I’m kicking off my artist Q&A blog series, and this week I had a chance to catch up with painter, filmmaker and sound sculptor Jeff Johnston in his studio. Jeff has a show coming up on November 7th at the Red House Gallery featuring some of his most recent work, so for more information on that, hop on over to the gallery’s Facebook page linked above.
To read the entire interview, scroll on down.
Valerie Thompson: So what led you to get into Art?
Jeffery Johnston: Cartooning. A friend of mine taught me how to draw Garfield the cat and I was fascinated by the fact that you could pull things apart, visually, and through abstract shapes kind of bring them back together. That led to cartooning kind of as an obsession for me as a kid and that ended up leading into comic books and superheroes and stuff like that which ended up …that was more of an anatomy-based thing and I got obsessed with the figure…that lead to Egon Schiele and Klimt and Picasso and Mattisse and things like that. It was right around the time that I got into that stuff, and around 1999 I was studying in Italy and my instructor was such a Matisse fan – this was with a man named Daniel Lang. He was from Oklahoma but he was a New York landscape painter.
VT: New York as in the landscape?
JJ: As in he lived in NY but he was a landscape painter…an abstract painter…it was the 1950s/60s.
VT: So he lived in the city but drew his material from outside the city…
JJ: Yeah, and he was from Oklahoma, which is where I’m from. Anyway, it was around the time that I got into Matisse and then I started painting every day when I was in Italy, and it was just like “this is it.”
VT: You certainly use the figure in your work. During your time in Italy were you formally trained in painting and drawing?
JJ: No, never formally. The only things I would say were formal was me learning from anatomy books…but that’s when I was heavily into drawing the X-men (laughs) so it was like… all of the anatomy study ended up being – at that time – for cartoon characters.
VT: So would you say that your concept of figuration stems from that early cartooning work?
JJ: Sure. Absolutely. Up until recently I feel like I’ve been completely reliant on an outline. I feel like I’m just now finding I’m not so reliant on a line. It’s still there, but in varying degrees.
VT: So you have a color palette. I feel like a lot of your work has a similar color/mood. Could you talk a little more about that?
JJ: Yeah it’s very based off of the comics and cartoons and stuff like that. There’s a lot of primary colors. I’m just recently now getting into more muddy colors and trying to expand the palette a bit. But I’ve always gotten a lot of comments on using the bright colors and whenever you’re just out of undergrad and trying to sell a couple of paintings here and there, whenever somebody compliments you on something, it’s kind of like “oh well I’ll stick with that then.” I’m still drawn to the bright primary colors but each year I feel like I’m expanding a bit with techniques and a bit more with palette…trying to push myself.
VT: so what’s the first thing you do when you go about making a piece of work? What’s your ideation process like?
JJ: Right now there’s a lot of focus on happenstance. Right now my initial steps in a painting are to lay the surface down flat, fill it with water, start throwing ink in…and see what comes out of that.
VT: Has that been something that has developed out of other artists who have influenced you, or is that something you developed on your own?
JJ: I think a lot of it is having to do with reading more Zen philosophy and trying to go with the flow I guess.
VT: I think that something that a lot of artists battle with is stagnancy, or just getting in a rut or not being able to move forward. What do you do to combat that?
JJ: Between undergrad school and graduate school there was thirteen years of working as a graphic designer so I would often set up an afternoon to paint and then be completely terrified that I was going to screw something up and would just sit there in fear. The only thing that I’ve found to combat it is to just start …and I’m well aware that it can end up being awful, but now I have a lot less fear – if that painting sucks, I can paint over it later. The same goes with all the films, all the videos I’ve been doing…the sound sculptures. A lot of it I think is failure, but if I can get one victory out of it, then good.
VT: So you have a show coming up…
JJ: Yes, I do. This is with the Red House Gallery, started by a number of fellow students. The show is called “Mistakitunities” and it is kind of a representation of going from a figurative style of painting into what is now the kind of Zen, ink thing. The term Mistakitunities was something that I originally wrote for a silly comedy sketch that I was going to write but it works as a title for what I’m doing now. I feel like I’m seizing all of the mistakes.
