Reminisce on the history of Boston’s alternative scene, and a few names come immediately to mind. However, it’s important to remember just how diverse the scene actually was. Incredible talents skirted the local limelight time after time and because the era was so explosive, it became hard to keep track of some of the most amazing contributors.
That’s where we come in. A lot can be said about Magnus Johnstone and his various pursuits. As a painter, founding member of Punkt/Data gallery, and DJ for WMBR known for his eclectic choice in music, those that knew him would agree there was never a dull moment in his presence often spent in his 5 bedroom studio apartment in Mission Hill. To that end, we spoke with Suzy Bennett, visual artist, ex-girlfriend, and longtime friend of Magnus to get an intimate look at those days and better decipher the man behind the legend.
"Anti Messiah" April 1991
How did you meet Magnus?
Suzy: We both grew up in Duxbury. He moved from the Midwest when he was quite young, and eventually we both ended up going to Boston to attend the Museum School. While I stayed there, Magnus dropped out after two semesters. He was unconventional by all aspects, and I think the formal setting just wasn’t for him. Of course he continued creating his art independently with infectious passion. Nothing got in his way. I’d usually wake up to him cross-legged on the floor drawing with dip ink pen.
"Firewater" October 1976
What were some of his inspirations?
Suzy: He really drew from a huge variety of influences. He’d pick specific hours of the day that were astrologically supported. He also drew from a wide array of literature. A lot of his early work was influenced by revelations from the Bible. One book he really loved was The Golden Bough by James Frasier, which related to how myths repeat themselves in different cultures. His work also revolved around diseases and the battles humanity has with them - Guns, Germs and Steel [by Jared Diamond] was another huge influence of his. His work really changed with the times as well. As the digital world came to rise he focused a lot on that with paintings consisting of many smaller, geometric shapes to create a whole much like a piece of technology itself.
A flyer for one of Magnus's first exhibitions
Tell me a bit about his musical pursuits.
Suzy: Well, of course there was Punkt/Data and Skunk Piss Magazine. Magnus would collab with [Mark Flynn] and the guys for that and actually put out one of the only consistent pieces in the magazine; a biweekly comic called “Less Than Zero”. We’d have shows in the gallery constantly, ya know it was just easier back then to get it all together. Our 5 bedroom was only 100 bucks a month, and it was cheap to rent the gallery space as well. Of course there was his show [on WMBR] “Reggae Mukassa”, which he named after one of his favorite reggae record stores in Mattapan called Mukassa Records. He actually worked there for a bit of time. The radio shows never ended. For example, if he had a show on Friday he’d spend the week getting the music together. He really devoted a lot of time to getting things right. Later, of course, he’d get into hip-hop and electro. Like I mentioned before, his work changed with the times, and his pursuits in music did as well.
Skunk Piss one year anniversary flyer
I understand Magnus worked a lot of side jobs to pay the bills. What were some of those?
Suzy: He worked cleaning bars, a deli at one point. He worked at a liquor store on Huntington Ave for a good spell of time. The two of us worked in an antique shop in Brookline as well. Like I said before, it was easy to work part-time and focus on other pursuits. Nowadays it seems like to even try and make rent you have to work all the time. I mean Mission Hill has changed so much, we used to be able to pick peaches off a tree right from our window. I’m not sure if that’s even possible today.
Magnus at WMBR
What do you think Magnus would want to communicate today?
Suzy: He’d say, ‘Attend to your creative muse and really listen to what she tells you, because if you don’t you’ll never accomplish anything.” And be authentic. Magnus was totally authentic, even if it weirded people out. I’ve never met anyone like him, truly. He left behind an oeuvre that took blood, sweat, and tears to produce. I think any artist should take that away from all this. He got you to see in a different way and that’s because he was so open to different cultures and works. That’s another huge takeaway from Magnus that I still hold true today.
Suzy and Magnus.
In honor of Magnus’s life and work, longtime friend and fellow Skunk Piss pioneer Mark Flynn teamed up with the Nave Gallery in Somerville for an exhibit titled Magnus Johnstone: Larger Works & More. This event marked the first time Magnus’s work has been shown in the Boston area since the 90s, and all proceeds from sales will go to the Johnstone family to help safely store, maintain, and market his work. The show will up through the 17th and the gallery operates on weekends from 1 to 5pm.