CLGBT Profile: St. Pete gay artist John Kohlburn

CL: When and why did you decide to commit yourself to being an artist?

JK: I don’t know that I committed myself to being an artist as much as I listened to the universe telling me what I am. We know that being gay is not a choice; being an artist is the same for me. Art chose me. Over my lifetime I have always found a way to feed my creative side. Often, that has been teaching. Other times it is painting. Currently I have found a perfect balance between the two.

CL: How do you manage to make a living doing art? Or do you have another job?

JK: I have always had another job. Partly I do this to provide financial consistency; but more importantly, my second job feeds another passion of mine. I am as passionate about teaching as I am about creating.


CL: If there was one thing people could know about you, what would that one thing be?

JK: Everyone should know my artwork is for sale on Actually, I am very much an open book. Most people know anything there is to know about me.

CL: What is the most memorable thing from your childhood?

JK: When I was very little my father bought a welder. From that point on, if it could be fabricated from angle iron, we had it. He made us swing sets, a tree house, a go-cart and long forked chopper bikes. He even went so far so to build a full-size replica of a helicopter for us to play on. We lived on a three-acre “playground” where all the neighbor kids came to play.

CL: What do you like most about your parents?

JK: My parents were both educators. They taught me to value my education and to want to instill that value in others. They never questioned my choices. When I came out, they were supportive. When I chose the arts as a career, I was encouraged. I was never subjected to feelings of “you can’t make a living doing that” or “what do you have to fall back on?”

CL: Up until now, what has been your greatest achievement?

JK: Being honest with myself about who I am is my greatest achievement. I spent many years trying to live up to the expectations of others. I realized that my expectations are much higher for myself and ultimately much more gratifying.

CL: Where do you see yourself in 10 years?

JK: If someone would have asked me this question 10 years ago, my answer would have not been close to being accurate. I believe the universe has plans for me, and it is my job to listen.


CL: Are there any insights or reflections that you wish you had 10 years ago, or that you would like to impart to people 10 years younger than you?

JK: Seven or eight years ago my partner and I made a conscious decision to re-evaluate our lives. We realized we were working very hard to build a strong retirement system for ourselves. We were spending so much time on building for the future, that we were not spending enough time enjoying the present. Live in the moment: Don’t put off your dreams.

CL: How has your relationship with art changed over time?

JK: I have satisfied my need to create in many ways. As a child it was a never-ending series of art projects. College introduced me to new techniques and viewpoints. Teaching allowed me a different outlet. Creating lessons became my art form and seeing my students develop their passions for art was my satisfaction. The desire to work with my hands was met in home remodeling and antique cars. As part of my enjoying the “now," my artwork has taken on more of a traditional form. I have the overwhelming desire to be at the easel and paint.

CL: Your work is very bright and beachy. How does the environment affect your work?

JK: I am constantly inspired by visual images from my environment. It is where all my ideas come from. When I moved to Florida from Tennessee, my color palette changed, my subject matter changed and I switched back to acrylic from watercolor. I just could not achieve the desired outcome with the watercolor anymore. My work became more fun.

[image-3]CL: How did you meet your partner?

JK: We were both dating the same guy and he introduced us. Sparks flew and it went from there. We have been together now for nine years.

CL: Has being in a partnership had any effect on your work?

JK: David is my best friend and biggest fan. He encourages me to create and express myself every day. His support has been very important because he allows me the freedom to be myself, the time to devote to painting and the emotional support to grow as a person and an artist.

CL: Would you like to have children some day?

JK: No kids. There was a time when I thought I wanted to have children, but I am old enough now that the prospect does not seem realistic. I satisfy those paternal instincts by teaching.

CL: On your website you exhibit your partner’s work. Can you tell me more about why you decided to do that?

JK: My partner started painting three or four years ago. I am very proud of what he creates and want to provide an opportunity for others to see his work.

CL: Some people believe that being gay per se should not be a signifier, and that we should all exist without labels, as people.

JK: In a different social environment than the one that exists in America, I would agree with that position. However, certain politicians and religious leaders in this country have labeled gay people in many negative ways. By teaching intolerance for homosexuality, we have seen violence directed at gay people, we have seen an increase in bullying in schools which has led to suicides of our young people, we have been used as pawns to create an atmosphere of fear in the political spectrum to win elections, and we have seen self-destructive behaviors in the gay community caused by self-loathing which is perpetuated by the negative stereotypes put forth by many conservative so-called leaders.

CL: What is the significance for you of being openly gay in your professional life?

JK: I believe that all gay people have a responsibility to demonstrate in their daily life that as gay people, we are no different from straight people. We have the same dreams and hopes for a fulfilling life as everyone else. Living a fully optimized life involves being honest and open about who you are. Life in the closet is not an option for me. It is destructive and dangerous to deny your truth.

CL: How has/does being gay affected your life? Does it propel you, hold you back, etc.?

JK: In many ways, being gay is liberating. We have not been included in the societal norms that define our culture. This lack of acceptance allows us to create our own rules for our gay culture. We have been able to define family as we see it, rather than the traditional views taught to us as kids. This freedom to create our lives, to define ourselves and to exist outside the heterosexual paradigm encourages artistic freedom, individual expression and to have a more expansive vision of life with fewer restrictions than most people. We have the ability to think outside the box because we live outside the box.

CL: What changes would you like to see in the world over the next 10 years and why?

JK: There is a bumper sticker that says “One Human Family” and that sums up my vision of the future. If we all realized that we are more alike than different, it would be difficult for society to accept war, hunger and hate in the world. We are all brothers and sisters and should take better care of each other. I would like to live long enough to see full equality for gay people, including gay marriage, institutional acceptance at all levels and acceptance of gay people as just people.

John Kohlburn is an openly gay St. Pete-based artist and teacher. His work is sunny, provocative and erotic all at the same time. After visiting John's web gallery, I had the opportunity to interview him, and met the refreshingly grounded, intimate and thoughtful character behind those wonderful paintings:

Creative Loafing: What is your passion?

John Kohlburn: My passion is to create. I want people to view me as a person who looks at the world differently. It shows in the way I teach, the way I paint and the way I live.

CL: Where did you grow up?

JK: I grew up in Bethalto, a small town in Southern Illinois, just outside of St. Louis.

CL: How would you compare your experience as a gay boy in the place you grew up, to being a gay man in the place you currently live?

JK: I grew up in the Midwest in the ’60s and ’70s. While it was a great place to be a kid, it was difficult being gay. It was taboo. I was not out. This had as much to do with the time I grew up as where I grew up. Now I am openly gay. I am honest and open about who I am. I want people to see there are many more similarities in our lives than differences.

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