Brian Chilson
FROM FINE ART TO FREELANCE: Layet Johnson traded the world of galleries and residencies for a steady stream of local clients.

If you’ve mingled in the lobby of the Arkansas Repertory Theatre during the most recent season, or lingered as you licked an ice cream cone at Loblolly Creamery, or run your fingers across the cover of the December 2021 or December 2022 issues of the Arkansas Times, or sipped on a can of the seasonal Good Weather Cold IPA from Lost Forty Brewing, then you’ve glimpsed the exuberant work of Little Rock cartoonist Layet Johnson. But that’s just scratching the surface; his art covers so much of this city.

Within a minute of my arrival at Johnson’s Midtown home, he excuses himself so he can run upstairs and put on deodorant, leaving me grinning and twiddling my thumbs in his kitchen. (For the record, he doesn’t smell; he just seems goofy, candid and a bit scattered.) After he returns from the bathroom and offers me coffee, we settle into his studio space, a plain room that he’s outfitted with a drafting table, a desktop computer and a couple of chairs, the comfier of which he gives to me. “What was your childhood like?” I ask, as I often do at the beginning of interviews. He’s only able to get in a few words before he pauses to gauge if his answer is “relevant.” 

Upon assuring him that it’s my job, not his, to select which details make it into the profile, he clarifies. “I’m doing this thing,” he says. “I’m being simultaneously strategic and open. Being myself, but at the same time assessing the situation constantly to make sure everyone’s on the same page about what we’re actually doing right now.” My bag of adjectives to describe Johnson is expanding and now includes “nervous” and “analytical,” qualities I recognize in myself. A friendship is taking shape.

Once we get back on track, I learn that Johnson’s upbringing in West Little Rock was a blissful one, with much time spent in nature and among people he affectionately refers to as “crunchy.” An avid Boy Scout, he attended the Unitarian Universalist Church with his mother and father, writer Elizabeth Findley Shores and former state House of Representatives Parliamentarian Buddy Johnson. He was also influenced by the presence of his parents’ friends, many of whom were artists. “I’ve always gravitated to people who’ve had an interest in having art in and around their lives,” he says.


In 2004, he graduated a year early from Little Rock Central High and started at Hendrix College, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in studio art. His undergraduate studies were serious and technique-oriented, with a focus on deepening the precision of his representational drawing, often based on photography, using mostly charcoal, pencil and paper. “For my senior show, though, I made these really large drawings on plywood. I started thinking about scale,” he says. 

In the M.F.A. program at the University of Georgia, he veered into installation, sculpture, performance art and conceptual art “that dealt more with three-dimensional and four-dimensional materials.” Part of his grad school thesis exhibition involved suspending cacti from a drop ceiling that he hung himself, so as to explore unexpected sculptural forms and push the limits of the architecture of the display space. Another piece consisted of hundreds of taut bungee cords in various shades, stretched vertically and placed side by side in order to create two intersecting spectrums of color and tension. 

“Groundlight,” Layet Johnson (2011)

Life after graduation, however, was less satisfying. He hopped around artist residencies in New York and North Carolina and Iowa, then moved to Brooklyn to make a dent in the art scene, but he struggled with whether the hustle was worth it. “The fine art world is so challenging,” he says. “You have to spend so much money and work so hard in the studio to have an exhibition once or twice a year.” 

Johnson didn’t gel with the big city and left after only a year, but the modest confines made a critical mark on his output. “I didn’t have a studio, I had a small apartment. I only had room and time to just draw. I just had a small desk in my tiny bedroom,” he says. “Drawing became a very flexible medium for me — a really accessible, really fast, really powerful medium.” 

Armed with a scanner and an Instagram account on which he started regularly posting his sketches, Johnson returned to Little Rock in 2014, where cartooning took hold as his main practice. The pivot felt good, free of the self-important pressures of the high art grind. “One really big thing I value about comics as a job is that traditionally it’s a very blue collar gig, for lack of a better term. It’s just a job,” he says. “Comics were always a lower-class thing. And I thought that was really cool. When I started doing them, I was like, ‘This is real. This is honorable. There’s a lot of dignity in this.’” 

Brian Chilson
AT WORK: At his home in Midtown, Layet Johnson makes progress on a collage commission for Paper Hearts Bookstore, a new business in Pettaway Square.

Since then, he’s supported himself with innumerable commissions for businesses and entities throughout Little Rock and beyond. Some of that work is more transactional, like the sign painting and logo design he’s done for Cha Cha Tea Shoppe, PK Grills, Seal Solar and Pulaski Heights Elementary School. Other times, the jobs are larger in scope, like the teeming carload of eager touring musicians he painted for The Hall, or the gleeful depiction of one-, two- and three-wheeled cyclists you can find behind the counter at Shift Modern Cyclery. 

