The Expanded Ecologies of Sarah Anne Johnson – Momoko Allard

Beginning with her summers tree planting in northern Manitoba, Sarah Anne Johnson has been using photography mixed with other media to capture and interpret the firsthand experiences of her journeys and the people and environment around her. In the most magical moments of her work, photos of real people meld into their tiny, hand-sculpted counterparts, and the contrived shadows of shoebox-sized forests take on the full depth of the true wild. In recent years, she has used photography, sculpture, drawing and performance to look back into her grandmother’s trauma as a victim of the CIA’s illegal MK-ULTRA experiments at McGill University. She also sailed through the Svalbard archipelago as a participant in the Arctic Circle residency program, out of which came her newest work, Arctic Wonderland, a series of photos manipulated through mixed-media drawing and painting. Momoko Allard recently connected with her to talk about the evolution of her work and creative process.

Momoko Allard: When I first came across the Tree Planting Project, sometime around 2005, it struck me as a remarkable form of subjective documentary, in the sense that you were mixing snapshot images with photos of constructed maquettes as an attempt to preserve, or retrieve, the emotional experience of a certain moment and place to a depth that would be impossible with snapshots or direct photography alone. For you, is documentary a key function of your work?

Sarah Anne Johnson: Absolutely. That was very well put. I have always felt a frustration with photography’s limitations in how it depicts reality, so most of the work I do revolves around finding ways to make up for it. A photograph can show you what a place looks like, but it can’t show what you learn or take away from that place. The experience doesn’t end when I get back on the plane; I continue to learn and grow from it long after I’m home. I want to include all that in the work. I don’t want to just show you what it looked like to be there, I want to show what I learned from it and how it changed me.

MA: Even though your work spans many mediums, including a lot of sculpture as well as drawing, you’re most often recognized as a photographer. Was photography your starting point? It seems to serve as the anchor, or as the common mode of mediation in many of your projects.

SAJ: I always loved doing all kinds of art, but photography came the easiest, so in school, that is what I focused on. I was worried about becoming a jack of all trades, master of none. But I always knew, when I was through with school, that I would go back to doing a bit of everything. Now, photography is what I know the most about. It’s the biggest filter in my brain that all art thoughts flow through. But some ideas aren’t realized best through photographs – in which case, I’ll learn whatever skills necessary to complete the idea.

MA: I love your work for its very intimate, hand-made quality. Current photography practices seem most frequently to expand into video, digital mediation and other forms of impersonal automation, whereas your building and shooting of miniature models is such a close kin to drawing. It feels fully developed as its own self-enclosed language of analogue image-making. For me, it gains its energy through its impression of fluidity and ease of motion, but I imagine that the actual pace of putting together each model is painstakingly slow. Can you tell me about your work process? And how did you first envision this? Did you dream in claymation one night?

SAJ: I started making dioramas with small sculpey figures about my grandmother in undergrad – a project that resurfaced later on, which I’m sure we’ll touch on later in our conversation. Then in grad school, the program I was in was photo-based. I tried showing sculpture and drawing a couple of times but it was dismissed. I loved making things and didn’t want to stop, so instead of putting the scenes in boxes, I started taking photos of them.

I also continued to make straight photographs, but kept both kinds of pictures separate when I showed them. Generally speaking, back then, there were two camps, the takers and the makers. The takers believed that photography stopped time, thus allowing you to see things that the eye couldn’t catch on it’s own. The other camp was more conceptual, believing that the idea comes first, and the camera was a tool to help create or realize that idea. So by taking and making pictures I had a foot in each camp. I agreed with both sides equally, but I thought that eventually one would win out. Then I realized that each was limited in what it could do, and that to fully realize my vision I needed both. The straight photos ground the work in reality, they show you what the experience looks like in the moment; whereas the photos of the dioramas, which are based on memory, describe my thoughts and feelings about the experience.

I did dream in claymation one night. I was making some dioramas – sculptures for the Montreal Biennial. I wanted to see if the figures could exist on their own. I looked up the other artists in the show one night and discovered the work of Graeme Patterson, who made dioramas of all the iconic buildings of a small town called Woodrow in Saskatchewan. His had animatronics and video, and made mine look silly and small. I hit a wall and couldn’t work. I tried to come up with another idea for the show, but the deadline was too tight. I was so depressed! Then one night, I had a dream of my sculpey figures burning down one of his houses. So I built it and included it in the show. The only way to get over my mental block was to metaphorically destroy his work. Everyone who saw the show was going to compare our work, so there was no point in pretending otherwise. It was honest, so I went with it. It’s still one of my favorite pieces. I told him about it when we met. He thought it was funny.

MA: That’s great! And it’s really interesting to hear you talk about the educational setting you were studying in, and how pushing against its rigidity, or working through it, led you to what you’re doing now.

Since you’ve mentioned it, let’s talk about your project House on Fire, dealing with your grandmother’s very difficult story. Starting back in your undergrad studies, it sounds like you were gestating this approach for many years. Can you tell me about your grandmother? What was your research process like? How did your family feel about you working on this?

SAJ: I always knew I would make work about it. I started playing around with it in undergrad, but realized I didn’t have the skills, technically or emotionally, to deal with it and to do it any justice. I didn’t want to disrespect her memory or my mother (who is still living). In Canada, this was and still is a very big story, so I also wanted to be respectful to the families of the other victims. So I waited until I felt mature enough as an individual and as an artist before starting the work.

