Big Time

Omaha-based artist Heather Johanson is known for her meticulous drawings, moody photographs, and diverse habitat installations. She was recently curated into Joslyn Art Museum’s Art Seen exhibition and last summer grew Refuge–a 1500 square feet garden installation with The Union for Contemporary Art. I sat down with Heather on New Years Eve to discuss her practice, anxiety, the Anthropocene, and interconnectedness.

Refuge Growing

Alex Priest – Can you talk about how you transitioned from drawing and painting into photography and if that has changed your overall artistic and creative practice?

Heather Johanson – I had this idea that I had to work really hard for an image, and for me it was completely neurotic. For most of the projects I have done, I do extensive research, for some I have built environments and grown plants, and document the element of chance. I really care about the process. I remember being a kid and trying to draw things precisely. I would draw a tree when I was seven, and really try to get it right. I could do it better than most and I liked exercising that muscle. However that has gotten in my way, and made me feel really confused. Particularly going to grad school or going to school for art in which you talk more about theory. Have you seen that movie “Art School Confidential”?

Alex Priest and Heather Johanson (with daughter, Poppy)

AP – Yes.

HJ – When that cop draws cars like a kid. Everyone is like “oh, what a genius” and I was spending hours on a drawing, thinking what…wait a minute. I was trying to make work that was important to me.

Heart at Center, 2008

AP – The painting, the drawings, or the photographs?

HJ – All of it. When I moved to Omaha, I was thinking about this place, and what is important, all while doing casual research. I was coming from a place and making a lot of work that was really personal. I did not intend for it to be personal, it just ended up that way. My work usually ends up being a reflection of myself. I have always loved plants, and I was reading about the ecology and plants that grow in this part of the world. This is one of the most interesting ecosystems in the world, and THE most threatened. When I got here I was really surprised that there was so little awareness or dialogue going on about these threatened habitats. I have always had a fatalist attraction in wanting to save something you can’t save, or honoring it in its suffering.

AP – Does that have to do with some of the landscapes you grew up with? You mentioned in the Les Femme Folles interview that the landscape you grew up in was saved by the glacier…

HJ – I do think that environments matter immensely and influence our feeling and thinking and how we function, but my attraction to tragedy is probably shaped by a psychological urge and a real consciousness of value systems.  

Did you see that there are daffodils blooming right now in the North East?

AP – Yes, it is crazy!

HJ – Things are going to keep getting crazier. I think as an artist, I have an opportunity to spend a lot of time thinking about things, making objects, creating my own spaces for psychological respite and it might as well be something that is important. You can make all kinds of work, work about yourself, identity… and that is all fine, but we have the good and bad luck to be living in this bizarre time of massive transformation of human culture, migration, global climate change, inequality, mass extinction and I think artists have an opportunity to examine these really big and important ideas. Artists have the privilege to explore anything they find interesting without being held to the drudgery of scientific research, they can move quickly with their ideas and they have the opportunity to present ideas in a way that can spark a larger consciousness. We are living in a dramatic time and if this is not obvious yet, it will be in the coming decades. It is going to keep getting more strange, interesting, and heartbreaking.

When I got to Omaha, I was devastated to find that I could not find these prairie plants at nurseries. It was so bizarre. I started researching things, and buying things online to build my own little oasis, and it was awesome.

AP – Are you talking about your backyard?

HJ – Yes. It is an important space because the way it smells, the soundscape, and the way it feels.

AP – Did you start off thinking about the garden/backyard as an artwork?

