Artist Spotlight: barry johnson

By Danny Dunson

Portrait of the artist, barry johnson

Seattle based interdisciplinary artist barry johnson takes us through his personal journey of becoming a passionate creative. As a visual artist, barry johnson explores multiple modes of storytelling using unconventional mediums. barry johnson does it all, from writing, sculpting, curating, and painting. We are thrilled to present some of the artist’s work as he prepares for his upcoming exhibition, Anything Is Anything, opening September 19, 2019.

We connected with the poignant artist recently, as he kindly answered our questions.

ArtX: Tell us about you as a person.

barry johnson: I’m barry johnson. I’m a self-taught interdisciplinary artist, author, and TEDx speaker based out of Seattle and from Topeka, Kansas. Being an interdisciplinary creative gives me the freedom and challenge to constantly find new ways to create visual narratives. I’m always in search of ways to take on new mediums to reach different audiences. My work is centered on the Black experience and the effect it had on the past and present. Working within this frame, it’s important for me to ensure the intent of my messages aren’t just defined to one medium. Understanding a painting might be difficult for some viewers, so I try to create in other formats reach them.

barry johnson, Untitled 152, 2019. House paint and glass on canvas. 48X36

Because of this, I don’t have a signature style that most creatives do. I’d rather be known to create work in different series. To some, that might be seen as a disadvantage because the work and style change so often, but I don’t care and do it intentionally to keep people guessing what might come next.

I’ve never taken an art class. I got into drawing a few years ago as a way to keep my brain fresh and focused. My bus ride to and from work was 3-hours total. I’d spend that entire time drawing non-stop. Nothing ever turned out perfect because I’m on a moving vehicle, but I learned enough to quickly sketch out ideas. I started painting after I got a hold on drawing, then picked up medium after medium and haven’t looked back.

barry johnson, Studio Mode: 2, House paint on canvas. 36X48

How long have you been practicing art professionally, when did you consider yourself a real artist?

The idea of “real artists” is funny to me. If you’re creating, putting thought into your work and pushing out product regularly, you’re an artist. In a public forum, we’ve created a negative idea around an artist on their pursuit and we also pick-up and simultaneously put down, a working artist. People say things like, “Oh, you’re an artist, oh that must be really hard… You know you’ll be dead long before people respect your work… Oh, so you’re not living off your art, so it’s more like a passion…” I don’t like any of that shit. I’ve been creating non-stop for 4-years and have always treated it like it’s a real job and everything that I want to do because that’s exactly what it is. There’s nothing wrong with having a couple streams of income to provide yourself with the means to live so that you can continue to create. Creating from a place of stress and hurt can turn out some great work, it can also keep you not making anything because you’re in a constant state of depression. Do what you need to do to keep feeding your creative output and be cautious about taking comments from people. Many times someone can give you bad advice that they gave no thought to. Trust the vision.

barry johnson, “my room”. Site specific installation, 3,000 sheets of paper in space.

Did you go to art school? Tell us about your training, formal and informal.

I did not attend art school. Everything that I learned I got from books and YouTube. I’ve always been into art since I was a kid and would draw cartoons characters, faces and bodies often, but I wasn’t aware that it was possible to make a living as an artist, so I went to school for marketing. Once I was done with school in Kansas, I took the biggest risk of my career and took a job out in WA making $1k a month. I’d never visited this place before, had no family out here and knew no one, but I just had a feeling that it was the place to go even though I knew I’d be making such a small amount of money. After I finished my first year here, I was able to get a job with a tech company focused around strategy consulting. During my time there I learned a lot about coming up with different projects and how to pitch and manage them. We also would occasionally make large illustrations for clients that came in and even though I was the worst at it compared to other illustrators there, I got to practice on how to work on a larger scale. At some point, I told myself that I learned enough there to apply everything to an art career, so I quit and started creating more. Everyone except my father tried to get me to turn down the opportunity to move here. He knew that I’d take the chance and do more with it.

barry johnson, Throw Away. House paint on drywall, steel trashcan and flowers.

What medium do you prefer to work in?

I work the most in paint, but I also create installations, film, performances and more. I use house paint because for me it’s the easiest to work with. It mixes great, it is affordable, goes a long way, and dries fast. All of my paintings are made with house paint. I have an on-going series of combination works that pair paint with other mediums. In those, I’m taking found objects and using them to cover up the faces or to block out parts of the canvas. The covering, distortion and blocking of faces deals with how Black people have had our history covered up, distorted and blocked to fit another party’s narrative. While working on the series, I’ll just go to a supply or thrift store and see what jumps out at me. I never have a plan of exactly what I want to do, and I just go off of whatever is there. I’ve used a wide variety of objects in the pieces including; fabric, tile, chains, iron oxide, ash, metal, wood, glass and more. Each project creates a new opportunity to get creative.

barry johnson, Duality, 2019. House paint on canvas. 48X 36

Who are some of your inspirations?

