Name: Jennifer Johnson
Current Location: Philadelphia, PA
Education: MFA, Ceramics, Tyler School of Art, 2016; BA, Philosophy, Swarthmore College, 1985 Preferred Medium(s): Ceramics, Fibers, Sculpture, Video, Installation, Performance.
Children (ages and genders): Two 26 year old men
Website address(es): www.jenniferjohnsonclay.com
What is your background (where are you from, education, important details, where are you now, etc.)?
I’ve lived in the southeastern corner of Pennsylvania almost my whole life: moving from Lancaster to Swarthmore for college, and ending up in Philadelphia. For ten years I worked in scholarly publishing, and then in 1996 co-founded a small company that makes response device for Neuroscientists where I still work part time. There has always been a restlessness in me, wanting something more to fill my mind. Having children was a really good 18-year long project, but when it was coming to an end in 2009 I started doing ceramics again and which led to me going back to school for an MFA at 52. Looking back now I can see how “making” was always super important to me, how I would create projects all the time to have the chance to use my hands to make constructions, but this is something I disparaged and even hid from people. The last nine years have been a gradual recognition by me of this part of myself, and letting it develop into the central part of my life and being how I identify myself.
Although you are currently an empty-nester, but you always are a mother. Was there any part of your formal or non-formal training that prepared you for being a creative maker and mother simultaneously? What are some of the concerns and empty-nester/maker might face?
I recognized myself as a parent first, and this experience led to me discovering that I was a maker, and needed to do this as much as possible. Coming to this understanding wasn’t easy, because it wasn’t a category that I had growing up. In the most cliched terms I was suppose to go to college, get a degree, get a job, get married, buy a house, and have children, and I did this just like most of my friends did. It definitely felt like being on a conveyor belt and was something that was marketed to us all the time. I mostly felt like a poor player in this game, not really doing any parts of it very well; not buying the right stuff, not looking right, not being the way I was suppose to be as a mother. At the same time, I really enjoyed what I did do, and the people I was with in my family and community. My community, which is full of weirdos like me and includes lots of artists and makers, gave me lots of support.
So I think being the kind of mother I wanted to be and being a maker is kind of all wrapped up together for me: that I should go with my instincts and follow the path as I see it, instead of following some script laid out for me that comes in through culture which is more about conformity and consumerism.
If the moment of becoming a parent is a huge shift in allocation of resources — no sleep, huge physical changes, no time alone, struggles to fit in a job, etc — the moment when your house has no more children is equally disruptive. The physical space of the house is all changed, and your brain has to adjust, too, like recovering from an addiction. It’s super depressing and difficult. Then you go through it, and it’s kind of amazing how you get to be the person you were before, with all this extra space in your brain. You can see who you were ~20 years ago, and it is so amazing to have these uninterrupted periods of time to complete more complex projects, that have languished for years. Because we had twins, both shifts were extra intense, which is why it seems so clear to me. As an empty-nester, what was(is) most important is to stop being a day-to-day parent and move to being more removed, letting them become who they will be, and not micromanaging their lives from afar. For me, immersing myself in my practice has been the best way to not over-parent my grown children.
Are there any women that you find to be an inspiration for you as an artist/mother at any age or stage?
Probably the most important person to me is Sheba Sharrow, a close family friend. She provided outside encouragement, along with the really excellent high art teachers I had, first Mrs. Patton for 8t h and 9t h grade, and then Jim Gallagher who taught me ceramics 10-12, and in the summer, too. Sheba, who taught painting at Millersville College, would always talk to me about my practice. Even when I was in college she encouraged me, and we had deeply intimate conversations which have stayed with me. I have her painting “Rebirth,” in my studio as a sort of angel. She’s my idea of what an artist is, and I’ll always remember her Cherry Hill, NJ tract house where she turned the living and dining rooms into her studio, moving there to be close to her grandchildren. My favorite mother figure was Connie Parsons, my mother’s childhood best friend, who was the most passionate and generous person I’ve met. Her house was a chaotic mess of projects and doings and makings. Visits there were so lively and energetic, and I wanted to live that kind of life with my family, and we definitely achieved the crazy, messy house, with too many projects and lots of hoarding. But there are lots of other people who made me see the maker in myself: Abby Sullivan came to work at our company, Current Designs, and I credit her with inspiring me to start doing ceramics again at the Clay Studio. Knowing she was a work exchange and
then seeing her do projects at Fleisher Art Memorial was important; it made me a little jealous, and think I should do that, too. Two friends, Gillian Stack and Sarah Zwerling, also gave me examples of artists who struggled to find time to be creative while being mothers. All the little conversations we had were important and helped me to see things differently, and recognize new parts of myself. With Gillian, everything she does carries her creative, aesthetic and playful approach to problem solving and life living.