HJ – No, it was more organic. Usually for me, things evolve and tell me more as I go. Really it is because it was a space where I could do almost whatever I wanted. When I lived in the bay area I would seed bomb roadsides because I did not have a yard, but when we moved here we bought a house. I wanted to just get some plants and put them in the soil to see what would happen. I grew these plants, and documented what would grow and/or what would show up. I spent a few years taking out more lawn, doing more research, learning more, and then tracking down the plants. I was also wondering who was growing the plants, the history of the plants, their qualities, and lore. What plants are considered weeds and why? What plants are we banned from growing? What are the city regulations on height and how did our culture decide these restrictions? Whose values did these regulations stem from? These plants came way before humans. The things we are attracted to, or seduced by is part of our full evolutionary background. I was documenting and photographing what would show up, trying to make a record of what is here right now. We are living in a time of massive species die off and while we all know about polar bears, we don’t tend to know about the little insects that are disappearing from our own landscape. I was then taking all these photographs as source material for really precise drawings and paintings. There was a huge pressure of making a mistake because they were tiny paintings on white paper. The pressure was miserable. I wanted them to be as precise as possible because I cared and I wanted to really capture the individual beings, you know?  I was caught in a space of loving the precision and the challenge, and loving having the visual trick of “are these real”, but it was horrible. It was overwhelming, and after having a baby, this style of working did not accommodate my lifestyle. In working on the exhibition at the Library, Seeking Wilderness, you had suggested including photographs. Before, it felt like the photographs were not enough suffering, but then once we put them up, they were so gorgeous. I have always loved making the photographs, and spending time at night out there to document the space. I think these kind of started a while ago, when I was living in California I would go home to rural Minnesota each summer at the height of the firefly season. It is really quite a phenomenon and naturally I would want to photograph it. Next I stated putting out black lights at night to see what moths I could document. The insects here are incredible and so it was a natural progression to attempt to document that living things were showing up in my 50 by 100 foot space.

Seeking Wilderness

AP – What is interesting about the photographs is that they still have an exactness, but like the paintings, there are moments that are not right because it was a little windy out that night, or it’s a little pixilated.

HJ – When I was taking these photographs my intention was only to document what was happening at that moment in that organic space. But they are very satisfying to me now. For these photographs it’s a way to capture what I was doing, the mood and complexity of what is going on in my life and space.

AP – Do you see things differently in the photographs than you do then when you are painting?

HJ – When I am painting, it tends to be more minimalist. I have had this tendency for a long time to isolate things from their background. Conceptually there is a real dissonance between the things I am thinking about. I am thinking a lot about big time in my work. What we know about ourselves is that we are on a planet that is in a solar system and living on a planet where the conditions are right and species have evolved over time. As human beings we are so collectively narcissistic. We are just this tiny little anomaly in our time structure and we take for granted all the things that have come before us, and we have so much power over them, and yet we are tied to our environments.

Night Flying Insects

AP – I remember you talking a lot about the Anthropocene and how humans are having a significant global impact even though we are such a small blip–we have done a lot damage.

HJ – How many times a day do you think about the Anthropocene?

AP – Every time I am in a car, throw a piece of plastic away or have the oven on to heat something up…

HJ – I think about it a thousand times a day. I think about it every time I drink a glass of water, take medicine, eat a meal, feed my children…. We have insulated ourselves, even though there is still a ton of poverty and people around the globe who are not enjoying what we are enjoying. A lot of this is tied to capitalism. I have recently started thinking about capitalism in a really systemic way. We are living in this wonderful bizarre little bubble. The Anthropocene touches on all of these broad subjects I am interested in: anthropology, psychology, what are we as human beings, how do we function, anxiety, suffering, and vulnerability. Sometimes I feel that I see the world through this filter of vulnerability; and there is definitely some paranoia in there as well. I was just recently thinking that we are on a planet that is spinning around the sun. Isn’t that crazy?!

AP – I watched this video of a balloon go up like 100,000 feet up into the stratosphere and then it bursts, and you can see the curvature of the earth. It was crazy!

HJ – We are protected by that tiny layer! I love when our vulnerability is exposed to us. However my work is not confrontational, in fact, it is very subtle. A lot of people quickly and earnestly write it off as “cute” or “old-lady-ish”. Anything dealing with ecology or ecological art is immediately “awe isn’t that nice.”

AP – It is either that or it is dealt with like a crusade and in a super negative way, Some people put it away like it is some hippy who thinks the world is going to end. Like anything environmentalist…

HJ – That is intentional, it’s like the word feminist. It has been smeared for a reason.

AP – I was that way with the word/ideology of feminism until very recently.

HJ – I think a lot of people are, it’s been branded as not cool.

AP – But then I was like “oh… I get it…”

HJ – Ultimately, I think it is intentional that you and I feel powerless. I do feel powerless, as I should. Without the reality of aggressive policy, none of this matters. Hundreds of millions of dollars are being spent on lobbyists. Policy matters. I always think of the movie Independence Day with Will Smith. All of these aliens are coming and everyone around the globe sets aside their differences because they have one common enemy. And everything is at stake. We are going to combine our forces and fight. Right now, we should all be like “Oh no!”, but the opposite is happening. Everyone is doing a land grab and asking, “why should I make sacrifices?” We are our own worst enemy. It is so bizarre to be living in this culture that is at fault. This is the crux of where I have been mentally for a while. However, I benefit from this system. I live in the first world. I am a comfortable person.

