Red roses intertwine across the whitewashed bricks, accompanied by the hashtag #PrayForRosie stenciled in neat, block letters; just a few streets away, a sunset splashes against the side of a building, adding a pop of color to the otherwise dreary structure.
If you’ve driven downtown recently, you’ve probably seen the two new murals that sprung up seemingly overnight – Abilene resident Calina Mishay Johnson is the artist behind those beautiful murals in the heart of the city. Even though she’s been painting professionally for five years, it took her a while to get to this point.
“I actually dropped out of my first abstract painting class because I didn’t understand how to paint like that,” Cal said. “It wasn’t until much later, after many hardships and pain, did I find my style that I have today. I learned a tough lesson: sometimes to be an artist it helps to have a story to tell, even if it hurts.”
After starting as an art major, she graduated with a general studies degree from Midwestern State, and then went back to school for her masters at Hardin Simmons University. She completed her masters in 2014 and started working an office job, but felt too much negativity from disgruntled coworkers that eventually brought her to a breaking point.
“One day, I decided life was just too short for that way of thinking,” Cal said. “I quit my job and had a burning passion to do something to make up for the time I had lost, and that scared me. I wanted to do something big.”
With the responsibilities of getting her masters and working full-time, she wasn’t able to create for two years, so when she quit, she had two years worth of stored passion and creative energy that needed to be used. That’s when she came up with the idea for the mural project.
“I began to paint because I was at my rock bottom,” Cal said. “I didn’t care what the painting looked like, if it was pretty or good. I needed to paint for my sanity. It was therapy, it was real and it was emotional. Painting allowed me to be vulnerable and tell my story, which in return helped me heal and spoke to others.”
She painted her first mural just three months ago in Haskell, but the first mural in Abilene was the painting on North 4th and Walnut, titled, “Into the Sun.” It includes the vibrant colors of a sunset and a man, falling backwards with an open briefcase, which she completed earlier this month. The inspiration for that mural came from her favorite muralist, Banksy, because she “wanted to do something in honor of him. Even though it’s not as good as his, I still wanted to try.” She completed the second Abilene mural of the roses on North 2nd and Plum about a week ago, after the owner of the building contacted her and asked her to paint something for his daughter. Like any artist knows, putting artwork on display can be scary and intimidating, but Cal said she’s always excited to see how the community will react.
“It’s exciting to see, like are people going to hate it? Are they going to love it? Are they going to tear it apart? Are they going to accept it?”
As she grew older and developed both as a person and an artist, she realized that she wasn’t even painting for herself anymore – which was the sole reason she had first picked up the paint brush so many years ago.
“I lost my fear of failure, because it was bigger than me,” she said. “It was about inspiring others to dream big, too, to never give up on life and become bitter and sad. You always, always have another choice, if you’re brave enough to go for it.”
Cal keeps busy with her family – she has three kids and her husband, Kevin, is a B1 pilot at Dyess Air Force Base and also helps paint the murals – and her job with Integrated Behavior Solutions, where she’s a Board Certified Behavior Analyst working with autistic children. But in the midst of everything, she still finds the time to make Abilene a little more colorful.
The site of her next big project will be a three-story tall mural on North 3rd and Pine, which she’ll start in October. But in the meantime, she’s about to launch a fundraiser – called Art Bomb – with the Palette of Purpose organization to fund artists to paint murals downtown. She’ll be selling T-shirts and taking donations from Sept. 3 to Nov. 1, and hopes to inspire the younger, college-age population to participate and support the art scene in Abilene. For more information, check out the Palette of Purpose Facebook page. Other towns have also noticed her work and are starting to reach out to her about painting more murals outside of Abilene.
“I hope people feel a part of themselves in what I do,” she said. “I hope it inspires people to be fearless of failure. Go big, everyone fails. So what? Life is beautiful and people are amazing if you can align yourself with what you were created to do and use it to benefit others.”