John Lee has a painting that hung next to a Rembrandt piece in a London museum—because one of his friends placed it there while visiting.
His small, colorful cardboard paintings that he calls Clohn Art have become street art around the world in places like the Chicago Ikea, a New Zealand neighborhood, a Scotland loch, and the Andy Warhol museum bathroom (because he wanted to leave it in the museum but chickened out). The paintings are free to anyone who finds them.
John hung his first street art in Kunming, China, six years ago. He lived there and learned about an artist who left cardboard artwork on London streets. So he tried it. He liked the look of his art piece better once he hung it along a street. “That was its purpose,” he says.
Before he started using cardboard as his canvas, John ran into the problem of motivating himself to create art when there was no market for his work. “That’s what I loved about the cardboard art,” he says. “When you have too much art and it’s getting you down, you just wonder around the city and staple it to pieces of wood.”
Cities are already full of nails that can conveniently hold cardboard pictures, he assures me.
Clohn Art has crossed a lot of ground since John moved from Kunming to Pittsburgh and started painting almost every day. Now he regularly creates a lot of art. A whole lot. His goal is to create 10,000 pieces by the end of the decade. He’s got 2,600 down so far.
Now, John sells his work on Instagram. @clohnart has nearly 6,000 followers. He is also currently selling art during this week’s Three Rivers Arts Festival where he is featured as an emerging artist for the second year. He’ll be selling his work in Booth 20 through Tuesday, June 10th. He plans to sell at other festivals too.
With so many Instagram followers, John gets a certain amount of market research based on how many responses he gets to any particular piece. He also gauges people’s interest at the Arts Festival: “Last year I sold out of cats. People like animals. That seems like a fact.”
The name “Clohn Art” comes from combining John’s name with his friend Clayton’s. They created it when they started exchanging their art through the mail years ago. Because it’s a made-up word and John includes it in each piece, it’s relatively easy for people to look him up when they find Clohn Art street pieces.
Clohn Art often features faces of people or animals, and John salvages a variety of recycled materials to use as his canvas—discarded MDF board, old wardrobe doors, book binding paper, and, of course, cardboard. He once discovered a “razor blade disposal” slot in a bathroom mirror he was replacing. It was filled with antiqued razor blades, and he used them to create an intricate halo in one of his large paintings.
As John starts selling his art at festivals, he focuses more on creating gallery pieces. He views his street art as a sketch book of sorts, and it gives him a way to circulate everything he creates—even the pieces that he hates. “People like to throw away the stuff they’re embarrassed about or hide it,” John says. “Most of my stuff doesn’t sell, but I like the idea of putting everything out there.” He has friends who frequently travel, and he always makes sure they have a stack of Clohn Art to take with them to new places.
Everyone should own original art, John says. He tries to set affordable prices for his pieces. A Clohn Art cardboard painting typically costs $15. With a quirky humor, he explains that he really enjoys it when someone tells him that his is the first art they’ve ever purchased: “I figure maybe buying art is like cocaine. Once you try it, you’re going to try it some more. But it’s less harmful.”
He adds, “I want to be the gateway drug for people to buy art.”