Southern Swaths

Blue Sky livens up Columbia's streets


Natalie Chuck

Most days this year, you can find Blue Sky in the parking lot behind Takosushi on Assembly Street. 

Permitting there is no rain in the forecast, the artist can be found adding pieces to his latest mural from the time the cold weather became bearable in the morning to just before the sun sets in the afternoon. 

“Vista Vision” adorns the side of a parking garage owned by the state. South Carolina officials had to give the longtime artist the “go” to paint before he could start his new masterpiece. And while officials liked the idea of the mural, they had no money to put behind the project. 

So Sky decided to fully fund it himself.  

Though his decades of work have given him a surplus of credibility – whether it be major public pieces such as the globally-celebrated “TunnelVision” or smaller paintings in his downtown Columbia gallery – Sky had to provide his own materials for his latest project. 

Several cans of Sherwin-Williams paint, a few paint rollers and a rented Genie lift later, Sky was ready to apply the most captivating shade of violet to the 25 x 50-foot concrete background of "Vista Vision" as he talked about his inspirations, his visions for his work and his spirituality.  

Ideally, he’d like for the mural to be seen from Gervais Street about 300 feet away, a few parking lots separating the mural and the beholder.

Natalie Chuck

“Vista Vision” showcases the top half of a woman’s face. Her eyes are particularly highlighted, the right eye looks straight ahead and the left looks up toward the sky. Fittingly, “Windows to the Soul” reads right underneath them. 

“You can tell a lot about a person just by looking them in the eyes, you know. It’s like you can see into their soul,” Sky explained.

Sky's paintings have a musicality to them, something he reflects in his artistic process. 

“In music, a chord is an arrangement of notes that when played at the same time make harmony," he said. "Same with colors – I’m trying to create harmony with the colors.”

His inspirations come from beauty wherever Sky sees it. Usually he finds this beauty in nature, but he said he's stumbled upon it in odd locations as well, like a junk yard.

Blue Sky, formerly Warren Edward Johnson, legally changed his name 45 years ago to reflect with his spiritual beliefs:

“To me, there’s nothing better than a blue sky. I hate gray, cloudy days… they make me depressed,” Sky said.

Natalie Chuck

In the early ‘70s – around the same time Warren Johnson became Blue Sky – the muralist began to search for the answers to existential questions and to explore this spirituality. He studied several religions and philosophies, extracting key themes from each. He found he resonates most with Christianity, Zen Buddhism and Hinduism. 

From Zen Buddhism, he learned the power of meditation. 

Instead of practicing solely in stillness and solitude, Sky said he meditates through his actions all day, every day. By remaining intensely focused on the present moment no matter what the environment surrounding him, he claimed he is constantly in a meditative state. Painting, of course, is the action he finds himself practicing the most often. 

Natalie Chuck

For Sky, no separation can be found between his work and his spirituality. Each tie into the other and become one – from the time he first mixes the paint to when he finally stands back from a distance to reflect on the finished product. He said that ever since he was a child, art has been his greatest passion. 

“I like art itself, just the whole idea of art. What else is there more wonderful to do? It’s the most exciting thing in the world,” Sky said. 

Though he is an artist known around the globe, he remains true to his Midlands roots. Sky was born, raised and earned a degree from USC here in Columbia. Over the years, Sky's career took him to New York City, Southern California and even Mexico City, but he always made his way back to what he called this "big town in the South."

“When I went to New York, I thought I was going to live there for the rest of my life… but then when I got there and the weather was so cold… I missed the South.” Sky explained. “I missed South Carolina, I missed the weather, I missed the beaches.”

Columbia's size and climate – and the people living in it – brought Sky home for good. It's where Sky is spending the rest of his life practicing his "larger than life" craft. 

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