AP – Do you mean as an artist?

HJ – Yes. I also can see, this is not a time when future generations are going to look back and say “thanks a lot!” I go to a mall or a store and their doors open in the middle of summer with the air conditioner going. I want to document that. There are so many projects I want to do right now. There is so much we could be documenting right now. In Omaha we are pretty much one person per car. We are tearing down our downtown for more parking and that is completely insane. The infrastructure for biking and parking barely exists. So when a car hits someone, it is almost always their own fault. We are collectively way behind.

AP – Speaking of value, I was really excited when Josyln announced all the artists who were going to be in Art Seen. My question to a lot of the artists, yourself included, is what do you do after you have been included in an exhibition at a museum? Or more broadly what is next?

HJ – I was very pleased to be included in Art Seen. For me, I have been shy about calling myself an artist forever, and it is always interesting to see how people shape a career. I have not really focused on that at all. I come from a working class background so I have never said that I am going to solely focus on my artwork. I have always been working on other things. My practice is more integrated into the rest of my life. Right now, I have two small children and conceptually I think about them really similar to how I think about my artwork. Reading about attachment theory, empathy, brain growth and about human development. It is a real honor to make and shape another human.

AP – I remember you talking a lot about that when you were pregnant with Poppy.

Refuge - Heather and Baxter, Photo credit: Dana Damewood

HJ – It is insane, babies make 250,000 neurons a minute!  However, it is so hard to be a parent. I see why women were completely excluded from the canon until very recently. Getting to choose to have children or not to have children is so so important. It is really overwhelming. I am in a situation now, where my partner is going back to school, and working full time. The thing about kids is someone has to watch them 24/7, and that was something I did not think about. As someone who did not have kids until I was 35, and did whatever I wanted, I was not prepared because I can’t leave them alone. Someone has to watch them, and as an artist who is not making a lot of money, I cannot justify the cost of childcare. Childcare costs a fortune. I had this fantasy that I would make work with them present or while they nap. And for me it has not worked that way. I try to make something and they are pulling at me and wrecking what I am working on. They sleep a lot less then I thought they would. Before I was making more distilled work that was very labor intensive which was pulling out of all my research, then making these laborious paintings and drawings. Just photographing the landscape is an immediate way for me to capture conceptually what I am thinking about and it is hard to ignore the mood of the space! I love how moody the photographs are and they have a very emotional resonance. The photographs trigger a lot of conceptual narratives about being on planet spinning through the stars, grief, the human experience, different forms of intelligence, and evolution.

AP – What is interesting for me, is that the photographs are messy and “wild” and the paintings and drawings are so controlled.

HJ – I know! It is so interesting. Some of my paintings are messy and part of the reason they are messy is because they are so big. It is hard to work big and be super precise. These were the paintings that were included in Seeking Wilderness at the Library.  When I did that exhibition with you, I just assumed that people would look at the work and understand the history behind it. What happened was very different. People looked at it and said “oh, bugs,” or “you like nature, we get it.” This past summer I did an exhibition with The Union for Contemporary Art where I planted a garden titled Refuge. It was very direct. We put in this garden and it was an immediate experience where you could see and hear insects and be immersed in the plants. I got to talk about these broad ideas, but enough for people to understand the facts of our time. So many species are disappearing right now. It should be on the cover of the newspaper everyday. Our soundscape and our experience and consciousness with these environments is being lost. The sound, the smell, the feel is all changing right before our eyes. I had a very wonderful biologist from Creighton University give a talk at the opening. The biologist went around and talked about the species as he saw them. It was so great! He was able to point out how important our immediate surroundings are through species like bumblebees that stay within a very small range in their lifetimes to how important landscapes in other countries are through butterflies that happened to be migrating and stopping at the garden at that moment. It made everything about our immediate location very real. We have a lot of conversations in Omaha about how to rebuild space, or to tear it down, or its functionality. However, I have never seen these conversations framed outside of a human narrative. For the garden, I was able to lift a few veils and see the broader context. It is not a dialogue we are having in this part of the country.

AP – Did you approach The Union for Contemporary Art or did they approach you to do the garden or an exhibition?

