John L. Newman was born in Rohwer, a small farming community located in the Arkansas Delta and lived there until his mother moved to Kansas City, Kansas when he was five. Newman attended Kansas City, Kansas, public schools excelling in art and receiving a scholarship to Columbus College of Art and Design.
Drafted in 1970, John worked as a military policeman until being honorably discharged. He then went on to work at Hallmark Cards for three years before deciding to return to school for a teaching degree. Newman received his teaching certificate and Bachelor of Arts Education degree from the University of Kansas in 1975. He taught junior high and high school before returning to the University of Kansas to receive his Master of Fine Arts degree in 1982.