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Life Stories: John Douglas 'Never Tired'

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Published February 23, 2022 at 10:00 a.m.
Updated February 23, 2022 at 10:51 a.m.


John Douglas in 2016 - MATTHEW THORSEN ©️ SEVEN DAYS
  • Matthew Thorsen ©️ Seven Days
  • John Douglas in 2016

When artist-activist John Bruce Douglas (July 13, 1938-January 25, 2022) was diagnosed with cancer in the spring of 2021, his partner of 31 years, Bobbie Lanahan, began making a book about his life and work. Using the self-publishing platform Blurb, she quickly filled the maximum of 240 pages, but the prolific artist's work could fill hundreds more.

Meticulously curated for friends and family, the book traces John's life, beginning with historical photographs of his ancestors and childhood years and ending with his death in January. Images of his artwork, texts and excerpts from interviews are mixed throughout.

John was a filmmaker, photographer and visual artist who infused his six decades of work with sociopolitical themes and commentary. He created constantly.

"He never tired ... [and] he never had enough time," Lanahan said in a recent call with Seven Days.

With a deep voice and long white hair, John was distinctive in manner and appearance.

"I just think of him as being from the Scottish Highlands," Lanahan mused, calling him "rugged and girded for battle."

Lanahan was able to complete the book before John died.

"He felt like it added up to the story of his life — like he had really done something," she said.

John was born in the Chicago suburbs in 1938. The early pages of Lanahan's book reveal a life of privilege. John was a descendant of George Douglas, a founder of the Quaker Oats Company, and his family is seen living in ivy-covered mansions and vacationing at Martha's Vineyard.

John studied art at Harvard University and Boston University but graduated from neither. He worked as an artist in Boston, primarily as a painter, and later expanded into photography, filmmaking, screen printing and animation.

In the early 1960s, he was drafted into the U.S. Army, where he went through a personal awakening and began to confront his privilege, according to Lanahan. Fighting against injustice became his raison d'être.

One of John's first major actions targeted inequity in the American South. He joined Newsreel, a documentary collective that chronicled injustice, civil unrest and military action, and codirected the breakthrough 1967 film Strike City, excerpts of which can be seen on YouTube.

On grainy, black-and-white 16-millimeter film, John and codirector Tom Griffin documented Black plantation workers striking for a livable wage in Mississippi. Forced off their plantation homes, the workers had to construct makeshift tents during a bitterly cold winter.

"I don't want to hear 'em talking this crap to me about 'We living in a free country,'" a striker says in a voice-over.

John continued to make political films, with Newsreel and independently. Among their subjects were draft resistors in Boston, the New York underground newspaper Rat Subterranean News and the struggles of Vietnamese people as their country was ravaged by war.

"Harvest Security" by John Douglas - COURTESY
  • Courtesy
  • "Harvest Security" by John Douglas

In the mid-1960s, John settled in Putney. He soon opened up his home as a sort of commune, networking with other regional communes that were aligned with anti-war agendas.

Winooski-based photographer Dan Higgins first encountered John when he and other members of the Putney commune came to Higgins' shop to make posters. Watching John meticulously cut stencils, Higgins quickly realized that he was "an incredible perfectionist," he recalled.

During a recent call, Higgins speculated on how John fit into the art world of the early '70s when they met.

"I don't think the art world necessarily would have been interested in what he was doing at the time," Higgins said, noting that John's work, which always had a narrative thread, would have been seen as kitsch by the self-referential formalists who dominated mainstream art in those years.

In Higgins' view, John was perhaps more concerned with materials and process than with the final project. When John acquired his first personal computer, the short-lived Mindset, he spent an incredibly long time figuring out how to make it do what he envisioned.

"He was always on the cutting edge of the next technology," Burlington City Arts executive director Doreen Kraft said by phone. She and John had a decades-long friendship, dating back to his days with Newsreel.

"John was always pushing boundaries — not just in the technical sense but also [in] how the medium could be used to reach new audiences," Kraft continued.

Created in the '00s, John's "Homeland Security" series was one of his most audacious. The collection of surreal, digitally altered photographs features multiple images of the artist fully nude and armed with M16 rifles. Groups of Johns pose in cornfields emblazoned with American flags. They captain boats, convene in wooded glens and hang from tractors. They comment on white men's obsession with power and belie their own fragility.

Though he filled his work with academic and high-minded rhetoric, John was willing to show it anywhere.

"A lot of artists feel that the venue is really important, [but] John wasn't like that," Higgins said. "He was very nonjudgmental."

Locally, his art appeared everywhere from the BCA Center to Healthy Living Market & Café.

"I don't want to paint him as modest, but he didn't think he was a big deal," Lanahan observed. She said John always took compliments on his work seriously, while "I'm much more skeptical."

"Auto Warming" by John Douglas - COURTESY
  • Courtesy
  • "Auto Warming" by John Douglas

Lanahan, also an artist, recalled the moment when she fell in love with John. In 1991, eight years after he relocated to a beachfront property in Charlotte, they met through mutual friends. John showed her a computer animation he'd been working on: a freighter slowly drifting past a buoy, shining its searchlight.

"I thought it was so amazing, and that just slayed me," Lanahan said. She added that, in their time together, John provided guidance on her own work without interfering with her vision.

Both she and John were "sort of possessed people," Lanahan said, spending from "dawn until dark on whatever we were excited about."

A unique living arrangement fostered their independent spirits. When the taxes on John's Charlotte property became a burden, they added a two-bedroom studio to Lanahan's Burlington residence, constructing an elevated bridge to connect their two spaces.

John and Lanahan had no children together, but each had children from a previous marriage, including John's son, Leaf Worn, and daughter, Maya Douglas.

Though much of John's work was political, he also had a gift for capturing aesthetic beauty. Lanahan's book features many of John's photographs showcasing the intricacies of the natural world. A black-and-white shot shows the circular ripples of a cormorant touching down on the glassy surface of Lake Champlain. Other photos highlight the majesty of trees, from the textured grooves of their bark to the geometric chaos of their bare branches.

After John's cancer diagnosis, Lanahan felt that he still "had a lot of vitality.

"He was living with a lot of pain, but he saw people every day," she said.

Though most of John's colleagues from his early career had died, people of all ages came to pay their respects in his final days, Lanahan said.

Longtime fans and those who are just learning about John will have a chance to see his work this summer. A celebration of his life and a retrospective show are planned for June 25 at Burlington's Main Street Landing Performing Arts Center and Karma Bird House, respectively.

"We want to make it as representative as we can of his whole span of artwork," Lanahan said.