Many of my inspirations don’t really come from visual art, they are based around events happening within my community and culture. I’m always working off of energy and moments, so a dope conversation, encounter or moment can shape the direction of new work or series.

Within art, I really like the work of Robert Rauschenberg, Augusta Savage, Gordon Parks, Jacob Lawrence, Matisse, and Marina Abramovich. The works these creatives have generated really shapes much of my approach. There are so many fucking dope artists on IG too making waves. We’re living in a time of no rules or boundaries with a global focus on work that’s not just focused on one subset or group, so creatives today can really get after it without worry.

barry johnson, Studio Mode Pt. 3. House paint on canvas. 48X36

When do you know when a work is finished?

I’m good about knowing when a work is done. I don’t labor over works. If I’ve done, I’m done. Once I take a step back and feel cool with what I’m seeing, that’s good by me. I’ve had works that I’ve wanted to go back and update as I’ve gotten better at painting, but I just let them be so that I have a constant snapshot of how things are progressing. I also like letting a painting look imperfect, so I’ll intentionally leave elements raw looking.

barry johnson, “Just Be”, photography

Tell us about your process when working. Do you listen to music or do any rituals to get yourself ready to make art?

No rules or rituals, the only constant is that I devote at least 3-hours to it each day. I used to start each day at 3:30 in the morning and would work for 3-hours straight until I went to work. The mornings are special and since I was choosing to work instead of sleeping, I put more pressure on myself to generate work and maximize my time.

Since I didn’t go to school to learn the fundamentals and tricks, I spend time constant working at my craft to get better and more proficient. I wouldn’t have it any other way and it gives me a lot of freedom to create in real-time.

Music and podcast always play a huge part of my work. There’s always, always music playing in the studio. I really like creating while music is playing. It gives me the feeling that I’m collaborating alongside other artists. I’ll knock out pieces listening to Tidal or laugh or scream at my speaker while listening to the Joe Budden Podcast. There’s no certain thing that needs to happen. I keep it free and open for anything to occur.

barry johnson, Untitled 13, 2019. House paint on paper. 60X60

Tell us about the meanings and the concepts behind this particular body of work.

My work is all about Us and what’s happening within our communities. I painted a large collection of Black men paired with found object in pastel tones and muted colors. I just wanted to showcase Black men as we are. We often aren’t afforded the opportunity to just be, so I wanted to highlight that experience. Racial tension, the political climate and events happening around the world play the lead role in my work. The work is always heavy to create given that I’m trying to recapture bad things that have happened and reshape them into a new view. It’s needed though. I’m not interested in jumping on the net and constantly commenting about what’s happening. I’d much rather create a piece of work and use that as a medium to generate a conversation.

I also like to create small sculptures out of crushed crowns. This deals with the idea of power, the desire for it and the blowback of having it. I want to take that idea, break it apart, reshape it and create something different.

barry johnson, Untitled 141. House paint on unstretched canvas. 50X70

What do you want viewers would take away from your work?

Discovery, that’s it. I tried my hardest to not make work that someone can just look at and say, “That’s nice, or I hate it.” I want them to take a moment to think on the elements in the work and how it relates to them and the world around them. I’m creating work to make those “hard conversations” that people have always talked about, but rarely do happen, happen. My hope is to get people talking and become more empathetic to the world around them.

barry johnson, Untitled 33, 2019 House paint on canvas. 48X36

What are your biggest goals as a visual artist? And what has been your proudest moment professionally?

During my life, I’ll design a community building from floor to ceiling designed for youth to learn STEM, Art and Music. It’ll be program based and will build a track for career success. This is my life goal.

barry johnson, In Studio

Everything that I’m doing is to uplift my community and world at large. No one really gets into the profession of making art for money. It’s extremely hard to ever get noticed or make a sole-living off of. I’m doing this to talk back to society regarding its view of us. I’m not into going with the flow, doing the popular thing and not speaking out. Art provides that escape into the “anything possible” for me and I hope to use it to give people that same feeling. I’ve always been really big on volunteering and have worked with multiple schools and programs to lead after school programs to teach art to the youth. That’s always been an amazing feeling letting kids know that they’re thoughts and imaginations have the power to direct the world and if they put energy into it, they can make real change happen. I plan to give back and stay involved for the remainder of my life.

Check out barry johnson’s website to learn more about his work and upcoming projects

Follow barry johnson on Instagram

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