What is your story of having young children and making? Can you talk about how you balance? Did you take time off after the birth of your children? How did that work? What about childcare? How did you navigate making artwork? How did you navigate work?
My (our) birth story is really the best story of my life! My second son was discovered 20 minutes after the first one’s birth, so I was kept at the hospital for three days and during that time I could feel my brain being rewired and making room for this new “project.” Everything I had planned for was now different, but I was extremely fortunate. My job let me have a longer paid maternity leave. I was in shock for the first year or two, so I mostly just remember everything being okay, but it must have been really hard. Yes, really hard even with all kinds of support and a husband who really did half, and a flexible, well-paid job.
Looking back through the lens of making things, I can see how I always tried to squeeze in special projects. We edited a newsletter for the neighborhood and I spent probably 50 hours designing the new masthead for it on a 1990’s computer where it would take 5 minutes to redraw every time I made a change. Every year I would make fancy prizes for the 4t h of July games in the neighborhood. On a three day break, I made a large tapestry quilt which I had been planning for a long time. I never looked at any of this as artwork, but it really was and now I can see it how important it was to my happiness and sense of self.
I also put a lot of this desire into my parenting which sometimes went really wrong, like the second grade project, which we now refer to as the “MOMA solar system.” I don’t think our child had anything to do with it. All the other children brought in lumps of clay on hangers, while we delivered a beautiful, perfectly spray-painted, scale version with custom machined rods. It was a really good teachable moment for me.
Our work situation was unusual. When my children were three, we took a one month vacation from our full-time jobs at the near by university and drove cross country to visit family. It was amazing, and we came back and started a company, quitting our jobs. Kind of crazy, it actually worked out after about three or four years, and it’s still what we do today. For about ten years it was just the two of us, and I got to make lots of stuff, not art exactly, but objects and this was a really great way to use my hands and mind to solve problems. It also gave us maximum flexibility as parents. What we lacked in money, especially the first five or six years, was compensated for by being able to tag-team parent as needed.
Your son choosing to attend art school helped you see it’s value and deepened your desire for artist pursuits. Can you talk about your experience of working on an MFA with so much valuable life experience under your belt? What were some of the advantages/challenges? How did it change your relationship with your son?
There were a few experiences at the Clay Studio along with my son’s experiences at Tyler which made me want to get an MFA. I went to an artist talk of a woman’s whose work I loved, but her talk lacked engagement with other artwork; it felt more like a lecture and not a conversation. I wanted my work to be a conversation that reached out and included all the influences. The Clay Studio also offered critiques for the Associates and I signed up for one with John Williams. It was my first critique and I spent the entire time explaining my work to everyone. Then John asked me a few questions, and offered a critical view. It made me so furious and was all I could think about for the next few weeks. This experience at 50+ was what made me know that if I could go back to school I would learn that things that would really help me develop, especially hearing the uncensored musing and consideration of all the successes and failures of what is actually presented in a physical form.
Art school after having children was an incredible experience! It was great to not be in charge, to not be responsible, and to have the unbroken stretches of time to follow through on an idea. It was also challenging, really challenging at times because I was at such a different stage in my life, and that was mostly invisible to everyone. I can’t say enough how kind and generous most of the faculty and students were to me being really pretty old, and traditional MFA programs aren’t designed for someone in their 50s. In one studio visit with a 23 year old painter and he just glared at me, maybe thinking, “how in the hell did my mom end up at art school with me?” But mostly I knew those guys very well (without having met them), with them being peers of my sons, and loving that age with its sharpness and energy, knowing stuff like what action figure they had in 2nd grade. It was shocking to me how beautiful everyone was, and how unaware they were of their youth, their skin and hair. I assumed that if they ever gave it a thought, they would wonder why I looked so ragged and craggy.
It wasn’t until working on my MFA show that I really understood how to draw on my large pool of experiences in making work. For example, I made a video of me making a bed, drawing on the memory of making my bed at grandmother’s house, but this was all tied up with the bedspread of pink chenille. With ebay, I was able to order vintage material and make big cushions for my show that people could sit on while watching videos, which really layered the installation. While all this information can be a burden, it’s also a huge advantage, providing lots of choices at key moments.
