Johnson delivers lightly removed yet confident gestures, made by a sensitive and observant hand. This deliberate mark-making still contains poetry. In “Field Notes,” Johnson creates beautiful landscapes with her obsessively meditated drawing and in her most recent series, “Notes For An Emergency,” Johnson uses vintage ephemera and photography to collage work that expresses not only an analytical eye, but a deep empathy and exploration as well. Bethany Johnson talks with Newfound about the thought process behind her art practice, how she became an artist and what inspires her.
Courtney Simchak: There is a deliberate, qualitative element to all of your work—most recently the ink drawings from your series, “Field Notes.” Have you always been drawn to science and qualitative processes?
Bethany Johnson: Yes, absolutely. I’ve always been interested in learning about the world, and examining how we know things to begin with. Humphry Davy, an early 19th century chemist and inventor, is one of many to speak on the relationship between the arts and sciences. His words have stuck with me throughout the years:
“The genius of Newton, of Shakespeare, of Michel Angelo, and of Handel, are not very remote from each other. Imagination, as well as the reason, is necessary to perfection in the philosophic mind. A rapidity of combination, a power of perceiving analogies, and of comparing them by facts, is the creative source of discovery. Discrimination and delicacy of sensation, so important in physical research, are other words for taste; and love of nature is the same passion, as the love of the magnificent, the sublime, and the beautiful.”
Simchak: Do you design your methods of mark-making ahead of time or is it a series of slow but spontaneous experiments? Perhaps a combination of both?
Johnson: The “Field Notes” drawings are quite calculated. They are all rendered from one or multiple source images, so while these works entail small-scale decision-making as the images are translated into this new set of marks, the overall compositional decisions have been made in advance. This linear, methodical process references a scientific exactitude, while the hand-drawn process lends the works a more human, emotive, meditative quality.
My more recent collages (“Notes for An Emergency”), on the other hand, require much more spontaneity and active decision-making, as I am working to compose existing units of imagery and text into a composite image.
When I walk into the studio, the decision of what to work on is somewhat determined by whether I am more inclined toward the meditation of a pre-calculated drawing, or the mental exercise and visual puzzle of the collage process.
Simchak: How did you come to be an artist? Was it a decision or something inevitable?
Johnson: It was very much a decision. I had (and still have) many varying interests, which made choosing an academic and professional direction difficult. Interestingly, though, I think it is precisely this quandary that led me to art making as the best possible outcome. As an artist, I have the freedom to explore these interests in the most open-ended, interdisciplinary, and expansive way.
While I at first worried that becoming an artist “wasted” other academic inclinations of mine, I came to appreciate art-making as an intellectually stimulating and creatively satisfying way to holistically bring these interests together. I feel like I’ve gotten away with doing everything, in a way.
Simchak: In “Notes for An Emergency” you take your qualitative mark-making and add the expressive influence of collage and hand-rendered images information. The result is still in the conversation with your more abstract work, but also seems more intimate in tone and meaning. There is a balance made between information and emotion—both a sense of order and a sense of disconnect. The information is there, but it’s jumbled, rearranged. Can you talk more about what started this series and what your thought process was while working on these pieces?
Johnson: The collages are relatively new for me, and emerged as a way to shake up my studio habits a bit. It was also inspired by the fact that, in the making of my work up until this point, I had gathered a great deal of interesting source materials and paper ephemera that reflect my visual and conceptual interests. It seemed about time that these materials themselves be explored as components of finished pieces.
One of the side effects of these materials sitting around for a various lengths of time is that a lot of the papers have yellowed to different degrees. The subtly varying whites, tans, and yellows of the papers offer formal color undulations, while also conceptually referencing the passage of time. The intimacy you are referencing may be due to the warmth of these papers, along with the glimpses of text that offer a little conceptual context.
Many of the collaged components contain images of nature, and of our human-made systems for measuring and understanding nature. There is a bit of melancholy and anxiety in these pieces too; a sense of a disappearance or burying, weather looming, horizons turned sideways.
I think these pieces more viscerally present some of my more personal fears about environmental degradation, fragmentation, and climate change. There’s an ominousness contained in the collaged phrase in one of the works: THE WAY WE LIVE NOW. I think in one way or another, we are all grappling with hope and anxiety, beauty and fear.
Bethany Johnson received her MFA from the University of Texas, Austin, in 2011. She currently teaches at the University of Texas, Austin, in the Department of Art and Art history.
Courtney Simchak lives in Texas. She received a Bachelor of Arts in English from Texas State University in 2016. She has been the Visual Arts Editor for Newfound since 2014 and has an artistic background in drawing, printmaking and photography. Her work has shown in Austin and San Marcos.