John Johnson was one of the first Black producer/directors for network television in New York City. Over his 30-year career, he also worked as a news reporter and anchor for WABC, WCBS and other outlets, covering major 20th-century developments, like the prison release of Nelson Mandela, the Bosnian and Persian Gulf wars and O.J. Simpson’s murder trial. Along the way, he wrote a book, made documentary films and developed a professional painting career.
But four years ago, the native New Yorker sold his Manhattan apartment to start a new life, full of nesting and nature with a focus on arka, in Clarkstown, N.Y.
Mr. Johnson bought his Rockland County home — an A-frame with a pitched roof that sits on two acres of woods — as a country escape in 1992. His arka studio is there, as is a photography studio for his wife, Ann Yih, 57, who is a retired news producer. “Moving here was intuitive, as we’re living a very isolated life right now,” Mr. Johnson, 82, said.
But the couple is not quite done with the city. “It’s where I felt free and the racial diversity was good,” Mr. Johnson said. “When Covid is over, we’re hoping to buy another apartment in Manhattan.”
“Moving here was intuitive,” Mr. Johnson said of the couple’s move to rural New York four years ago. “We’re living a very isolated life right now.”Credit…Al J. Thompson for The New York Times
SOFT START We’re up around 9:30. I never use an alarm. That was my life for 30 years. Never again. Ann makes decaf, Chock full o’ Nuts. I love caffeine, but if I have any I’ll be up for three days. And I have a protein bar. Then we do The New York Times Spelling Bee on two different computers in separate rooms. Even though we both get to 30 words, I hear her computer shout out first, “I’m a genius.” Sunday is the one day I don’t work out, so I look at the rowing machine in delight knowing that I don’t have to do it.
PLAYLIST, PAINTING At 11 I go into my arka studio, which we created by using part of our deck, and paint for the next two hours. I’m an expressionist and mostly paint on canvas with acrylics because it dries faster than oils. I’ve been painting since I was 8. My mother used to let me draw on the walls with my Crayons. I turn on my playlist, which has over 1,800 songs. I like anything that’s moody, classical and romantic: Maria Callas, “Doctor Zhivago” “Lara’s Theme,” “Pavane for a Dead Princess.” I can work on three paintings at a time and usually finish one within a week.
COFFEE BREAK At 1, I take a coffee break. I miss caffeine, but I have a really hard time sleeping; it just makes my body want to disco at Studio 54. Then I wander back into the studio.
REFLECTION If I don’t want to paint, I’ll write free verse, musings or poems, about what I’m doing or thinking. I sit outside on the deck and remind myself to look up at the sky. To take in the woods, stare at the deer and breathe. This calms me and makes me appreciate being here. We live in a flat existence. I don’t want to do that. I want depth. I don’t want to wander through life without noticing what’s around me.
NESTING Ann and I meet in the nest, it’s what we call our TV room. Since Covid we’ve been spending a lot of time here. We both spent our adult lives working in TV, so we’re news junkies. We watch “CBS Sunday Morning,” then Ann reads the British newspapers. I’m into nature and what’s happening to tigers and elephants, so I’ll read something about them. Then we read Page Six, for fun. We are both worried about the country. The anger in America right now has been depressing.
HOME-COOKED Before Covid, we would go into the city four times a week to see friends and have dinner at Milos or any of the Jean-Georges restaurants. I love his food. Now we eat at 4. Usually it’s roasted chicken and carrots, a big salad, and Ann makes great blueberry and apple pies. I could eat her pies 24 hours a day.
DRIVE AROUND TOWN During lockdown we got in the habit of getting in the car and just driving so we could get out of the house. For the next 45 minutes, we drive around to see what stores are still open and which have closed.
INNER CRITIC Around 5:30 I wander back into the studio and curse at myself if I don’t like what I’ve done and work for the next hour.
SCREENERS At 6 we return to the nest and spend a few hours watching movies. I was one of the first Black filmmakers to become a Directors Guild of America member, so we get sent all the screeners. Recently we saw “The Dig” and “Promising Young Woman,” both with Carey Mulligan, we love her, and “The Flight Attendant.” We have recorded “60 Minutes” and we always watch that.
WORDS AND WINE By 9, Ann is back in the library at her computer, and I’m still in the nest. I love red wine, especially California cabernets because they’re light and have a great aroma and no aftertaste. It’s kind of romantic. I put on my music and edit something I’ve recently written. Or I’ll read something by André Gide, or Drudge Report.
TALKING, LAUGHING From 10 to 12:30, I’ll join Ann. It’s our time to gab and giggle. We talk about everything, which is a gift. I don’t know what I’d do without her. I would be adrift. We both come from abusive homes, and we have a simpatico relationship because of this. We’ll have another glass of wine; she’ll show me some of her photography that she’s been working on. She’s very talented. Then we call our friend Grace, who lives in Malibu. We are all CBS News refugees, and we catch up and laugh at each other.
WHITE NOISE By 1 we’re both in bed. I put on my CPAP machine. I’ve had sleep apnea for the past 30 years. The white noise helps Ann sleep.