Conversations + Essays

During COVID-19, ArtW reached out to its network of female artists across disciplines to connect over their shared quarantine experiences and how this time is affecting their creative process. 

In Conversation with Claudette Johnson
Claudette Johnson shares her expansive drawing and painting process that brings figures to life as well as the story of her role in the B , Watercolour, gouache and pastel on paper , 152.55 x 122 cm, Courtesy of the artist Claudette Johnson and Hollybush Gardens, London Claudette Johnson– Yes, of course. All the shows that I would have seen that I can't see. It's upsetting to think about how much we are missing out on because of this. It's really difficult. Marjorie Martay– Let's look back and talk about the outstanding exhibition at the Modern Art Oxford. It's interesting, when we were planning "Women– We Create England 2019," we had talked about you as we wanted to honor you. Unfortunately the timing didn't work. But you had that amazing show up. In fact, I think it was the last weekend of the show, I remember talking to our driver and were on our way to Somerset to go to Hauser & Wirth for this luncheon. And I said, "Oh, I really want to go to Oxford. Is there any way we could go?" He listened. He goes, "No– we would have to go out the other direction and go back. It would just not work." I was so disappointed that we were bringing a group of amazing women who are very knowledgeable about the arts. They were collectors. They were very much into your work. There was one woman in particular who was just so disappointed. I felt badly that we missed it! Claudette Johnson– Oh, I'm sorry you couldn't see it, but at least you tried to get there! Marjorie Martay– Well, it was your first solo show at a public institution in Britain? Claudette Johnson– No, but it was the biggest solo show in the UK. Marjorie Martay– Okay, great. Let's talk about what the show was like? Claudette Johnson– It was made into three rooms. We used the entire space. The first room held maybe eight works. Most of those works were recent work. Then in the middle section of the exhibition, it was a smaller space that included some ink works– some images of naked women from the nineties. They were blending slightly differently against a blue background, blue painted walls. The rest of the exhibition was against white painted walls. Then in the final room, there were quite a lot of eighties pieces. A lot of the semi-abstracted figures, shown as they were originally at The Black Art Gallery. In fact before that, they were shown at the Africa Centre in Covent Garden, London. They looked back at that moment as well as including to very recent works– a standing figure with African masks and a reclining figure, facing each other but on opposite walls of the gallery. I don't know what kind of journey people made through that space, but it wasn't presented chronologically. Older and newer works were presented together and intermingled. But I felt as though somehow the final room felt lighter, not exactly a summary, but a bringing together of what you might have picked up in the earlier rooms. Marjorie Martay– All the people in your paintings are of African descent. Are they friends? Are they artists? Do you know them? Claudette Johnson– It's a mix. Very often I have friends sit for me, and sometimes they are people that I've met very recently and perhaps not yet friends, but acquaintances that interest me in some way. Finding their own lives. Quite a lot of them are family members. Then there's a section of the work that is taken from all kinds of different sources. It could be a newspaper photograph or something that I found in a book. So various found sources where something about that figure or face interests me and then becomes a focus for a piece of work. Trilogy (Part One) Woman in Blue, 1982 , Watercolour, gouache and pastel on paper , 152.4 x 90 cm, Courtesy of the artist Claudette Johnson and Hollybush Gardens, London Marjorie Martay– Could you describe in the show a few of your favorites? If you had any? Claudette Johnson– Favorite is so hard when it's about your own work. Always for me, I'm sure most artists feel this, but whatever they did most recently and feel it succeeded on some level is a favorite piece. Because it's the most recent piece and you brought something new to it. Yes, I think "Standing Figure with African Mask" is close to my heart. Also, it's "Figure in Blue (Untitled 2018)" I think, but it's a standing figure, a woman and her head is shaved. She is in the process of turning towards us. The upper part of the drawing is very spare, so it's very linear and the lower sections of the drawing is more tonal and sweeping marks. The volume is described through tone rather than just line. I was pleased with that drawing because it reminded me that I find it interesting to say as much as a I can with as few marks as I can. In that particular piece, I felt cheerful. Marjorie Martay– Your drawing process is so interesting. Do you find that you use movement a lot when you're actually drawing as well? Claudette Johnson– My movement or the movement of the sitter? Marjorie Martay– Well, both. Do you move around or are you in a