Both my sons have been unfailingly supportive, and are huge influences on my work. The artist is my goto for harsh/valuable critical feedback of actual work. He’s super critical of me making ceramics, so that’s always part of the discussion, which mostly serves to reaffirm my commitment to being a clay artist. They both talk to me about ideas all the time and let me share what I’m doing and then offer lots of other ideas. The biggest worry while in grad school was that they would be embarrassed by the mediocrity of my MFA show, and that pushed me really hard to make it at least appear to be interesting enough. I think they knew how much I put myself out there, and how much it mattered to me. This
definitely changed the calculus of our interdependence on each other for happiness, allowing all of us to be more who we actually are and not do things just because we think that’s what we’re supposed to do.
Can you talk about your decision to dedicate your MFA show to your grandmother? Who was she? Why was she important to you? What did you learn from her and about yourself?
My grandmother, Dorothy Tyler, was born in 1903 and grew up in a small town in Massachusetts where her family had lived since the 1600s. She became a school teacher, then married a sailor and moved to NYC. They moved back to the small town during the depression and lived there the rest of her life. She was a housewife, raising two children, and hosting her five grandchildren at their small house by the beach. That’s where I got to know her.
My relationship with Dot was super close and then pretty conflicted. In grad school I had this moment where I was feeling very superior to all the crafts people in family who mostly did sewing, quilts and little stuffed animal. I was going to have an MFA and be a real artist (ha!), but that pompous thought was quickly replaced by remembering the debt I owed them for teaching me so much. Not just ironing and bed making, but the attention and care of the everyday, all those forgotten little bits that get tucked away into who we become. So I decided to dedicate my show to her and started doing short performances of her at my husband’s grandmother’s house.
I wanted to capture all of her, not just the flattened image of a grandmother. She could be really nasty and unhappy, and super lonely, feeling both entitled and left behind by my mother and her grandchildren. She was trapped in her house, and I wanted to do justice to her by showing who she was and giving voice to her thoughts and feelings, that are just as important as happy and generous thoughts. When I was a young child, she paid close attention to me, when no other family member did; she was generous in making food and scheduling the week around me, but she was also super controlling and selfish. As I grew up there wasn’t a way for this relationship to change, and she was quite cruel. She actually found a person at my college who she got to nag me. So I learned both care and independence from her. I try as much as possible to not use other people for my own happiness, and this is especially true with my children, though it’s always a challenge.
In grad school Lisi Raskin suggested I make a longer video, real time and let myself get really crazy and go into the character of my grandmother, not just play her on the surface doing tasks and with gestures. So I took three days and made real time video of just my hands doing a puzzle, talking to myself, imaging my grandmother’s internal dialogue as she waited for us to visit her. But it was also me working on the puzzle, so I talked about that, too, using it as a metaphor for how we handle complex tasks and come up with strategies that work and don’t work. It’s not a very well shot video, but it worked well to provide the emotional center piece for my show, and is pretty true to who she was and many of the parts of her who are in me, both strong and weak.
I always enjoy connecting with artists interested in the concept of home in their practice. Can you talk about the ideas and visual elements that draw you to the home? What is home to you? What artists/writers do you look to for inspiration on this topic?
Once you know that as a child I lived in more than seven houses and went to eight different schools, it makes sense that I’ve lived in my current house since 1989 and my children went through school with the same children since preschool. And it explains why I’m super obsessed with how this home space gets constructed both emotionally and physically. There’s a visual part of this: the patterns, textures, and images that are filed away in my brain, But there is also how culture makes us want one set of things, and then there’s a shift and now we’re supposed to like something else. Thirty years of data lets me see the shifts and mistrust what I’m being sold. The home space is the best place for me to see this. It’s a place of great importance in my life since that’s where we raised our kids, my biggest project so far. I recently made a large piece, “The Middle Room” of six mosaics about my living room.
