An Interview with Sarah Anne Johnson


Sarah Anne Johnson. Photo: Ernest Mayer

If Canadian artist Sarah Anne Johnson can’t feel what’s going on in one of her photographs, it isn’t complete. That quest to explore and magnify reality has spurred her to push the boundaries of her largely photo-based work to incorporate dioramas, sculpted figurines, painting and other media. The result is a unique exploration and re-creation of themes, situations, places and people. 

Johnson received her BFA from the University of Manitoba School of Art in 2002, and an MFA from the Yale School of Art in 2004. Over the years, she has also taken part in numerous residencies, including an artist-led residency in Norway, and stints at the Emily Carr University of Art + Design and the Banff Centre for the Arts. In 2009, she took part in an artists’ residency on board an Arctic sailing ship, which laid the groundwork for her Arctic Wonderland series.

Johnson’s work has been exhibited internationally, and can be found in major permanent collections that include the National Gallery of Canada, the Art Gallery of Ontario, the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C. and the Guggenheim Museum in New York City. She lives and works in Winnipeg, and was recently shortlisted for the prestigious 2015 Sobey Art Award.

She spoke with NGC Magazine about the evolution of her work, new directions and how — sometimes — being forced to slow down can be a good thing.


NGC Magazine: You once said “I've always felt a deep frustration with the limitations of photography.” What are those limitations, and how have you addressed them in your work? Is this what led you to explore other media?

Sarah Anne Johnson: Photography is good at showing what something looks like, but I have never been interested in that alone. I want to reveal what it felt like as well: the emotional, the physiological, or even just a straight-up sensation. I’m interested in revealing the stuff just below the surface that you can’t see with your eyes or capture with the lens. This is why in the past I have taken photos of dioramas and home-made figurines to stand in for real places and people and also, more recently, why I have been painting, collaging, incising and glittering up my photos.  

NGCM: Why is personal risk important in your art? What does that lend to your creative process? 

SAJ: I think artists play an important role in society. We can be vulnerable and discuss taboo topics, and be emotionally messy and honest about life where others can’t. I don’t want my doctor or accountant or taxi driver taking risks in their practice. I expect them to err on the side of professionalism.

NGCM: You have often said how much you love manual labour — particularly backbreaking work like tree planting, which you have described as your “utopia.” What attracts you to this kind of work, and how does it influence your art?

SAJ: There is a beautiful passage in Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina where he describes the character of Levin working in the field alongside the peasants. Levin finds that food tastes better, his surroundings appear to be more beautiful, and he is filled with positive energy and feelings of oneness with the land and his fellow workers. I think that pretty much sums it up. I admit I haven’t done much of that kind of work lately. I’m too busy in the studio! But I miss it, and keep meaning to bring it back into my life.  

Sarah Anne Johnson, Explosions (2011), chromogenic print, photo retouching dyes, 71.1 x 106.7 cm. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. © Sarah Anne Johnson. Courtesy of Stephen Bulger Gallery, Toronto, and Julie Saul Gallery, New York 

NGCM: You have a number of works in Canada’s national collection, including pieces from your series Tree Planting, The Galapagos Project, and Arctic Wonderland. Could you describe how those series are different in approach and execution — how your work evolved in the time between these pieces?

SAJ: Tree Planting was about the search for a sublime experience, and the search for a possible utopia through the act of hard labour in the great outdoors. I mixed straight photography of tree planters, working and living in Northern Manitoba, with dioramas and handmade figures that represented the same subject. Mixing the two together created a question about fact and fiction, because some of the straight photos were staged. I would ask people to stand in certain places and direct the gaze, for example.

Some of the dioramas and figures emitted more believable emotion than the people in the straight photos. The figures and dioramas were all based on real moments which, for various reasons, I couldn’t capture with my camera, such as being lost in the woods. When that happens, the last thing you would do is stop to take a picture. So, to include that moment, I had to re-create it. I needed both type of pictures — straight and constructed — to best tell the story of what tree planting meant to me. 

The Galapagos Project was a continuation of the same interests. I decided to travel to a place that was advertised as a paradise, and partake in a type of volunteer vacation. It was agricultural work, mostly consisting of using a machete to cut out invasive plant species, which had been brought to the island over the past 100 years by well-intentioned people who had no idea of the environmental havoc it would create.

For this body of work, I continued with the same idea of photographing dioramas and taking straight images, but also made some paintings and sculpture. I turned to other mediums, because I felt photography was too limiting to fully express and describe the experience. For example, I was having a difficult time capturing the feeling of the boarding house in photos, so I decided to build it as a doll house with several figures inside. This allowed me to recapture the quiet intimacy of the house. Only one viewer at a time could peer into a window, thus slowing the viewing process and creating a different experience from looking at photos on a wall.

During and after The Galapagos Project, my art practice became more multimedia-oriented. Then, a couple of years before I went to the Arctic to shoot for what would later be Arctic Wonderland, I developed an autoimmune disease. It’s not so bad, but it slowed me down. I was exhausted all the time. This changed my working habits drastically. 