HJ – Paige Reitz, the Program Manager at the Union and I had had some casual conversations about other projects that dealt with urban ecologies. I should mention that I really love the Union, their small team works so hard and does so much! Also, they were really up for anything and very open to ideas.

AP – It is always interesting how projects or ideas can evolve from a simple conversation with others, or with oneself.

HJ – When I get a few seconds to myself I have a thousand little things running through my head. There is a broad range of things I am always screwing around on. I really think the creative process or inspiration is so outside of the fantasy of hierarchy. For me it is so outside of that, and I feel that my ideas are not necessarily my own. I feel it is a lot like how lightning works. I read that lightning does not just strike down. There is an electrical charge that is on the ground that goes up and meets the cloud. And then the lighting strikes the ground. I think that you need to be open willing and ready and there is stuff out there in the ether that strikes you from time to time. Just recently I had this urge to just make lemons, lemons, lemons. This was in this spurt when I had some time. I want to cover my house in lemons. I don’t know, something about it feels really happy to me. Snakes too. Snakes and lemons. Usually when I get an urge like this, I just do it. One time it was arms. I just wanted to make arms. Sometimes it will distill if I keep working with it and it feels more precise and refined and usually later it will make some cognitive sense to me.

AP – Is this same shotgun approach how Refuge physically came into being?   

HJ – We thought about how an exhibition or project could function. They were loosing their gallery space over the summer and were trying to think about how they have an exhibition outside of the gallery. It really helps me to have some constraints to reign things in a bit. As I started to think about the prospects of a project, and did some research I found that so many native plants were simply not available commercially or they would require many seasons to grow before they made an impact. It would take so many years to get things to a point where things would be showy. One of the things when working with plants is that there are so many exploitative properties like what Raf Simons did at Dior with all the blue flowers. It’s all impact. If you go to a nursery all those plants have been soaked in growth hormones to keep them short and squat because they are cheaper to ship. They’ve been doused in harmful chemicals so that they are visual perfect, but are perhaps harmful to the environment and the humans that handled them. That is the opposite of what these plants are here in natural state. They are huge, wild and incredible.

Refuge August

AP – Like a sunflower you buy at HyVee it is super tiny.

HJ – If we did that to humans, I would only be hair and eyeballs. I would not speak. We have totally bred these plants down in our capitalist system to be cheap to ship, only have a little bit of visual pleasure for humans and no other important qualities. For some plants they have even bred out the scent. You can even buy pollenless flowers! There was this long gorgeous relationship for millennia before humans came along and were like, hmmm what if we changed this or that. And, it is going to get much weirder. So I did not want to create a really shallow gallery exhibition that was only beautiful because the reason I am interested in all of these things is because they tap into much deeper systems. And the more I research they keep getting deeper. I have been thinking about this for almost 10 years…

AP – I think even contextually, where that garden was placed at the corner of 25th and Lake, the amount of energy resources that have gone into not thinking about that space or even how polluted the soil is incredible.

HJ –There is so much information to learn from the site: an open area of mostly lawn. I think lawns are probably the most useless land use ever. There had been homes that were demolished I believe because they were abandoned and the soil was in really tough shape. When Tim ran the tiller over the site, it bounced along because of the soil compaction and evidence of the buildings that had been there, like bricks. The neighborhood also provided deep context into the racial, economic, and environmental issues of Omaha.

AP – Anxiety as well. There is real anxiety of Omahan’s not wanting to go that neighborhood.

HJ – I did not really want to think about this project in terms of West Omaha’s baggage, but what is the history of the place. What is the human history, and what is the ecological history. There is so much context that was brewing in my mind, and I wanted to be respectful. Ultimately I honed in that my contribution would be a garden that would provide habitat and a space of beauty open to everyone. I tried to get as many native plants as possible, and it was so hard. I literally could not find many native annual plants from this part of the country. I ended up growing 720 seedlings in my basement, and they were mostly showy plants that were also good habitat and tough as nails and we direct seeded species like sunflowers. We did not have a water source, and you never know what the weather is going to be like here. I should also mention that there were many, many hands in making the garden successful. With a living medium you are really taking a gamble because you cannot completely control what happens and many things could have gone wrong. The Union for Contemporary Art’s community played a huge part in the success of the project; in particular Paige, Demond, and Tynisha were out there watering and weeding and there were some very productive volunteer days. There is a LOT of labor in a project like this. It is very easy to underestimate the amount of labor. I also happened to give birth to a baby in June, which was a pretty critical time of work in the project. I did not go there for a couple weeks at least and they took such great care of it!

