philip K. Dick and Harlan Ellison; graphic and comic art of the 1960s; Mayan art, Japanese anime, and music. Always music.
The paintings he created from 1995 until his death were made using acrylic paints and cans of leftover latex house paint. These developed into what he called his “Junglist” style. Over the years, he gradually gave up paintbrushes altogether, instead using strips of cardboard dotted with multiple pigments which he would then swipe across the canvas, while other areas of the work in progress were blocked off with newspapers and masking tape. He went through 20-30 rolls of masking tape per year. Most of his paintings were initiated by the hundreds of fine pen and ink drawings he created throughout his career. He completed 21 books of finished drawings, which he shrunk down and reprinted as mangas.
In addition to his range of activities in Boston art scene, in the very early 1980s Magnus became a college radio host, producing forward-thinking African and Reggae shows on MIT’s WMBR 88.1 FM in Cambridge, “Aliens’ Corner” and “Reggae Mukasa” – years before “world music” became a popular term and genre.
An immediate acolyte of hip-hop music and culture, in 1985 Magnus started the now-legendary “rap and electro” radio program called “Lecco’s Lemma,” on WMBR. A year later he moved the show to Boston College’s WZBC 90.3 FM, where it ran until 1988. As The Noisemagazine said in 1987: “Magnus Johnstone is a DJ at the front of a movement, in it for sheer love of its excitement and possibilities.”
Magnus’s musical tastes were as diverse as his interests in art and literature. Beyond the African continental and diasporic music to which he was drawn for most of his life, he was also a dedicated lover of classical music; the romantic period, early music and especially opera.
In 1987, while working in the basement of a Brookline antique shop Magnus met (and also named) Mango, who would later become his wife. They began living together in 1991, and were married in 1994.
In a curveball that would have sidelined and beaten a lesser human being, Johnstone was diagnosed with leukemia in 1990, and underwent extensive chemotherapy in order to prepare for what he hoped would be a cure. Given only a 40% chance of surviving a year after his bone marrow transplant in 1994, he lived another 19 years, and his dedication to his work only deepened and intensified after what he termed his “rebirth.”
After many years in Boston, in July of 2001 Magnus and Mango relocated to Bucksport, Maine. One of the primary reasons for choosing Bucksport was its proximity to WERU, a local community radio station in an adjacent town. In Maine, they both continued to paint, and Magnus continued his work in radio. He created his most complex and creative radio program during this era, called “The Matrix”, mixing spoken word pieces in with electronica and other sounds from his vast collection. He also initiated and co-hosted a Friday night show called “Da Vibez,” featuring hip-hop and other electronic-based music.
During his years in Maine he worked at the Liros Gallery in Blue Hill, restoring paintings and Russian icons, making frames, hanging shows and selling art. He curated several film festivals at the Blue Hill Library, including one featuring Blaxploitation films and another focused on Japanese anime. He also taught a manga-making workshop for children there.
Magnus Johnstone passed away after a secondary cancer on February 22, 2013, after a vibrant life filled with art, music, love and community. His friends and family will always remember him as a passionate, compassionate, creative soul and a visionary artist and music fan who was constantly in search of his next muse.
When he passed, he left behind over 80 large canvases, as well as dozens of medium and smaller sized works. All proceeds from the sales of these works will go to the Johnstone family to help safely store, maintain, and market his work.
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