My mother kept all of the court transcripts and correspondences between my grandmother, my grandfather and the doctor who ‘treated’ her. She also kept newspaper clippings and all of the family photos. She knew that one day my brother or I would need it to write a book or something – so by that you can tell that she was very supportive. It wasn’t easy for her. I asked a lot of questions and brought up a lot of old memories that she would rather not have to think about, but she did it for me.

I knew my grandmother more as a child. She passed away when I was 13. But even then I understood that she behaved differently than other grandmothers. Still, we loved each other like grandparents and grandkids do, perfectly and unconditionally. She was an amazing woman. She had a very strong sense of right and wrong. She was quite damaged after the experiments, but that didn’t stop her from starting a class action lawsuit against the CIA when she found out what she’d been a part of.

MA: The pieces in House on Fire include many miniature sculptures of her, as well as mixed media drawings that integrate family photos. Has their circulation, through museums, galleries, and into collections, had a different meaning for you than with your other projects, which have always been personal, but not quite to this level?

SAJ: I have always tried to make work that is from my own personal perspective, but this project took it to a whole new level. It was nerve wracking in the making and in the presenting, but it was also completely rewarding. It got me thinking more about personal risk and how that is the most important thing an artist can offer. Art is a form of communication – I’m sharing with you the pictures in my head. I can be flippant and show you what I had for breakfast or I can show you something that is emotional and hard to talk about, or maybe can’t be talked about – this is what I’m continuing to strive for now. I try to make work that hits on three levels: the personal, the political and the process of whatever medium I’m working in. The personal, for me, is the hardest. I’m always struggling with how to make the work more honest, more revealing, more raw. If I’m going to go to the trouble of sharing, I want to make it worthwhile.

MA: The body of work that followed House on Fire, Arctic Wonderland, based on your arctic residency, feels more overtly political, and maybe less intimate but more far-reaching in certain ways, at least at first glance. Images of Northern landscape are politically charged to begin with, so I’m not sure if I’m just jumping to the simplest reading when I look at your series. Can you tell me about your perspective and intentions in making these images?

SAJ: After House on Fire, I choreographed a performance/theatre/dance piece also about my grandmother called ‘Dancing with the Doctor,’ which was even more emotionally charged and difficult to work on. Afterwards, I needed a break from that subject. I will come back to it – I already have something in the works – but that subject needs to be taken on carefully and slowly. The dance piece was unlike anything I’d done before. It was very emotional to work on, very insular. Towards the end, I started yearning to reconnect with the outside world and to make work that was a reaction to what was happening in the here and now.

Global warming was, at the time, the most reported news issue and something I worry a lot about. I wondered if I could find a way to make work about global warming. I know that sounds silly – it’s such a big topic and so abstract – but I wanted to try to find a way to personalize it. Because really, that’s the problem; it can’t be seen or felt concretely, so it’s hard to care enough to get motivated to do something about it. So I was trying to find a way to connect with it. I knew that dropping into an exotic landscape for such a short time could be tricky. I didn’t want to make pictures as a tourist.  But that is pretty much what I did. When I came home and looked through my images I thought they all sucked. They didn’t even begin to touch on my thoughts or concerns about this place. I put the photos away and let the experience digest. I was also doing a lot of research about climate change and global warming. About five months later, I pulled out the photos to look at them again. All I could see was what was missing, and then I realized I could paint it in. Once I started, a floodgate of ideas poured out.

There are some pictures that are obviously more political in content; they are dark and foreboding but also quite obvious. Worrying about the Arctic is not that original.  There are other photographs however, that focus in on individuals – the cheerleading photos, for example. We look ridiculous and out of place, and way too cheery. They don’t match the tone of the other photos. What I’m trying to say through this, is that even though I can see quite clearly that things in this world are going to shit, I don’t think there is anything I can do to help stop it. By making work about it, I’m nothing better than a cheerleader, cheering for a cause. I brood and despair that the world is going to hell in a hand basket, but I can still in the same breath laugh it off and enjoy a good time.

MA: Then these images become about the limitations of human capacity, or even the futility, at a certain point, of art as a tool or way of working? That’s something that most artists wouldn’t concede.

SAJ: I don’t think art is futile! However, I question its purpose obsessively. Politically, I think it’s a drop in the bucket, which is better than no drop at all. It adds to the human consciousness or awareness of that issue or debate. When I was younger I wanted to believe that art could start revolutions. Now, I think that art is a part of our evolution. It’s a form of communication unlike any other. Using words to describe the images in my head would abstract their meaning. You would take in those words and create your own images from them, different from mine, and there would be a barrier of understanding there. However, if I show you the pictures in my head, it’s more exact. I’m really letting you in and we are really sharing something honest and true. I love going to galleries and seeing work that invites me in like that, to experience the inside of someone else’s mind. It can be like a religious experience. To connect with art is to connect with people and the world around you. I don’t go church to feel connected with something greater, I go to art galleries.

Momoko Allard is a Montreal-based artist working in drawing, photography and other pictorial mediums, and an ongoing contributor to No More Potlucks. Her art and research interests all relate to better understanding how visual representation is used in its many social and cultural contexts.

Sarah Anne Johnson was born in 1976 in Winnipeg, Manitoba. She received her BFA from the University of Manitoba and completed her MFA at The Yale School of Art. Johnson’s work has been exhibited in numerous solo and group exhibitions internationally. She is the recipient of numerous grants and awards and is included in several distinguished collections. Currently, she lives in Winnipeg. She is represented by Julie Saul Gallery in New York and Stephen Bulger in Toronto.