Occasionally, the assignments transform into massive undertakings, like the 40-by-17-foot mural he dreamed up for The Rep. Comprising 75 vibrant images — each hand-selected from one of the 2022-2023 season’s five shows — it’s designed to trigger the memory or imagination of theater patrons. “I read through all the scripts and would circle the objects or props that felt like they were important,” he says. “And it’s the joy of cartooning, really, to draw the quintessential version of those. My job was basically to make symbols and then inject them with life.”

“Table Work,” Layet Johnson, at the Arkansas Repertory Theatre


When he’s not working for someone else, Johnson’s attention often drifts to longform personal projects like “Sick Day” and “Confidence,” two comic strips he’s distributed in the form of slick zines. Both are “conspiracy action stories,” according to Johnson, but the tone is mostly light and zany. His latest comic is “Pizza Therapy,” a standalone collaboration with writer Dan Gold about a man at a pizza parlor who’s trying to steal the attention of other patrons by telling absurd yarns about his love life.

Working-class as cartooning is, the medium doesn’t escape Johnson’s tendency to intellectualize. At one point during our conversation, he excitedly pulls out his phone to show me a triangular diagram by comics theorist Scott McCloud. I don’t fully understand it, but the gist is that each corner of the pyramid represents a different style of cartooning — abstract, symbolic or “realistic.” Inside the diagram are dozens of iconic cartoon characters, each specifically placed to map the combined influence of each of those three forces. 

I attempt to locate where Johnson’s work might fall on this continuum, but I quickly remember that pretty much every cartoon he does is different, and that a rigid aesthetic might defeat the point. “It feels really good to draw cartoons,” he says. “It feels really big. And it also feels new. It feels wide open. You can do absolutely anything you want. Comics make everything feel possible.”


Our interview is winding down, but Johnson has an idea. “I was kind of thinking it might be fun — because you’re a writer — to go through the dictionary and just pick out some words and give me a challenge to draw anything,” he proposes. It’s almost as if he’s treating the interview itself as a work of art, bustling with limitless pathways forward. 

After some workshopping, we decide it could be interesting if he instead put together a comic strip about our time together. Two people sitting in a room for an hour and a half doesn’t exactly make for a riveting narrative, though, so Johnson suggests we go out for a meal and see what adventures come our way. I’m not hungry, but I get on board because I’m having too much fun to say no.

Brian Chilson
Layet Johnson

Moments later, we’re in Johnson’s black Volkswagen sedan, taking a circuitous route toward Gorditas Paty, a Mexican spot in Southwest Little Rock he’s been meaning to try. He points out a garbage truck with two workers hanging off the back. They must be going at least 20 miles per hour, but the men dangle with ease. It’s a peculiar sight, but one that probably would’ve passed me by unnoticed without his guidance. “Can you take a photo?” he asks from behind the wheel. “I like it from a three-quarter angle. It’s the most dynamic because you’re thinking about diagonals. Maybe we can hop on the trash truck,” he says, alluding to the illustrated versions of us that he’s in the process of bringing to life. 


When we pull into the parking lot, Johnson instantly knows where our story is headed. Next door to Gorditas Paty is El Vaquero Western Wear. “We’re gonna get cowboy boots,” he says. Or, at least, our cartoon counterparts will. Even though it’s imaginary, he insists on doing research. If I were him, I’d just putter around like a patron vaguely considering a purchase, but Johnson is braver than me. 

“I’m a cartoonist,” he says to the man at the cash register as soon as we’re inside. “We’re working on a comic book where we go around town. We thought we would go get lunch because this guy Lupe — who works at the gas station near where I live — said Paty’s is the best. I remember y’all used to have boots here that have the toe that goes like this,” Johnson adds, moving his hand in the shape of a semicircle. The employee, whose name is Sal, looks a little confused, but graciously delivers the news that he doesn’t have any because that type of boot went out of style several years ago. 

Over at Gorditas Paty, Johnson gets a nopales dish (he’s vegan), and I get the chicken enchiladas. The food is excellent. “Everyone could be eating peanut butter and jelly for lunch and saving money, but they want to come here because it’s enriching,” he says, glancing around the restaurant at strangers. Through his eyes, an everyday scene becomes something noteworthy.

“So what happens at the end of our comic?” Johnson says, after asking me about my life. 

“Does the ending need to be consequential?” I reply. 

“What do you mean?” he asks. 

“Like, do we need to walk away changed?” I counter, half-jokingly. “Maybe we already have.”

He laughs. We come to the conclusion that there’s enough material already. When we finish eating, Johnson pays for our meal, despite my protests, with the cash I used to buy a few of his zines earlier that morning. On our way out of the restaurant, I snap a picture of the decor, thinking he might enjoy drawing the colorful paper globes strung above the tables. That detail doesn’t make it into the comic, but I’m grateful for the lesson in how to look.   

Brian Chilson
CARTOON COUNTERPARTS: With the help of some fictionalized details, Layet Johnson dreamed up a comic strip version of his Arkansas Times interview.