It is rare to find a teenager these days who is more engrossed in watching birds and saving the environment than taking selfies and playing video games, but Will Johnson is that one in a million. The St. Edward’s School senior has spent most of his life studying nature and now replicates birds in intricate drawings worthy of an art master.
“I started drawing when I was about 3 years old,” says Johnson, now 18. “I was fascinated by palm trees and just started drawing them with crayons. A year or so later I discovered the wonderful world of bugs and caterpillars and butterflies. I would catch them in a weed patch over by South Beach, take them home in a little bug cage and draw them in colored pencil. I guess that’s when I started drawing prolifically.”
While Johnson has explored art mediums, he still prefers colored pencil.
“I use Prismacolor pencils, which allows me to layer colors over each other,” he says. “The soft core of the pencil allows me to draw powerful lines, delicate blends and silky shadowing, which is so important in recreating the intricacies of feathers.”
And recreate them he does, with vibrant true-to-life colors and birds that are so inso tensely lifelike you can almost feel the softness of their feathers.
Johnson’s grandmother, Katherine Johnson, who passed away in 2008, was a renowned local landscape artist and he says the biggest influence in his artistic passion.
“She saw the innate talent I had and helped me fine-tune it. I spent many hours in her studio and I’m so grateful for the guidance she gave me.”
Johnson has been an avid birder since age 7 and documents his sightings on eBird, an online database of birding observations.
“We have a very diverse ecosystem here in Vero Beach, which attracts the northern birds in the winter and now we’re seeing more southern birds from the Bahamas coming north because of the devastation left by hurricanes,” says Johnson.
“I’ve seen the most species in the county this year and 374 species since I’ve been recording them. And I’ve seen the northern-most sightings of two Bahamian species – the thick billed vereo and the western spindalis, who have been displaced because of Hurricane Matthew.”
Johnson has become so knowledgeable that he often guides birding tours for the Pelican Island Audubon Society, the Environmental Learning Center and the Indian River Land Trust. He spent summers at his grandmother’s house on Grandfather Mountain and there volunteered with the Grandfather Mountain Stewardship Foundation.
Johnson is drawn to environmental science every bit as much as he is to his art.
Having grown up in Vero Beach, Johnson spent countless hours on Memorial Island with a seining net; catching seahorses, crabs and all kinds of marine life in the seagrass beds. He laments that those seagrass beds are gone now, leaving his younger brothers unable to enjoy that experience. He also worries about algae from Lake Okeechobee discharges and red tide in the ocean.
“When the red tide came this past summer, I recorded 73 species of dead fish that were washed up on shore. Literally decades of fish perished. It broke my heart and the issue can be resolved but action needs to be taken now.”
Compelled to inform others of the negative effects of their actions on the environment, Johnson says, “I feel that if I can help make people aware that choosing short-term benefits over the longevity of our resources is lethal, maybe I can make a difference. I simply try to create awareness, because so many are unaware and turn a blind eye. This is our world and it needs our help.”
Lourdes Alvarez-Rogers, Johnson’s art instructor at St. Edward’s for the past six years, says she is impressed by his character as much as his “God-given talent.”
“In my 28-year teaching career, he is one of the most talented students I’ve ever had. But he’s also one of the most talented, responsible, ambitious students I’ve ever known.”
In addition to all the accolades and first-place awards he has garnered over the years, she says it is “his humility, his diligence and his heart that I admire most. He is always one to help another student and he is such a well-rounded young man. Everything he’s ever tackled he’s demonstrated commitment and success and I look forward to hearing a lot about him in the future.”
Johnson was recently accepted to Dartmouth, where he plans to pursue environmental sciences, while continuing his art.
“Ideally, I’d like a major that could balance my passion for art and natural science. I’m not sure what that will be yet, but at Dartmouth you can form your own disciplinary major, so I can customize it. Maybe I’ll figure out a way to incorporate it all.”
“The world needs his scientific acumen and thinking” says Kerryann Monahan, his environmental science teacher the past four years. “Most of the greatest scientists are artistic, but they get pigeon-holed into an analytical box. He will always have his art but the world needs his brain.”
Johnson has maintained stellar grades and has been a member of the St. Edward’s Environthon Team, which competes with other schools on environmental topics.
“Other kids look to Will for answers and guidance, and he is always humble and willing to help,” says Monahan. “He’s so collaborative and positive in his work. You cannot be around Will and not feel happy about the world. He makes you feel like the world will be protected.”
His advice to his younger peers is simple.
“Get out and enjoy nature. In Indian River County we are so blessed with an abundance of natural resources. We’ve got the ocean, the lagoon and all the wildlife that lives around us,” Johnson advises. “As a free diver, I love to dive the Breckenshire wreck off South Beach. Just around the boiler tank I’ve seen 66 species of fish, octopus, eels and squid. There is just as much diversity under the water as there is on land. It’s all right here so get out and experience it.”