Studio visit with Stephen T. Johnson

By Ayla Rexroth

My studio visit with Stephen required a drive to Lawrence, Kansas.  I spent the day promenading around the downtown area, and made a stop at the Wonder Fair gallery and print shoppe, before heading to Stephen’s studio in a warehouse filled area of Lawrence.  Appropriately the building has huge red capital  A, B, C & D in giant 3-D block lettering across the front. Stephen’s work includes painting, collage, drawing, sculpture and installations that use an alliterated alphabetic structure to guide material and compositional choices. Stephen is an award winning children’s author and illustrator and his work becomes contextually slippery because it is displayed in museum and gallery exhibitions, public installations, and simultaneously printed in his children’s books.  

Stephen showed me collections of materials and explained some of the semantic rationals that guide his artwork. For Example, “I got all these fake french fries from a guy in New York” and manipulated them into the narrative, “Fourteen hundred and fifty-five fake French fries were flipped, flicked, and flung onto a full-size (75 x 54”) field of faint fuchsia.” From his book A is for Art: An Abstract Alphabet.

Alongside his materials he purposefully references art historical movements and era’s . The work reminded me of the type of play found in works by Tom Friedman, but materially did things like replace the use of hay on an Anselm Keifer painting with french fries.

This relationship between the fine art world and children’s storytelling goes both ways. Sometimes artworks are used as illustrative content for his books, and in other instances objects and symbols found in classic story telling informs the art object. In Stephen’s work, Meditation On The Memory Of a Princess, he created a massive pink soft plastic sculpture, that with the use of an internal motor blows up into a form reminiscent of the mattress pile in The Princess and The Pea.  Connecting the artwork with the educational slant of the books, turns the sometimes daunting idea of abstraction into an accessible entry point into the fine art world.

Photographs courtesy of Clayton Skidmore.

Special thanks to Stephen.

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One response to “Studio visit with Stephen T. Johnson

  1. Thanks for this article on an artist that I did not know about! Nice point about context too.

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