stationary place? Also, do you find that the viewer moves around the work and interacts with the space? Claudette Johnson– When I'm making the work, they're large scale work and I'm not very tall. So it takes a lot of extension to get from one part of the work to another part. That involves making quite big movements with my arms and hands because I'm working quite often with pastels and pushing pastels around. It becomes quite gestural in the pressure of the mark, the speed of the mark, and the fact that my whole body is involved in making the mark. It gives a certain effect and feeling. I think it gives it more energy. It's something I discovered when I was an art student when I was in my final year. I started working not quite to that scale, not quite as large as I do now, but almost the same scale. I realized that it changed my mark and to me, my mark became much more exciting, expressive. I knew then that was scalable. Marjorie Martay– When you look at your drawings, the way you deal with the space is so impactful– some parts of it, there's no drawing and then other parts of it, it's so strong. Claudette Johnson– My aim always is to try and make both of those spaces work to have some interplay between what appears to be empty areas against areas that are very worked because they are part of the drawing. They're part of the paper. They're part of the work. I want what you call the empty spaces to speak as much as the spaces where there's more detail. Because I'm constantly trying to create a balance between those two elements. Again, going back to that work that I was just talking about, it was about that play between empty and full, line breaking up space, but creating new spaces as it delineates. It that kind of exploration that really fascinates me. I keep coming back to that– how can I make that work? In the earlier work, in the eighties works, especially in those works that include some kind of abstraction to the figure, it's very present– the play between empty and full and how the figure breaks up space. Untitled (Yellow Blocks), 2019, Gouache and pastel on paper, 162.50 x 132 cm, Courtesy of the artist Claudette Johnson and Hollybush Gardens, London Marjorie Martay– Well, I think you definitely have accomplished that. When you look at your work, there's a certain immediacy and urgency. You are really drawn in and it's very powerful. Claudette Johnson– Are they saying that based on what you have seen in reproduction then? Marjorie Martay– Yes, of course. I've looked at your work a lot and I've always admired you! There are lots of people who use pastels, water-based paints, but they don't accomplish what your beautiful drawings seem to convey. In your creative process, do you work from photos and images or a combination of both? Do you have your models, friends, or fellow artists pose for you? What's the process you go through? Claudette Johnson– Like I said before, I work with sitters and I also work from found images, which will often be photographs. Often with sitters, if they can't do as many sittings as I'd like, then I will use photographs as well in between sittings. But, some works are entirely from life with the sitter. Usually the person doesn't get the chance to sit, but they're actually standing seven or eight feet away from me. Then, I work on a big board. I used to actually work directly onto the wall with a large sheet of paper on the wall, but then I'd be looking over my shoulder at the sitter positioned behind me. But nowadays because I got an easel the right size, I can have them alongside me. It's still a reasonable distance so that I can get the figure in. Marjorie Martay– How long does it take you to work on one piece? Claudette Johnson– I'm not the fastest worker, so I think most pieces I'd say they take, especially now, a couple of months to complete– three to six months. Some of them come together more quickly like three or four weeks. But the majority, especially if there is paint as well as drawing, that takes longer. There'll be more revisions, changes, different color arrangements and different placements of the forms before it was finalized. They would take a couple of months. Marjorie Martay– In your process, do you do an outline first and then you go from there? Or do you look at the body and then just start and keep on building and building and building? Claudette Johnson– It's interesting you say that because I was noticing the other day that I almost always, when I'm starting with a head, in three quarter position, I always start with a particular part of the forehead down to the nose and cheek. I always find that wrong and have to go back. When I get into the drawings, those early lines are always, always wrong. I have to reset them and it's quite strange. But, most of the time, the drawing grows from left to right. I work in that diagonal down the work from left to right. So, I position key features and then work from the inside out. Because I might work on the nose out to the cheeks, up to the eyes and back again down to the mouth, into the neck, down to the shoulder and then back up. There's a weighing, of the different volumes and planes of the figure as I'm building it through modulating the tone. But it