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WMA Artist Interview with Bethany Johnson

WMA Artist Interview with Bethany Johnson

Get to know Path of Entry artist Bethany Johnson

The exhibition Path of Entry was to have opened at WMA this spring, but due to the temporary closure of the museum, it was postponed until next year. The group show, featuring artists from around the world and guest curated by Chintia Kirana, was inspired by the poem “Remember” by U.S. poet laureate Jo Harjo, and features work dealing with the environment, the process of reflection, and remembering.

Below is a short interview with Path of Entry artist, Bethany Johnson, the first in a series with all the artists from the show. And be sure to check out the artists’ takeovers of WMA’s Instagram account from May 21-June 25, as well, to learn more about their work and artistic practice.

Q. Tell us a bit about yourself. Where do you live and work?

A. My name is Bethany Johnson, and I am an artist based in Austin, Texas. I’ll be detailing some information about my studio practice below, but alongside my artistic practice, I have a lot of other things going on! I am an Assistant Professor in the School of Art & Design at Texas State University where I teach art foundations and drawing courses. I am also an avid bicyclist, a woodworker, and I pluck around on the banjo (a hobby that’s picked up more steam during social isolation).

Q. How would you describe your artistic practice? What medium(s) do you work with principally?

A. Preceding the emergence of modern science in the mid-19th century, and along with it the categorization and professionalization of scientific study, intellectuals pursued a broad, often idiosyncratic and subjective exploration within what was then termed natural philosophy: an elastic, multifaceted examination of the physical universe that fused the scientific with the aesthetic, the objective and the subjective, the rational and the emotional.

This superficially less ordered—but arguably more comprehensive and holistic—intellectual attitude of the natural philosopher offers a useful model for my artistic practice, which is one of investigation, intuition, and connection. Drawing from the natural world and our study thereof, my artwork variously includes diagrammatic drawings, reproductions of scientific documentation, reorganized cartography, recreations of historical and contemporary scientific experimentation, as well as renderings of microscopic, seismic, cosmic and satellite imagery. My methods range accordingly from the impulsive through the procedural, from the rudimentary through the technologically sophisticated. The core of my studio practice consists of drawing, although that practice has expanded over the years to include various projects including photography, collage, object curation, zine- and bookmaking, and most recently, some sculptural work.

The preoccupation with informational data (as well as the deconstruction and reorganization thereof) reflects my own, deeply fundamental impulse to both understand my environment in the most conventionally factual way, while simultaneously embracing its poetic complexity and subjectivity.

Q. How did you get involved with the Path of Entry exhibition? Tell us about the work you’ve contributed and how it relates to the central themes of the show.

A. I am thankful to have been invited by Chinta Kirana, whose work will also be on view in the exhibition. The work I’m exhbiting is from The Poem That Took the Place of a Mountain, a series of drawings initiated in the summer of 2018 while in residence at McDonald Observatory, an astronomical research center in remote west Texas. Inspired both by the astronomical studies of the observatory and the mountainous landscape it occupies, these works offer a visual meditation on our natural world, as well as on our human attempts to capture, understand, and translate natural phenomena through the various visual languages of science and art.

This relationship between the astronomy of the McDonald Observatory, the landscape, and the geology of the area is not simply a benign or abstract juxtaposition, as the booming oil and gas activity in the adjacent Permian Basin increasingly threatens the observatory’s dark skies and the region’s delicate ecosystems. The Poem that Took the Place of a Mountain is therefore a subtly anxious, doting, necessarily inconclusive meditation on the earth and on the limits of our human understanding.

Q. What do you do to find inspiration for your work?

A. In some sense, that’s both an easy and difficult question: I find inspiration everywhere! Sometimes, the inspiration comes from more conventional research in the natural sciences and the history of its study; other times it emerges from travel, from people I meet, or it descends from the materials themselves.

One thing I’ve been learning over the years as an artist is to become more flexible to the “accident” of inspiration as it arises, rather than rigidly clinging to predetermined visions for the works’ visual outcomes or conceptual content. I’ve also found that, rather than “working hard” at an unresolved idea in the studio or over some research, clearing my mind by running or bicycling can sometimes be just the thing to find some clarity.

Q. What have you been doing to stay inspired during these times of social isolation?

A. I always tend to have several dozen projects asnd latent hobbies waiting in the wings, so I’ve been able to keep pretty busy during this time of social isolation. Keeping my mind and body active helps keep me creative and stimulated. Most interestingly, my partner started building wooden longboards (skateboards) during social isolation, and we’ve had a blast bombing around town (in an socially distanced manner!) over the last month or so.

Otherwise: I transitioned the last six weeks of my university courses to an online format, which has kept me busy quickly turning out drawing and design tutorials via video. While not ideal, it has been useful to rethink old teaching habits and reasses how technology could better inform and augment the analog classroom experience in the future.

Finally: I’ve been making a drawing every day in social isolation that documents my everyday reality. All of the works can be found here: http://bethanyjo.com/portfolio/isolation-diary/

Q. How has the COVID-19 pandemic changed your schedule for the upcoming year? What’s next for you?

A. Well for one, the Path of Entry exhibition at The Wiregrass Museum of Art sadly had to be postponed! I also was looking forward to a solo show in Missoula, Montana, that has also been pushed back to next year. Otherwise: I do still (for now) have a residency on the books for later this summer. Given that it is a remote and solo residency, it is more socially distanced than my present life, so I hope it’ll still be workable to take advantage of that residency.

Of course, I do worry for arts institutions across the country and what this economic downturn and period of prolonged closures might mean for them and associated arts workers. I am so proud of our creative community’s resilience and inventiveness during this time, though, and I’m cautiously optimistic for what’s next: how we reinvent and adapt our practices and institutions to changing conditions.

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