It began with a bathroom.
The year was 1973, and Sandra Kay Johnson and her family had just moved into a rustic farmhouse on the rural Nipomo Mesa. The Arroyo Grande artist noticed one darkened bathroom in the center of the home that simply cried out for a window.
"I could just picture stained glass," said Johnson, who quickly mastered the art form. Soon, she was designing stained glass doors, gates and windows not just for her home, but for a local contractor.
Roughly four decades later, Johnson is a prolific sculptor, painter and teacher whose pieces appear in private collections and public spaces throughout California. Her best-known works range from "Flights of Fancy," a colorful collection of silk-and-steel birds that soar above commuters at the San Luis Obispo County Regional Airport and "Bouquet of Symbols," a bountiful bronze sphere that stands in the Cloister Garden of Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital.
"I've always believed that if I kept working, eventually the world would beat a path to my door," Johnson said. Besides, she added with a chuckle, "I don't know how not to work."
A Los Angeles native, Johnson earned her tireless work ethic helping out on her parents' ranch. She was a student at Santa Monica High School when she won a scholarship in 1960 to attend the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena.
"They put me in advertising design. I loved the work, but I hated the whole idea of using the arts to sell people things they didn't need," recalled Johnson, who left after her first year. She married her high school sweetheart, computer scientist Arnold Johnson, in 1963 and moved to San Luis Obispo so he could attend Cal Poly.
It was on the Central Coast that Johnson first reconnected with her artistic roots, balancing her burgeoning career with the challenges of raising four sons. She spent roughly 15 years working with stained glass before switching to a more permanent medium.
"When you're working with stained glass ... there's always the risk of things breaking. It got to be kind of a nightmare," the artist, whose biggest fear was losing her entire collection in an earthquake. "I knew I wanted to so something that would last my lifetime."
That realization led her to study lost-wax bronze casting in the late 1980s under Cuesta College in San Luis Obispo under Alan Osborne, owner of the Art Foundry in Sacramento. At the same time, she discovered silk painting, drawn by the soft yet sturdy nature of the fabric.
Johnson earned a bachelor's degree in applied art and design from Cal Poly, graduating with full honors in 1994, followed by a master of fine arts degree in visual arts from Vermont College at Norwich University. "The thing I enjoy most is teaching," said Johnson, a part-time lecturer at Cal Poly and Allan Hancock College in Santa Maria since 1996. "It allows me to paint what I want to paint, build what I want to build."
San Luis Obispo landscape painter Robert Reynolds, who met Johnson through her tenure at Cal Poly, praised her gift for design "and the use of beautiful, unusual powerful shapes within that design."
"Strong design and draftsmanship make for successful art, regardless if it is on paper, canvas, silk ... or in Sandra's case, also three-dimensional work," said the former Art and Design Department chair, who retired after 35 years of teaching at Cal Poly. "She really is an all-around versatile artist and has a great sense and understanding of color and value."
Retired Cal Poly professor Crissa Hewitt, whose work as a silversmith and sculptor has won national acclaim, also noted Johnson's ability to excel in multiple mediums. "There's this real versatility and enjoyment ... of exploring different things," she said. "A lot of people don't have that breadth."
"She is obviously at her happiest when she is busy," Hewitt said of the artist. And Johnson has been exceptionally busy during the past decade or so - creating high-profile pieces such as "Minoan Tribute," a series of stained glass windows at the San Luis Obispo Utilities Department based on ancient designs discovered on Crete.
"Hey Diddle Diddle," Johnson's whimsical bronze sculpture of a cat and a fiddle, was installed in downtown San Luis Obispo in 2000. (The piece, stolen later that year, was replaced in May 2001.) The same year, she saw the installation of "Web of Life," a swirling bronze sphere teeming with local wildlife, on the San Luis Obispo Creekwalk; she modeled the three-foot-wide piece after the miniature Japanese sculptures known as netsuke.
Public art is "a grand opportunity to have the work seen by an immediate audience," Johnson said, noting that "Flights of Fancy," installed in 2001 at the San Luis Obispo airport, enjoys a captive one. "I get calls from complete strangers saying they're sitting there waiting for their flight and love it."
Elsewhere in California, Johnson's public art pieces include 1996's "Rosescape" mural in Lompoc and 2002's "Matilija Poppy" sculpture/fountain in Ojai's Arcade Plaza.The six-foot-wide bronze bloom was modeled after the city's official flower.
Her most recent project, 2011's "Bouquet of Symbols" in Santa Barbara, draws inspiration from her own lush garden, as well as the Victorian language of the flowers. Each individually molded flower, leaf, insect and animal on the basket-bottomed globe, alternatively titled "Symbols of Joy, Comfort and Fulfillment," has a special meaning, she said; the pear tree and scarlet geranium signify "comfort," while black poplar recalls "courage" and coreopsis means "always cheerful."
Johnson, who has a full-scale replica of the four-foot-wide sculpture in her front yard, shares a passion for the natural world with Albrecht Dürer and the Flemish Baroque flower painters. "It's part of my daily experience," said the artist, whose silk paintings and sculptures often chronicle the seasons.
While working, she likes to divide her time between her 4,200-square-foot studio, a two-story structure built in 1998, and the numerous fruit trees, flower beds, vegetable patches and water lily ponds scattered throughout her family's five-acre property.
"They're a good balance for each other," Johnson said. "Going out into the garden and trapping gophers or picking dinner, you come back with fresh ideas."
Johnson isn't the only artist in her family; her second oldest son, Arne Johnson, also has a studio on the Arroyo Grande property. Perched on the roof is a crazed jumble of inflated plastic pool toys, the larger version of the extraterrestrial critters - actually colorful, quirky found-object sculptures - he keeps under glass specimen domes.
Along with ceramic robots, bamboo ray guns and cheeky digital prints, the studio also houses surreal interactive sculptures, such as an oversize brain studded with party blowers and a "veil" of glow-in-the dark pipe cleaners in the shape of a stinkhorn mushroom cap.
Johnson, who graduated from UC Santa Barbara in 2001 with a master of fine arts degree, said he's always been associated with his famous mother. "I was raised in her shadow, so to speak," Arne Johnson acknowledged. "(But) you go and you find your own way."
Like her son, Sandra Kay Johnson said she's always made her own way as an artist -- seeking projects that challenge and engage her.
"I always tell people if the work you're working on isn't interesting to you, then do something else," she said. "It's easy to get pulled into doing projects because somebody thinks they're important. (But) it's easier to do the pieces that you love to do ."