generally starts with a few lines that position where the key features are going to be. I use that as a guide. Trilogy (Part Three) Woman in Red, 1982, Watercolour, gouache and pastel on paper, 152 x 98.8 cm, Courtesy of the artist Claudette Johnson and Hollybush Gardens, London Marjorie Martay– Did you know when you first started in art school and studying that you had an affinity to the medium of drawing– that it really drew you in? Did you always think that was always going to be the way you were going to move forward? Did you think about the possibility of being a painter or other ways of expressing yourself? Claudette Johnson– I don't know. I was going to say yes, but then I thought, I don't know if that's true. Because, I really like working with water-based– with inks and very light washes of watercolor and build a tone that way. There's something about working with liquid mediums that I really like, but yes, drawing feels like my anchor. I don't know if I always knew that, but at some point that became apparent to me. I always go back to it. Marjorie Martay– What's so unique about these large scale figurative works is the combination of using these other elements like watercolor base. There is a painterly quality in parts of it as well. So I think it's that combination that makes it so strong. Claudette Johnson– Thank you. It's definitely something that interests me and I quite like to work with gouache paint, it's basically like watercolor, but with a stronger binder. It makes the color more opaque. I found that it melded perfectly with the pastel, because I could work on top of the paint with pastels. I could bring drawing back in, I could take it away again with the paint. It gave me a lot of flexibility about where I could have areas of drawing and where I could have these areas of a paint work. There's something very similar going on between the paint and the drawing. When I build detail with pastel and then go and build details with paint elsewhere in the work, there's still something very similar about the way I'm building form. They're very complimentary systems for me. Marjorie Martay– In terms of the themes of your work, you've always been fascinated by black people– their history and presence. What are you trying to convey? Claudette Johnson– It does start with my experience being an art student in Wolverhampton in the eighties. The thing that struck me at the time was the absence of black women in art books and newspapers, on TV, everywhere. We were just absent. So it seemed obvious that was the place to start. It's like we were at the bottom of the pile. We just not seen, not being looked at. From my perspective, as soon as I started looking, I found my subject. I found this is what I want to be making drawings about. Perhaps if I hadn't grown up in the UK in the seventies and eighties, it wouldn't have become my subject in the same way that it has. But at that moment, and especially because of what I was reading at the time and the groups that I was involved in, it was very important to me that black women were at the heart of the work. Figure with Raised Arms, 2017, Gouache and pastel on paper, 163 x 132 cm, Courtesy of the artist Claudette Johnson and Hollybush Gardens, London Marjorie Martay– I'm so happy and I'm sure so many other people are happy that you've chosen to focus your work on black people, but you're also influenced by authors. You mentioned that you read a lot of wonderful authors like Toni Morrison, Alice Walker and Audre Lorde. Was it through their influence that you found your focus? Claudette Johnson– Absolutely. Emphatically, yes. Again, reading those authors (Morrison, Walker, etc) as a young woman at 21, it was incredibly exciting to have black lives featured in this way– given a space, given air to breathe. These characters who I'd never met before, I'd never been introduced to literature before, it's a whole world that was familiar. It was also completely new. It just hadn't been articulated before. That definitely pushed me in the direction of wanting my work to do something similar to talk about this group who had before been invisible. Marjorie Martay– I'm curious, did you see the amazing documentary about Toni Morrison? Claudette Johnson– No! Not yet. I will. Marjorie Martay– You must see it. It is so impactful and powerful. She is such a presence in terms of what she's done with Beloved. I remember when she passed away, I was so sad and I just found her to be, an incredible writer and, and her thoughts stay with us as we move forward. She was a very powerful person and will continue to have an impact on me. Talk about some of your artistic influences, in terms of history of figuration–people like Manet. I thought about Olympia. Were there other figure painters that you admire and have influenced you over the years? Claudette Johnson– That brings a question to my mind because I think, "Oh, I wonder what made you think about Manet and 'Olympia' in relation to my work." Manet and particularly Olympia were important to me as a work because it's one of those paintings that includes a black woman. She's in the shadows. She's not represented as a woman in the way Olympia is. In fact, it was a place to begin