VT: It’s pretty cool this community we have here, I feel like every day somebody’s starting some sort of new venture, fostering everyone else’s creativity…a lot of collaboration. So you’ve done some collaboration with other students, right?
JJ: Yes. It’s spectacular. I’ve worked with Kathy [Sirico] and Eric [Sorenson]. Lauren [Shaw] as well. On a whim we just say, “let’s try something” and everybody gets out the paint and it’s like a social hour but also what’s good about it is there’s no real egos battling each other. If somebody paints over something that you just did, nobody cares.
VT: So what kind of questions does your work address? Maybe you could go deeper into the work you’re making now, “Mistakitunities.”
JJ: I think a lot of my work right now is dealing with relationships – either failed or successful. I have another piece that is going to be in the show that is called “CO2” that’s about co-dependency…that’s something that has been sort of fascinating for me, the thought process that goes on, and about relation with another human being. Mistakitunities also could, in a roundabout kind of way, address that as well. Because as one progresses through one’s life there are many relationships, be it either romantic or otherwise. Sometimes you get involved with the wrong person, or sometimes it’s …let me put it this way…everybody that I’ve been in a relationship with recently has asked me if Mistakitunities is about them, and I have to say “no, it’s not.” (laughs) It’s really not…its not based on any one person or anything, it’s just a general…I guess its more of a philosophy.
VT: You’re drawing from your life experience…?
JJ: Yeah. I guess. The fact that once I relinquish control, it seems like everything has fallen into place.
VT: So it’s about trust?
JJ: Yeah, trust that the universe will align back to where you step off a cliff and somehow a platform rises up and catches you. It’s about life, to me – as I understand it at this age.
VT: So where are you going to go from here? We’ve got Mistakitunities in the works. What are you thinking for Vernissage? Is it too soon to ask about Vernissage?
JJ: It is. Because I still want to incorporate a lot of painting, but I’m getting further and further out in video and sound sculpture, and if I can keep the momentum up with installation, then I’m going to continue working in that.
VT: Installation is all the rage right now, I feel.
JJ: It’s something I’ve never done.
VT: Well it challenges the “art is on the wall and only on the wall” thing…
JJ: And I’ve only been on the wall. So I’ve got that, and then my best friend and collaborator, Scott Rouse and I have a project called “Mon-Op” and that is us making experimental films and then improvising music over the film. We did this on the Chestnut campus roof last year. We had a ball, and we’ll do it again. We’re going to be playing again. That’s another project that I see Scott and I working on well past my time here at SFAI.
VT: Yeah, so I suppose that’s another big question…where do you see yourself heading after SFAI?
JJ: Hopefully teaching and still making work. That’s basically all I want out of the rest of my life. Well, some of the people who encouraged me to come back to SFAI to get my Master’s degree…I see them teaching, lecturing and making work; and they’re showing all over the United States, sometimes overseas, and its just like “well…I want to do that.”
VT: Well on that note do you have any words for people who think they might want to go to graduate school?
JJ: Do it. And don’t hesitate.
VT: You mentioned being influenced by your time in Italy, and in particular a mentor figure would be Daniel Lang…are they any other key people who have really been there?
JJ: A couple of other instructors, Glenn Godsey…he’s still over in Oklahoma… and Virgil Lampton. I can list musicians and really well-known painters pretty much all day, but some other people…perhaps not as well-known… Michelle Ramin – she is the one who encouraged me actually to come back to school – her work is very inspiring to me, and she also introduced me to a painter that is up in Portland named Storm Tharp. Those two really pushed me to go back to grad school.
VT: Oh, and just a question that I have decided I want to ask everyone. Do you dream in color or black and white?
JJ: Last night I had a dream in black and white, but most of the time it’s color.
VT: So you do sound installation and then film…and then you do your paintings. Do you see them as two different parts of yourself, or are they harmonious?
JJ: Yeah, they are now. Up until recently they’ve never been mixed together but I’m really finding a groove now that’s basically using all my former hobbies together for one larger purpose. I even mix in some comedy here and there.
For more information about Jeff’s work, head to his website:
To check out his show on November 7th, go to the Red House Gallery Facebook page: