We had the good fortune of connecting with Heather L. Johnson and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Heather L., we’d love to hear about how you approach risk and risk-taking
Risk taking has defined my creative practice, overtly, as well as in a more subtle, psychological way. I engage with the world and gain most of my inspiration by venturing where I don’t belong. I’m best known for projects that intervene in the landscape, wherein I ride motorcycles alone long distances, leave artworks behind or give them to strangers I encounter on the road (https://www.insearchofthefrighteningandbeautiful.org/). I cross borders into lands with cultures and languages unfamiliar to me, wearing my own vulnerability on my sleeve, trusting gut instincts and the tenacious guardian angel who has looked after me vigilantly.. even when decisions made could have stood some improvement. Lately, as Covid has made long distance travel unsafe, I’ve taken different kinds of risks that are more emotional in nature. One example lies in a project I’ve been working on for the last couple of months called “What Holds Us Together” (https://www.heatherljohnson.com/what-holds-us-together), a series of small mixed media drawings paired with words printed on vellum, extracted from stories I’ve written over the years, many of which describe things I’ve observed and learned while out in the world on my bike. The pairings are mailed out to friends and colleagues – people who have supported, influenced or inspired me in one way or another – as a thank you for the relationship, and as an offering of a return of support in a moment in history when, frankly, most of us could use it. Another example – a Covid isolation survival technique, if you will – arises from a newly-urgent need to appreciate my own immediate environment in all its subtle glory. I now find myself paying attention to things I once took for granted, like changes in the quality of light or patterns and colors in nature. I’ll walk down my street or into a different neighborhood with a pencil and sketchpad, making drawings out of telephone poles, trees, rocks, crawling insects, discarded trash – anything that grabs my fascination. I draw without looking at the paper, pouring emotions out into delicate scribbles and violent scrawls; the risk here lies in letting go of judgment. The meaning comes from the act of slowing down, looking and noticing, rather than in whether or not the drawing adheres to imposed standards of taste. I’ve always led with my heart. Practically speaking, this doesn’t always work, of course.. but I have learned a great deal – more, in fact, from mistakes than from triumphs.
Can you open up a bit about your work and career? We’re big fans and we’d love for our community to learn more about your work.
My strongest work comes from being open – from stepping outside of my realm of comfort to experience new things. I absorb ideas, feelings and impressions. I believe I am especially adept at translating my findings into words, marks, stitches and images that reveal subtle ways in which we are all connected as humans. With every journey I make, be it to the other side of the planet or across my own street, my world expands to include insights, and new language with which to express them. How do I overcome challenges? By calming down, naming the problem, issue or goal, breaking it down into manageable parts and tackling them one by one – which is how I conduct any project, no matter the subject or scale. The “calming down” part is key; without a level head I will burn myself out and drill a hole in the ground with my own stress. I also ask for help. I have, through my travel experiences, frequently placed myself in precarious positions, having to face limitations in a rather wide range of skillsets (such as riding single lane dirt switchbacks through mountain passes in other countries, or troubleshooting remote roadside breakdowns; negotiating border crossings with an inadequate grasp of the local language, and well… so much more). In each of these I have had to summon a great deal of trust in myself to reach the other side of the situation. I’ll admit that great luck has played a role.. as did the shear necessity to persevere.
Let’s say your best friend was visiting the area and you wanted to show them the best time ever. Where would you take them? Give us a little itinerary – say it was a week long trip, where would you eat, drink, visit, hang out, etc.
I most enjoy the cordoned off, less-travelled spaces where different worlds overlap. Milby Park in southeast Houston is an example, as one of many places around town where nature persists in the shadows of chemical plants and oil refineries. The White Oak Bayou Trail as it meanders underneath the I-45 and I-10 flyovers is another. I get my creative inspiration from places like this, as well as the means to get outside safely. Sadly, Covid-19 has forced many establishments I’ve enjoyed in the past to close, temporarily if not permanently. But still open is “Moontower Inn” (http://damngoodfoodcoldassbeer.com/mti/), which serves a great selection of beer, tacos and other hearty snacks in the East End, with lots of well-spaced outdoor tables to enable social distancing. “My Flaming Heart” (https://www.myflamingheart.com/) is a fantastic little family-owned giftshop with handmade jewelry, masks and clothing that is still hanging on over on Main Street near Alabama Street. Though the shop is small, they are strict about masks, sanitization and limiting the number of people inside at once. I still get all my supplies at “Texas Art Supply” (https://www.texasart.com/) on Montrose; they too maintain Covid protocols, and the staff know their stuff, are friendly and occasionally hilarious. Gus Kopriva’s Red Bud Gallery (https://www.redbudgallery.com/) shows fantastic local and national work, with limited open hours. And at Houston Center for Art and Craft (https://crafthouston.org/) you can view work in progress and chat with artists in residence (I resided there myself in 2018/19; the best part of that experience came from speaking to random people who entered my studio).
The Shoutout series is all about recognizing that our success and where we are in life is at least somewhat thanks to the efforts, support, mentorship, love and encouragement of others. So is there someone that you want to dedicate your shoutout to?
There are so many people deserving acknowledgement for my creative breakthroughs that there isn’t a realistic way to name them all. But a few instrumental folks have given me support so critical that I don’t know where I would be or what I would be doing now had they not shed their light on me. Dallas McNamara, owner and founder of Cherryhurst House (https://www.cherryhursthouse.com/) here in Houston, along with curator/co-curator Barbara Levine and Paige Raimey, not only sponsored a motorcycle ride I made to South America for my main project, “In Search of the Frightening and Beautiful” in 2015/2016, but provided with me with space, time and financial support afterward, in a ten-month residency culminating in one of my strongest-ever exhibitions (https://www.cherryhursthouse.com/exhibition/past). Bernard Leibov, director of BoxoPROJECTS (https://boxoprojects.com/), laid the groundwork for the above project – from which most of my current work stems – through an invitation to his artist residency program in Joshua Tree, CA. This opportunity gave me the gumption in 2013 to ride over 10,000 miles from my home at the time in Weehawken, NJ to Joshua Tree and back, leaving art for people to find at sites I had mapped out along the way. I raised the money to cover trip expenses, my rent and other bills through a crowdfunding campaign contributed to by over 60 people, each of whom I wish I could name here. Jonathan Hammer, renowned artist and director of Villa Bergerie (Instagram: @villabergerie) in Spain, has been a mentor and friend for over 20 years. In 2019 he invited me to a six-week artist residency at his new program, to which I attribute a change in direction in my recent work that has been incredibly liberating. Thanks to his encouragement and insight I have found the clarity and strength necessary to extract meaning from and work within strict parameters – such as those presented to us all during this pandemic. And finally.. I attribute my emotional survival to my best friend, Dianna Ray (of Mydolls fame, a mostly-female Houston punk band that has recorded and performed since 1978); local oral historian and documentary photographer Marti Corn (http://marticorn.com/); my two sisters, Nancy Lee Corso and Laird Desmond; and to my beloved partner in crime, Henry G. Sanchez. These are my Covid “bubble people”, to whom I owe everything.
All photos by Heather L. Johnson