questioning how women are represented in art historical works. Painters were an influence because of the way they made their work including people like Toulouse-Lautrec who was a big influence on me because he did these wonderful prints where he's using flat color but then a beautiful line. I always found that I find his work very rich, very moving. There's something about the way that he characterizes his subjective sympathy for his subject. I also admire the painting of people like Lucien Freud just because of vigor and the handling of paint and form. It's very distinctive. There are so many artists that I'm influenced by and I can't think about one without thinking of twenty others. Seated Figure I, 2017, Gouache and pastel on paper, 163 x 123 cm, Courtesy of the artist Claudette Johnson and Hollybush Gardens, London Marjorie Martay– It's so interesting that you've mentioned Toulouse-Lautrec. I have a poster collection and I've always admired the prints and the drawings he started with. He was phenomenal. So there are artists today like Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald who have done portraits of Barack and Michelle Obama. I think they've come to get a lot of notoriety here in the United States. I admire their work and I'm sure you do as well. I think that we've come a long way and we need to come a lot further, but I do think that it's wonderful that you're getting the kind of exposure that you so deservedly should have. Claudette Johnson– Thank you. Figuration is still a new thing, isn't it? There's a kind of figuration that I try and stay away from, because I'm not really interested in realism. I'm not interested in hyper-realism. That's why I mention people like Toulouse-Lautrec because there's the post-impressionists and then the expressionists. There was a moment where we crossed over into a more expressive way of handling material and talking about the figures is where is the point I'm still working. It's a moment that I think I fit best into. Marjorie Martay– One of the things I also noticed about your work is you don't necessarily put them into an environment. You're not painting around and creating this place that the body is. It's almost as if the figure is central and it goes out to the edges and beyond. I think that is a very different way to approach figurative painting that as I mentioned some of these other artists, they don't do it. Yes, Toulouse-Lautrec did most of that! ! think that is what makes your work so unique and so distinctive. Claudette Johnson– Oh, thank you. I remember once talking about an experience I had with my oldest son, when he was maybe six or seven. I had taken numerous photographs of him and then he went to take a photo. He took a photograph of me, and the top of my head was missing and it was weirdly composed. But what I really loved about it was that he honed in on what was important to him. It's like he'd come right up close and found me in that frame. I think that's what I've been trying to do– to get people up close in a way that feels like you can't get away from having some kind of encounter with this figure in front of you. It's not neatly presented. So the feet are there and the hands are there and all the peripheral details. It's really as if you came right in and you're presented with something that you weren't expecting. You come around the corner into this space. Normally I hadn't even opened up the spaces. Some of it is existing outside of that and it's being suggested to you. That's the encounter I want people to have when they stand in front of the work. Marjorie Martay– I think that is the beauty of your work. You find that you want to know more. I did see some of your work at Frieze actually when Hollybush Gardens was showing your work. I was able to look at a couple of your drawings, maybe not the large scale ones, but definitely one or two of the other ones. I found myself just being so drawn by the wonderful ability that you had through your medium that you were using to convey this immediacy and the strength of the figure that you were bringing forward. I was so drawn into it. I just found it breathtaking from that perspective. Your work is very powerful. Ink Study (Head), 2017, Indian Ink on paper, 110 x 79 cm, Courtesy of the artist Claudette Johnson and Hollybush Gardens, London Claudette Johnson– I appreciate you saying that. Thank you very much. Marjorie Martay– It's been such a pleasure to have this conversation with you and I only want you to stay safe during this crisis that we're dealing with. I hope that in England and in the United States, that we end this as quickly as we can. Hopefully when I come to England next year, I'm hoping to come even this summer, but doesn't look like that's going to happen that maybe you and I could get together. I would love to come to your studio and continue this conversation. Claudette Johnson– I'd like that too. Marjorie Martay– I look forward to it. I wish you continued success. You absolutely deserve it and I hope that through this blog, more and more people will know of your work! Keep up with Claudette Johnson's Hollybush Gardens gallery and her upcoming exhibitions:
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