Sarah Anne Johnson is a Canadian artist renown for her visually striking explorations of nature and landscape. Working in photography, mixed media, sculpture, and performance, Johnson combines media to express both the physical possibilities of our geographies as well as the emotional and psychological landscapes they entail.
Interview by Sasha Amaya.
Sasha Amaya: What originally fascinated you about the relationship between the natural world and its depiction in artistic media?
Sarah Anne Johnson: I was paying for undergrad (fine arts) by working as a scenic artist in theatre and film, but mostly I worked for a construction company that built fake rock and trees in casinos, zoos, and hotels. The first summer I started working for them, we had a huge job, a casino in Winnipeg. We would work six to seven days a week and as many hours as possible during the day. I ended up being the foreman of the painting crew. It was such hard, physical work, but I loved it. It was a crazy summer; we practically lived there. After that job, the company would fly me out during school breaks for a week or two to work in different parts of rural Ontario. I worked closely with the boss's wife, who taught me how to paint the concrete to look like whatever we were trying to represent. She also taught me how to match paint colour from nature—and how to paint it believably. We would go for drives to check out rock faces and scrutinize trees. That job, because it was all consuming and so intense, ended up in my work at school. I started building dioramas of figures in landscape. To this day, I can't observe any kind of nature scene without wondering how I could recreate it. When I worked as a tree planter in Northern Manitoba, that was how I was experiencing the land, the work, and the community—every sunset, every tree, every adventure, sensation, and emotion I experienced out there—I was always wondering how I could recreate it. That ended up being my first serious body of work and has shaped everything that has come since.
SA: You have spoken before about the relationship between factness and feeling. Often your works combine an intensely realistic representation juxtaposed with the fantastic. What interests you about representing landscape in this way?
SAJ: Photography is all about facts. It's an intrinsic part of the medium, and I enjoy exploring those boundaries. The world is an infinitely interesting and inspiring subject. But just taking pictures of it is not enough for me. Never has been. I don't think of the alterations I do as fantastical. I add things, or integrate imagery, to make more honest work. Honest from my perspective.
SA: You work in multiple media, and your work has progressively become more sculptural. Which media allows you to best express ideas and feelings about landscape?
SAJ: I don't think one medium is better than another. Every medium has its strengths and weaknesses; I enjoy figuring out how to navigate these attributes while exploring the issues of my subject matter. If I discover an image or symbol that is strong enough, I will create it in a painted photo and also a sculpture, for example. It's like adding another level of difficulty to the puzzle.
SA: Asleep in the Forest is an incredibly political piece about the environment and such a powerful image. Tell us about this installation, how this work came into being, and your thoughts on the project after the fact.
SAJ: Asleep in the Forest was a site specific commission for the Bank of Montreal Project Room. They have this small awkward room on the 64th floor of their main office building in Toronto. The curator, Dawn Caine, convinced the bank to give it to a different artist every year for a year. I don't remember how I came up with the idea to build a nighttime forest scene with two men in suits passing out around a bonfire with pillowcases overflowing with money, but I do remember being surprised that they didn't reject my proposal. To view the piece, the viewer looks though a peephole from the hallway. Inside, the room is transformed completely with a slanted floor, forced-perspective murals, trees, lights, sound, and two hyper-realistic looking young men guarding a stash of cash. At the opening, someone said to me, "You are biting the hand that feeds you," to which I said, "Just a nibble."
SA: Some of your recent work, such as Wonderlust, has focused on personal and intimate relationships which take place indoors, as opposed to the types of relationships, such as in your Tree Planting series, which are mostly created and exist in the outdoors. Yet, there are often portals into nature in these works also, through windows, but also in their simplicity of action. What role does nature and the landscape play in your Wonderlust series?
SAJ: I honestly was not thinking about landscape while making this work. I have a tendency towards opposites, so after working on the Arctic Wonderland series—cold, vast, lonely landscapes—I decided to make work about intimacy: individuals and couples naked in their bedrooms. The two projects couldn't be more different! But there are similarities in the aesthetics, for sure. I think that is because I can't escape my visual language or my core interests. They will always have a presence in my work no matter what the subject matter is.
All images courtesy of Sarah Anne Johnson and the Julie Saul Gallery, New York. To find out more about Sarah Anne Johnson, click here .