Birney Imes: Art Johnson’s art

February 20, 2010 9:03:00 PM

Birney Imes - [email protected]


On a recent Thursday afternoon Daylan Hairston stood outside a metal building scrubbing the inside of a car hood balanced on two sawhorses. Hairston, 19, is a senior at Victory Christian Academy, and has the good fortune of already knowing what he wants to do with his life. Daylan plans to work in the auto body shop of Art Johnson, a man who claims Hairston as his "adopted" grandson. 


Hairston says he became interested in cars four years ago when he met Johnson''s grandson, Jeremy Eaves, and they started working on their muscle cars -- Jeremy''s ''67 Chevrolet Camaro and Daylan''s ''68 Plymouth Roadrunner. 


Since then the boys have spent their spare time doing what they can to help Johnson and body men restore wrecked vehicles to their former glory. 


Art Johnson has been taking dents out of cars for more than 50 years. He started when he was 11, and learned the business just as his grandsons are doing, by helping experienced body men repair and paint cars. In Johnson''s case, he began his apprenticeship in a shop owned by his dad and uncle in Green Island, NY, just outside of Albany. 


"My dad was one of the best body men in the business," he says. 


Rather than being drafted as a grunt to serve in Vietnam, Johnson joined the Air Force. After a tour of ''Nam, the Air Force spit him out in a place he''d never heard of, Columbus, Miss. That was July 1970. Johnson promptly married a local girl, Judy Shepherd, and took her back to New York. By then he had adapted to warmer climes, and at the first snow, he said to his new wife: "We''re going back to Mississippi." 


Back in Columbus Johnson worked construction for James Conn and then a civilian job on base. In 1984 he opened a body shop on Highway 50 with Bill Colvin and Leo Belcher. You could say Johnson got his big break in 1993 when Chevrolet dealer Royce Sesser asked him and Colvin to take over the body work for his dealership. 


"Royce said it (his body shop) was costing him $30,000 a month," Johnson said. He leased the building and started doing Sesser''s work and any body work that happened in. The operation is virtually hidden from view, behind a chain link fence and lost in the clutter of dismembered autos. From the looks of things Thursday afternoon, being invisible hasn''t hurt. Johnson and the five body men who work with him seem to have all the business they need. He calls the place Auto Body Center. 


"It''s more an art," Johnson said, answering a question about what makes a good body man. He thinks the only way to learn the business is by working alongside a master. 


"They''ve got schools for it. I''ve had three men who went to school and they weren''t body men," he said. 


"You have to take pride in your work," he continued. "You do something half-assed, and you don''t see ''em (the customer) again." 


The money''s good he says. "Some of these guys make, between $60,000 and $80,000 a year. You get paid by what you do. A good body man can work 100 (billable) hours (a week). 


Johnson says the work has remained the same, only the materials have changed. When he started, he filled dents with lead, then Bondo. Now insurance companies call the shots, and the new parts, with their lightweight, high-strength steel, are more easily and cheaply replaced. 


Johnson says the new paints are better, but they''re certainly not cheaper. 


"Back when I started, you could get a good paint job for $300. Today you can spend $4,000 and you''ll have a fair paint job," he says. 


That $4,000 gets you three coats of base and two overcoats of clear using paint that costs $750 a gallon and about $200 for the clearcoat. To what amounts to $1,000 of paint, add anywhere from 30 to 50 hours labor, and you''ve got costs that run into the thousands. 


A couple months ago I took a car to Johnson after a stack of beehives had crashed down on it and dented the hood. Yes, I know, stupid. When I picked up my car a week later, I marveled at the flawless work. The car is 8 years old, and, I expect the silver paint had faded.  


"The paint match is perfect," I said. 


"Yea, there were about 20 choices," Johnson said nonchalantly. 


Johnson says he still enjoys the work; that he would much rather be working on a car than sitting at a desk answering phone calls. 


"It''s dirty work," he says, "but you can make good money and you have something to show for it when you get done. I don''t know why anybody enjoys it, but I love it. 


Birney Imes III is the immediate past publisher of The Dispatch.