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Luke Johnson brings a unique talent to his custom sneaker and art apparel designs

By DIANNE RUSSELL

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

Laguna resident and artist Luke Johnson incorporates two of his passions – art and cats – into his creations for Luke Johnson Designs (LJD). Unfortunately, his cat Sammie is unaware that a similar likeness appears on several of Johnson’s shoe designs – LJD Art Jam Sneakers.

“I like the cat image,” Johnson said. “It’s not exactly my cat Sammie. Sammie’s eyes are golden, but it’s a good black cat – and I like the black and white Sammie Cat sneakers. I also like the colorful ones based on my 3D sculpture. A couple of people asked me to autograph those shoes when they bought them.”

Johnson’s mother and partner in LJD, Stacy Collins Johnson, said, “We’re a family business dedicated to celebrating neurodiversity by creating original and outstanding custom sneakers and art apparel for original and outstanding people.

Luke, who happens to have an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) diagnosis, is a Laguna Beach artist with an atypical eye who provides the inspiration and original art behind each LJD product in the designer collection. I’m a Neurodiversity Family Life Coach and artist with experience in retail, education, marketing, tech, design and, most importantly, motherhood.”

Luke Johnson 5

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“Why fit in when you were born to stand out” is LJD’s motto and Johnson’s designs are a singular reflection of that message

Collins Johnson’s daughter, Eva, inspired by her brother, majored in psychology and is now working with autistic children for Flagstaff, Ariz. schools and pursuing graduate studies.

LJD supports the ASD community by providing young neurodiverse adults opportunities to build self-esteem and gain independence. “It’s my hope that others will become part of this creativity in a collective environment.”

Collins Johnson was born in Laguna, and her mother still lives here. Sadly, her family lost their home in the 1993 fire. Collins Johnson lived in San Francisco for many years before coming back to Laguna in 2012.

“When I lived in San Francisco, I did a lot of art,” she said. “I was a volunteer art teacher at my kids’ art-based school and was in some figurative drawing and painting groups. I have also had a few pop-up shows at Laguna Gallery of Contemporary Art.”

So, how did the family end up back here in Laguna?

“When you have a special needs kid (Luke was diagnosed when he was 2 years old), you have these meetings called IEP (individual educational program) planning meetings,” Collins Johnson said. “Because we couldn’t find the right fit, at one of these meetings, the vice principal said, ‘I’m not supposed to say this, but I know you’re from Laguna Beach, and they have an excellent program.’ Then I called a friend I went to high school with who happens to have two autistic twin boys who are now in their mid-20s – and she had moved back here. She said, ‘Come here, the schools are great, and Irene White, who is the head of the special education department for the district, is absolutely phenomenal.’”

Luke Johnson 5

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Design Collection

It turned out to be exactly the right move for the family.

“Just the bare minimum, things that I had to just fight for in San Francisco, were offered here in Laguna schools,” she said. “The schools and the community were just so wonderful with Luke and kids like him. They teach empathy, and I’m very appreciative and glad we made the move – all that’s great – plus the beach!”

Johnson’s talents were recognized early. “In middle school art class, the teachers noticed his work and he won some awards. Mr. Dressler at Thurston took Luke under his wing.”

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A business is born

Among the countless things the pandemic altered in 2020 was Johnson’s senior year at Laguna Beach High School. “The pandemic was hard on all of us,” Collins Johnson said. “For Luke, and a lot of people like him, the isolation was particularly disconcerting. At the start of COVID, Luke was just beginning to sprout some social esteem. He had a part in the upcoming school play and was eager to graduate. Then, a week before the school show’s premiere, lockdown happened. This took a hefty toll as Luke became rather depressed and isolated. What to do? We got creative, and Luke Johnson Designs was born. LJD was conceived as a vehicle to build Luke’s self-esteem and provide an avenue towards independence. Ultimately, we’d like to open this up to other neurodivergent or ASD, ADHD young artists and entrepreneurs so they too can discover their superpowers.”

Luke Johnson 5

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Stacy with one of the fantastic shoe designs

Johnson went to Irvine Valley College for art classes and worked at the Surf & Sand Resort for a while. However, his favorite pastime is painting and according to his mother, he’s happiest painting all day.

LJD’s quality-tested, sustainably sourced, colorful and fun apparel includes art wear, tote bags, surf gears, evening handbags, street art handbags, messenger bags, kicks, custom kicks, slides, sneakers, travel bag and Converse-style Jams.

The most popular items are from the Art Jam Sneaker Collection, which are vegan leather.

Although inspired by nature, animals and contemporary art, Johnson gets ideas from other sources as well.

“My inspiration is often about different places I think about,” he said. “Sometimes these places are from my imagination. Sometimes they might be from another planet or another country or another time.”

Since the business launched, the design process for the shoes has evolved. “At first, we made one style of shoe based on one painting,” he said. “Then we saw that we could create different shoes or different dresses or backpacks with parts of other drawings or paintings. We now see we can use a whole or part of a painting for a shoe or dress design.”

Luke Johnson 5

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3D sculpture

 “Many people on the spectrum find something that they’re comfortable with, and he’s very comfortable with painting,” said Collins Johnson. “It calms him and makes him happy. He can do it for hours, and sometimes that difference is what a child loves and yet people try to change that. Part of the reason I’m doing this too is because of my journey with Luke. I’m a big advocate for changing the perception that autism is a disorder into thinking of it as a path and way to find each person’s gift. That’s why they’re here and being able to embrace that and celebrate it for them means everything. It’s a tough road and we’re lucky we’ve come so far. We have a lot of research and the schools here are so good, there’s so much support.”

As described by Collins Johnson, “LJD views ASD, autism, ADHD, anxiety and all neurodivergent diagnoses as differences, unique qualities and often, quite frankly, superpowers – not disabilities. A goal of LJD is to help eliminate the labels and stigmas for everyone.”

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Another black cat design, this one with pops of red on white

Future plans

Recently, Johnson attended two adoption events put on by Catmosphere Laguna Foundation and hosted at different locations. He sold shoes there and gave back part of the sales proceeds to Catmosphere.

“They were a fun way to help support such a good cause and a lovely opportunity for exposure for us,” said Collins Johnson.

Two weeks ago, they were invited to be in the silent auction at the Kahuna Cares fundraiser in San Clemente for those with special needs. It was a successful event as well.

“We’re talking about adding more products, maybe phone covers or socks,” Johnson said. “We are also going to change the name to Lyra June Designs soon. I don’t like having my name as the company. Lyra June is a constellation, and I like how it sounds.”

That seems like the perfect name – reaching for the stars isn’t out of the realm of possibility, especially for Johnson.

For more information, go to www.ljdlukejohnsondesigns.com.

Follow him on Instagram @lukejohnsondesigns.

Shaena Stabler, President & CEO - Shaena@StuNewsLaguna.com

Lana Johnson, Editor - Lana@StuNewsLaguna.com

Tom Johnson, Publisher - Tom@StuNewsLaguna.com

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Mary Hurlbut and Scott Brashier are our photographers.

Alexis Amaradio, Dennis McTighe, Marrie Stone, Sara Hall, Suzie Harrison and Theresa Keegan are our writers and/or columnists.

In Memoriam - Stu Saffer and Barbara Diamond.

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