For Arctic Wonderland, I restricted myself to only painting on my photographs. But I ended up getting excited about all the different ways I could add to or subtract, from the print to give meaning. I painted with acrylic, India ink and photo-spotting inks; I cut into the print, embossed, silk-screened and Photoshopped the prints. The illness forced me to focus my skills, which ended up being the exact thing I needed to do. 

NGCM: In 2009, you sailed to the Arctic Circle aboard a double-masted schooner. It sounds like you had something of an epiphany in the Arctic. What happened to you, creatively, on that trip?

SAJ: The Arctic excursion was amazing, breathtaking, and some moments were mind-blowing for sure; but when I returned home and looked through my images, I was disappointed. I thought my pictures were generic, and that I could put together a great calendar of images for my family for Christmas, but that was all. The images failed to express my concerns and hopes for that sublime landscape.

But then, months later, after reading many books about climate change/global warming, etc., I was looking through my photos again and wishing they expressed all the concerns and hopes I have for that place.  Then I realized all I had to do was add the imagery using paint and ink and Photoshop. The body of work filled out very quickly after that. 


Sarah Anne Johnson, Break Dancing (festival series) [2014], oil paint on digital c-print, 71.1 x 106.7 cm. Image courtesy of Sarah Anne Johnson. 

NGCM: Your work often bridges reality with the imaginary world. Are you looking for contrasts, or similarities between the two?

SAJ: I’m trying to bridge a gap between what we see and what is felt, but I don’t consider that an imaginary world. I think of it as being truer to my reality. My goal is to create a more personal kind of photo documentation. Documentary photography has always had a sticky relationship with the “truth” or with being ‘”actual.” Photographs look like reality, so for a long time we thought of them as factual documents. But photographs always take on the agenda of the photographer. We know this can be controlled through use of light, framing, etc. I am just adding more tools to the kit, by adding to the photo in different ways.  

NGCM: How do you start a new work or series? Could you describe your routine in the studio? 

SAJ: First, I come up with a vague idea. It needs to be a subject that I am personally involved with and want to unpack and figure out on a deeper level. I read about it, look at art, and listen to music related to the topic. I immerse myself in that world. Then I start chipping away at it. I am careful not to lay down any rules in the beginning, so that I can be free to create without perimeters or judgement, because I don’t know which direction it will go. I say, “no judgement,” but I am always fighting self-doubt and judgment.

The problem with jumping into a new topic or material is that I’m starting over from zero, so there is a learning curve which seems to be getting harder as I get older! A lot of stopping and starting, so much excitement, bumped up next to so much self-doubt. It’s a ridiculous rollercoaster that I am constantly fighting. Eventually I make something that I think is good, which leads to the next and the next. I wish there was an easier way, because at times it is quite painful! But the excitement of learning new skills and pushing my abilities, technically and conceptually, is so rewarding that’s it’s worth it. 

Sarah Anne Johnson, Hospital Hallway, still from video (2015), video installation; octagon shaped hallway, 15 flat screens, 50.8 x 50.8 x 22.7 cm. Image courtesy of Sarah Anne Johnson.

NGCM: What are you currently working on?

SAJ: I am currently working on two completely separate bodies of work. I think if you walked into my studio you would think two people who don’t like each other are sharing the space. For the first, I am painting on photographs about music festivals. I’ve been documenting one in particular for years now. I’m interested in revealing the psychological landscape of the place, such as festival drug culture. It will be exhibited at Division Gallery in Montreal in December 2015 and Julie Saul Gallery in New York City, also sometime in 2015.

The other project is a continuation of the work about my grandmother, who was an unwitting participant in the infamous MK-ULTRA (CIA mind-controlling drug) experiments of the 1950s. For this, I am building film sets based on the rooms from a dollhouse I made in 2009, called House on Fire. I will be performing all the parts myself. It will exist as a sculptural installation, and once I have it all filmed (which will take years), I will edit it all into a film. The first video installation, Hospital Hallway, is almost complete, and will be exhibited as part of the Sobey Art Award show from September 26 to January 3, 2016; the Southern Alberta Art Gallery in 2016; and at the Images Festival in Toronto in April 2016.

NGCM: In 2008, you won the Grange Prize for Contemporary Photography (now the Aimia | AGO Photography Prize). How does it feel to be shortlisted for the 2015 Sobey Art Award?

SAJ: The Sobey is a blast. At the very least, it’s a great party where you get to meet like-minded people from all over the country. At its best, you walk home with large cash prize and can afford to make anything you want, carefree, for awhile.

NGCM: What advice would you give to an emerging artist? 

Work harder than the hardest-working person you know. Be polite, always. Do the opposite of what everyone else is doing. Don’t bother with grad school, unless you are rich or get free tuition — you don’t need it. Read a lot. Live somewhere affordable, and travel as much as possible. 

The winner of the 2015 Sobey Art Award will be chosen on October 28, 2015, and will receive the top prize of $50,000. The Sobey is presented annually to a Canadian artist age 40 or under, who has exhibited work in a public or commercial art gallery within 18 months of being nominated. Along with Sarah Anne Johnson, other artists shortlisted for the Sobey are Lisa Lipton, Jon Rafman, Abbas Akhavan and Raymond Boisjoly. Works by the five artists will be on view at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia from September 26, 2015 to January 3, 2016, as part of the 2015 Sobey Art Award exhibition.

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