Born in St. John's Newfoundland, Canada, Judith Adanma Johnson found herself in Illinois when her stepfather was in the US Air Force and he was stationed at Chanute. Her passion for art later led her to Millikin University, where she earned both a BFA in Studio Art (emphasis in painting and drawing) and a BFA in Art Therapy. This combination of experiences and expertise seems well-suited to an artist who describes her Expressionistic style as "emoting on canvas and paper." I first came across Johnson's work in 40 North's Sky Gallery billboard series and was immediately struck by the bold palette and rhythmic composition. I recently reconnected with her and her work on social media, which led to the email interview below. I am grateful for her honesty and time and I know you will be too.
Smile Politely: What inspires you? What motivates you?
Judith Johnson: For me, creating is a way to process and release. The creative process can be a celebration, meditation, mourning, or even feel like an exorcism at times. That’s why I work so sporadically I suppose. There is definitely a sweet spot though. It’s really easy for me to be overwhelmed to the point of inaction.
Image: Photo of Johnson's set up for a new collage piece.
SP: What comes first, the idea or the materials? Or are they intertwined in your process?
Johnson: I like to try new things and play around with different materials. I don’t generally start anything with a concrete idea of where I’d like it to go, but I enjoy finding my way with the materials I have.
SP: How do you describe your style?
Johnson: Technically? Abstract. Expressionist. I’m emoting on the canvas or paper or whatever surface I’m working on.
Image: Mixed media work by Judith Johnson.
SP: What are your influences?
Johnson: I have a love/hate relationship with this question. There are artists, musicians, textiles, minerals, etc., that I am sure have influenced my work In some way. As a neurodivergent person, art is my first language when it comes to emotions and processing things so any outside influences are secondary to that. For a long time I was embarrassed about that. I’m going to be 39 this year and I’m just now letting myself be okay with it. I’m hopeful that art can be that bridge to mutual understanding though.
SP: You've had a strong presence in local public art having your work selected for the MTD Gallery and the Sky Gallery? How is that experience different from creating for an exhibition? Or how has the reception and recognition been different for you?
Johnson: It’s definitely less stressful than preparing for an exhibition! I love that people seem to like my work and have been really receptive to it in the community. There are so many opportunities available for artists here. It’s great.
SP: What was the best advice you got as an artist? Or, to put it another way, what advice do you give?
Johnson: It’s okay to be selfish.
Image: Painting of one the artist's sons.
SP: What has been the biggest challenge and/or reward working as an artist in CU?
Johnson: It’s been nice having such a vibrant art community so close to home. I’m disabled and I’m a SAHM [stay at home mother] of two boys, one who is also neurodivergent, so being able to engage like this right here [via email] is wonderful.
SP: How have you been faring during the pandemic? Has it changed your work process or exhibition plans?
Johnson: I have found it really hard to work actually. It’s not just the pandemic though. It seems like the world is on the brink of some sort of collapse and I’m at that point of being overwhelmed into inaction.
Image: Black and white photo of the artist.
SP: What's it been like to be a Black artist during this renewed push for social justice?
Johnson: It’s been interesting. There’s been more interest in my work which hasn’t changed, isn’t new, and doesn’t have a social justice theme. I’m not alone in this of course. Lots of artists and black-owned businesses are seeing this boost I’d imagine. Black artists and just artists of color have this added pressure of representing their group somehow. So I’m looked at through this lens of ‘black’ artist instead of just artist, right? Once that happens it’s starts to be about what I’m doing in the context of my blackness rather than what I’m doing. So to say there is racial tension would be an understatement. The only way my work has changed during this time is that I haven’t done any because of how absolutely overwhelming it is to just be in the world right now.
When the time is right, and the world feels easier to live in, I look forward to seeing Judith Adanma Johnson return to her canvas with renewed energy, and her innate style and emotional intelligence. For now, she has given us the gift of feeling less alone as we struggle through these days. And for that I am truly grateful.