Visual Artist Heather Johnson: In Search of the Frightening and Beautiful

Heather JohnsonArtist Heather Johnson biked from New Jersey to Joshua Tree and back.

CCA alumna Heather Johnson’s (MFA 2001) artist residency with BoxoHOUSE, one of the newer residency programs in Joshua Tree, California, provided her with a unique opportunity -- an ambitious motorcycle journey and visual art project called In Search of the Frightening and Beautiful -- which has forever changed her life’s trajectory and art practice.

About the BoxoHOUSE Artist Residency

Johnson began the BoxoHOUSE artist residency, conceived and directed by former Judd Foundation deputy director, Bernard Leibov, in 2012. The residency targets artists who work across diverse media and prioritizes those who are exploring issues of site, community, and the environment.

"Heather’s practice is composed primarily of creating very detailed handmade embroideries that resemble highly defined drawings," explains Leibov on the BoxoHOUSE website. "She layers the embroideries so that the base imagery deals with the experience of the project and the upper layers portray mechanical drawings related to the subject matter.

"In the works inspired by this latest project, the under layer consists of a series of topographical and navigation maps that capture the experience of being on the road with its ups and downs and twists and turns. The upper layer is made up of technical drawings of her motorcycle and of its constituent parts.

"Heather considers the bike to be an extension of herself – they are as one when on the road – and the parts to be like her body parts."

Johnson found the project to be a dream opportunity: “In addition to one month of uninterrupted research and art making, this meant a motorcycle journey across the United States and back -- something I’ve dreamed of since the day I learned to keep a 500 pound hunk of metal upright and moving forward on two wheels.”

Backed by a crowdfunding campaign, Johnson spent April, May, and June of 2013 out on the road and at residency in Joshua Tree, developing In Search of the Frightening and Beautiful.”

Visit the artist's website »

Spirit of Exchange

Before embarking on her journey, Johnson mapped out the logistics ahead of time. She targeted sites she refers to as “grand human gestures on the landscape,” such as strip mines, big architectural or science-related projects, refineries, and large-scale earthworks sculptures.

“These sites are both frightening and beautiful. … Sites that stretch these notions to their limits.”

Johnson recognized she had much to gain as well as give back. “In a spirit of exchange, as I would take a photograph, a piece of literature, recorded conversation, et cetera, from a site I visited, I would also leave behind a piece of myself in the form of a hand-embroidered rendering of a bike part, which for me functioned as a body part, since a bike and body are one when moving through space. These were set loose in the landscape as a kind of gift, an act of letting something precious go.

“The idea is that I inject small, ethereal, very human connection into these spaces for others to pick up on and take from/interpret in whatever way they see fit . . . a kind of subtly coded communication with strangers meant to subtly interrupt how they would otherwise experience that site.”

An Exit Strategy

Upon her return to her New Jersey home base after her journey and residency, Johnson spent the remainder of the summer producing new work for a group show in New York organized by BoxoHOUSE director Bernard Leibov.

“I was living off borrowed money and part-time work income in an effort to avoid the inevitable -- returning to an unfulfilling full-time job necessary for survival. I realized this was no longer an acceptable option for my life.”

Johnson spent the remainder of 2013 planning her exit strategy: selling most of her possessions and artwork and living in her studio.

In February 2014, Johnson was given the opportunity to housesit for a friend in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, and it was there she developed the second iteration of In Search of the Frightening and Beautiful.

“I had two months there to make new work and get to know a new culture and environment.” Johnson says.

She then continued to travel throughout Mexico, dropping embroideries and collecting experiences and ephemera as she went.

Art Making with an Evolving Impact

“In Search of the Frightening and Beautiful” has had a major impact on both Johnson’s artwork and on her life in general: “My embroideries have gotten thicker, looser, rougher, bigger. They incorporate more information, personal and otherwise, drawing inspiration from events or observations I’ve experienced on the road.

“On my journey through Mexico, I added a new element to the embroideries: Spanish text describing sights, sounds, smells, and other visceral observations. You could say that the more I absorb in the way of experience, the richer the work becomes.”

“Meanwhile, though the project itself began as one focused on my relationship with the land, it has evolved to be every bit as much, if not more so, about people. For the first part of the project through the United States, I planned out all of the drop sites ahead of time. These decisions came from an intimate knowledge of the U.S. and rather well defined feelings about my own relationship to it as a citizen.

“But for Mexico, I could make no such presumptions. Drop sites were completely unplanned. I approached Mexico with a clean slate, and as open a mind as I could have. I ended up choosing sites that were most connected to people I’d spoken to -- people who were kind and generous, or helped me on my journey in some way.”

A Documented Trail

One of the most important aspects the project is the documentation. “It is safe to say that this project has reintroduced me to photography as an art form,” explains Johnson.

Her blog and Facebook page for the project are generously populated with photographs from her journeys, which document the landscape, the people, her artwork, her motorcycle, and whatever else captures her attention.

“The blog writing has been very important as well. Writing has forced me to remember and reflect on everything in detail.”

Both her photographic and written documentation greatly impact her new work, feeding into a variety of mediums, including embroidery and watercolor.

Since the start of the project, Yam Gallery in San Miguel de Allende and Cal Poly University in San Luis Obispo has shown her work. (Her previous work has been shown at galleries and museums throughout the United States, Europe, and Japan.)

CCA Experience

Johnson recalls her experience at CCA as “two years constituted by a messy morass of creative growth and energy. It all blurs in my mind as one big explosive experience.

“The grad students in my year all came in with vastly different ideas about art, with wildly diverging undeveloped artistic practices. Few of us had anything in common, which worked in our favors, enabling us to learn a great deal from each other.”

Johnson’s fellow students were not the only people essential to Johnson’s education at CCA. “I am so grateful to the Photography Department (headed at the time by Larry Sultan, Susan Ciriclio, and Chris Johnson) for allowing me to move out of the photography medium into different directions.

“I needed to break out of the ‘frame’ and express myself with a more physical kind of work, where meaning came more from making than from pictorial representation.

“At this point in the school’s evolution, cross-disciplinary experimentation was working its way into program structures and curriculums. They not only allowed it, but encouraged it.

“I loved being able to direct my own learning and practice; to be able to go out and find inspiring people to work with and get credit for it. To have two solid years to figure out what I was supposed to be doing as an artist.

“For that, I am so grateful.

Third Iteration of Project Under Way

Though Johnson is currently quite content in her desert abode in Twentynine Palms, California, she hears the road calling her name once again.

Johnson’s third iteration of her project began last month. To prepare, she once again used crowdfunding and selling her artwork to finance her intended six-month journey through South America.

“It’s a hard reality,” she says, “but one I will figure out come hell or high water. I’ll need everyone’s help to do it.”