This space is also the topic in so many fictional works, books and movies and tv shows. Two movies that stand out are: Chantal Ackerman’s brilliant Jeanne Dielman, 23, Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, and the Stepford Wives w hich is really a perfect Hollywood film. I watched Jeanne Dielman right before I made my Puzzle video, and actually think about it a great deal. I hope to make a piece recreating the apartment, using screen shots from the film. For me the film, is a feminist version of Duchamp’s Fountain, not a ready-made, rather “ready-making.” Ackerman’s tribute to her mother, it catalogues and documents all the kinds of labor that mother’s do, and let’s them take all the time that’s required. It’s so generous to Jeanne, not “cutting her into pieces,” by editing the film to represent a full task, rather giving her the 10 minutes it actually takes to make the meatloaf. Made in 1983, it still feels incredibly relevant today.
I tend to re-watch and reread certain texts over and over again. There’s some small passages, like Nietzsche’s “Truth and Falsity in an Extra Moral Sense,” and a few of Wittgenstein’s “Philosophical Investigations” which open up ways of thinking about how meaning is constituted. A big fan of late nineteenth century novels, I often reread Anthony Trollope, Henry James, Edith Wharton, George Elliot and Thomas Hardy. Trollope is obsessed with the marriage choice, and they all understand that there is no place yet for the modern woman.
My guilty pleasures are mediocre TV shows like “Leave It to Beaver,” and “Father Knows Best, “House Hunters” and home improvement shows. I think this kind of entertainment makes visible cultural forces and desires. The NYT real estate section is also a favorite, and a good way to look at floor plans of apartments. Ditto AirBNB listings where it’s fun to build the floor plan from photos.
You are part of an exhibition at the Clay Studio in Philadelphia titled Weighty Concerns: Both Artist and Mother. W hat concerns did you focus on for this exhibit? What are some of the ups and downs of artist/mothers that you find compelling?
A big part of my practice is paying close attention to other women’s artwork, so I wanted to do that using the added frame that the artist was a mother. The pieces came out of studio visits, where we talked about a current or recent project, and I took a few pictures. This small amount of information was used to create a sculpture that both represents the artistic production and the emotional configuration of that moment of being a mother. Each person is at a different point — from pregnant to about to become a grandmother — and there’s a ton of stuff going on: giving and taking, letting go, hope, knowing and not knowing, sadness, fatigue, relief, desire. But my focus was on the artistic production, the actual images and patterns, and then mashing it up into something more. I hope it’s a bit of a gift to artist with both an understanding of her work and a nod to the sea of feelings in which it was made, and that my light touch and humor is appreciated. I let myself go off on tangents, play around with the clay structures for each sculpture, take chances on how I translated feelings into something solid. For me it’s about pushing my practice and doing all things I’ve wanted to do, even if it fails. I guess that’s probably where I am in the parenting cycle.
I feel like I’m at a point where I know and remember roughly what the stages are like. For example right before the last child leaves home, there is incredible sadness and fatigue, but also the making room for something new. I also know that there’s no way to really remember what it was like when you had no sleep, or were worried about Middle School, or some crisis popped up and that was all you could think about for weeks. While the complexity and vividness of that time is forgotten, what gets made — sometimes just in the cracks of your days and weeks — shouldn’t be overlooked as some diminished work, but celebrated for its resilience.
Are there any projects, hobbies, or activities (ex. Running, knitting, tea connoisseur, arts organizations, volunteering, etc.) outside of your artistic practice that you feel passionately about? What are they? Do you find that they feed your practice? If so how?
We took an amazing canoe-camping trip to the Adirondacks this summer with no phones and it was incredible how beautiful the real world is, and how those all interrupts cut away from seeing what’s all around you. We also go to the Pine Barrens in New Jersey which is a quick way to get an injection of the natural world when the city gets to be too much. I’m not sure what it is about canoeing, maybe the way the light flashes off the water, but it is deeply soothing and feels like it resets my brain. I’ve been trying to make work about a canoe loop we take in the Pine Barrens going up the Batsto River and then down the Mullica, but it still seems too big….and maybe that’s okay.
Anything else we should know or be on the look out for in the near future?
I’m excited to be part of a group show this month at The Schuylkill Center in Philadelphia featuring work made for “Art in the Open 2018,” which took place in May. I’ll be showing two mosaics, and can’t wait to see the other artists’ finished work, having seen it in process a few months ago. http://www.schuylkillcenter.org/blog/event/fall-gallery-opening-art-in-the-open/
Finally just for fun. If you were to make a playlist today what would be your top 5 favorite songs?
Perfect World, Liz Phair
Darling Lorraine, Paul Simon
The Breeze, Dr. Dog
Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet in A Major K 581
Let’s Have Fun Tonight, Larkin Dugan