EK Interview: Steve Johnson


The work of Steve Johnson is as insightful as it is beautiful and detailed.  Each piece tells a story and his stories are universal, addressing the very differences and challenges humans encounter in their daily life.  To hear Steve tell it, the juxtaposition of rats and chickadee, though opposing, shouldn’t be boiled down to simple binary forces, they represent dynamic and deep personalities in us all.  Read his interview to hear more.

Please introduce yourself, what was it like growing up in Mesa, Arizona?

My name is Steve Johnson. I was born and raised in Mesa, Arizona. As a child, I loved riding bmx bikes and exploring the desert with friends. My parents were not the protective types – I think the only rule was to be home by dinner. Much of my life has been about breaking up routines and trying out new things. I never thought much about art growing up or even thought I’d be an artist one day. I think my restless temperament and questioning mind are well suited for making art.

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Why have you chosen animals of such, relative to humans, small stature, rats, chickadee, hummingbirds, to explore your question of common ground and shared concerns? 

I believe that everyone shares a fragile and vulnerable side of themselves that is hidden from everyone but our closest family or friends. The small birds and rats are easy to empathize with, allowing the viewer to project their own ideas and value system onto the work.

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We see these animals as small, but in terms of scope we’re not that large ourselves, either compared to many megafauna or to the world in general, do you think anthropomorphizing humans on a relatively small scale will give the viewer a perspective on life that reduces the scope of their own importance?  

Maybe – maybe not.  I’ve noticed that some viewers only use their eyes long enough to assign a label and judgment. These are the people who most likely will never see the work as intended by the artist. There are other viewers who can suspend their judgments, engage with the piece and create their own narrative on multiple levels. I think using small animals is a great way to convey a variety of ideas to a broad group of people. Whether or not the viewer questions his/her own role in the world is up to them.

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What issues do you see as shared concerns within our culture?  Are they shared by the entire population? 

We’re all animals to a greater or lesser degree focused on self-preservation. We live in a competitive culture with limited resources. I think it’s natural to desire safety and security. The problem arises when we lose our humanity trying to protect our self-interests. When I was in my early to mid-twenties I worked as a line cook at a number of restaurants. Working a service job is a great way to either go insane or develop patience for impatient people. I think the world would be a better place if everyone was required to bag groceries or work in a restaurant.

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In Rape of the Chickadee have you assigned a sex to either of the animals?  Culturally it would seem that the feminine would be attributed to a bird, the masculine to the black rat, was this your intent?  That’s presuming Rape of the Chickadee is to be taken literally, is that how you intended it?  It could similarly be interpreted as oppression, particularly, and as is a popular theme in current culture, rape of the lower classes through ‘legal’ means.

This is a tricky piece to explain because “rape” is such a loaded word. This piece is not intended to be read in a literal manner, but more in a psychological way. Lately, I’ve been interested in the problem of whether or not it is possible to view oneself with honest objectivity. What I’m observing is that there are many facets of myself that I dislike or even loathe – negative aspects which have the ability to unravel and disintegrate the positive self-identity I have constructed. This piece is essentially an integrative self-portrait, an attempt anyway, of a coupling between how like to perceive myself and that which I suppress.

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There seems to be a great degree of tension between the rats and chickadee in your work on wood.  Does each of these disparate animals represent a concrete idea to you?  Where does their tension come from?

The rats and chickadee antagonizing one another can be viewed or understood as representing two sides of a psychological coin. To me, the rat represents the less desired underdog, while the chickadee represents beauty. Combining the two and subverting their roles creates a natural tension. I think humans would prefer everything to be black or white, good or bad, right or wrong. It’s easier that way. Unfortunately, life is filled with muddled grays, unknowns, and a constant tension between the way we want our life to be and the way it is.

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Your canvas with geese, ducks and pigeons are hellish, caustic and overwhelming.  The animals seem to be spilling forth, overrunning the canvas.  Where were you emotionally when you  painted them?  What kind of critical response has the series received, what have you heard people say about them?  Do you agree?

The geese paintings were made at Arizona State University where I graduated in 2008 with an MFA in Drawing. I spent almost three years feeding, photographing and drawing five non-migrating geese living in a golf course pond. I used large Lyra graphite sticks, gesso, squirt bottles, sand paper and erasers to make the large scale work. I was obsessed when I made these. I’d sleep at school in a sleeping bag in the corner of my studio. My friends called it the “mange bag” because it was so filthy. Half way through making the series my drawing hand swelled up – I somehow tore a ligament in my pointer finger while I was erasing. The physical therapist said it was her first drawing injury she’d seen. The rest of the paintings were made while wearing a soft cast.

The work for the most part has been well received and has been shown in a couple of galleries. I think their size makes showing and selling them a pain for all involved.

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In comparison to your work on canvas, your work on lithograph is stark, no less poignant, but you make much more use of white space.  How do these two media compare?  What about lithography inspires such a more reserved response from your?

The lithographs are definitely less active and utilize more negative space. The suite of lithographs uses negative space to express a sense of time and space. I do tend to tighten up a bit when making a lithograph because there isn’t a lot of room for error. I think they are a nice change of pace from the more chaotic geese pieces

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What is a guilty pleasure you have?  What do you think it says about you that you feel guilty for enjoying it?

Whenever I am waiting in the checkout lane or seated in a doctor’s office, etc… I can’t help but to look through the US Weekly or People magazines. I think celebrity culture is superficial and lacking in so many ways, yet I enjoy flipping through the pages. I’m thinking of getting a subscription now that I’ve confessed.


What are you working on now?  What’s in the pipeline for you?

Currently, I am working on graphite drawings of bird clouds. In mid-September I will be part of a group show in Beijing called “Inverse Conversations” where I will be showing a 4’ x 2’ drawing called “Rise and Fall”. I will also be in NYC this fall making intaglio prints at the Robert Blackburn Printmaking Workshop.


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