I wanted the garden to be immersive and impactful, so an adult could feel small and overwhelmed by it. I wanted it to be sensual, so there are a lot of species that let out perfume at night or release a scent as you brush past it. I was thinking about humans, beauty, space, size, and seduction. We thought out placement and how you could approach it from the street. There was a woodchuck in the house next to the garden, a stray cat, there were birds that ate the seeds, flies, bumblebees, wasps, spiders, and butterflies, and it was incredible to see the diversity of insects using the space. For me the most exciting part was seeing how that space interacted with its environment, while also thinking about what was it like for the species 300 years ago, and how we can pull just a tiny bit of that back. I am pretty sure there were some teenagers hanging out in there because I found all these bags of chips and that made me very happy. As a kid I remember just wanting to have a little space of my own. You know?

Refuge Inside, Photo credit: Dana Damewood

AP – Yeah, my brother and me would hang out in my grandma’s grove. We lived in town and we would want to go out there and it seemed huge and wild.  

HJ – I still feel that way. When I see an abandoned lot, I feel thrilled. It is a space that is not predetermined and things are happening or you can cause a little mischief. I have that drive to make mischief. I think our psyches need wilderness. It feels therapeutic to me. I wanted the garden to be a space where maybe some thirteen year olds could go eat chips, make jokes, whatever. There was also a section of the garden that was all romance with intoxicating perfumed plants. I had this picture of some teenagers making out in there. For my daughter who is two, it was enormous. When she was in there she was so tiny. The tallest plants were about 15 feet high so you could really escape to a different world inside the garden.

 I feel that there is an opportunity to have a lot more interaction with a lot more open invitation. I learned a lot as well. It would be so great to do something like that with regular weekly programing.

AP – I also liked that the garden with The Union was messy and I do not remember seeing a sign that said, “this is art, do not touch.” It was an art object, but not like a sculpture at sculpture park

HJ – Right, this was not a controlled space, it was really open at all hours, to the weather, to anyone and anything. That was part of the magic.

AP – Do you think the people who visited or used Refuge were more open to your point-of-views or aesthetic than a general public?

HJ – Probably, or maybe they were interested because they knew it was art. I think for some people who want to feel sophisticated about art, this might seem outside what they are used to, but for me, I was able to build this immersive environment and maybe it is going to hit the viewer at some level. Whatever level is cool with me. I felt like the garden was re-wilding the site with care. To me, the idea of re-wilding with care and growing something and nurturing something, feels so much like parenting and very feminine. And that does not feel like a put down to me at all.

AP – Did you photograph the garden in the same way you photographed your backyard?

HJ – Yes, in a way. I have hundreds of images of just insects. It was so fun to go there and just photograph. At the end of the summer it was covered in insects and it was wonderful. I wish I would have done an audio recording of the sounds there. The garden felt like the tightest project I have done conceptually. This summer I am going to focus on getting my garden going again at my house and have a domestic space, which feels very powerful and grounding for me. I do not have to get in my car, and I can do it while I parent. It is really meant to be a space for all these life forms. I really let things go in the past couple of years because we were feeling pretty overwhelmed with pregnancies and babies, etc, but this year I plan to get it organized wild again.

Refuge Monarchs Migrating

AP – I like how this is an oscillating conversation and it spirals around where this happened and then this happened and then that influenced this, but not really in a linear way.

HJ – And that is how it feels to me as well. Sometimes for me, when things show up, or make me feel really grossed out or uncomfortable, I usually never shut the door. Intellectually I cannot help but just scratch that itch, resolve it, or come to peace with it. If I just painted I would have a hundred anxiety attacks and never paint again. For me, my mind starts spinning and I think why am I doing this, what is the point, it is just paint on a board. Where do all these materials come from and what does that mean? I get too hung up. Moving around in different media really helps me identify what I am thinking about.

AP – Has your work always been representational?

HJ – My work has almost always been representational. Usually I am circling in through different media. The photographs are a little different in that I was thinking a lot about conceptual range. I am trying to acknowledge what it is like for all these species that are disappearing. Can you imagine being a species that is disappearing? There must be some real trauma and real suffering. When something feels important I try to honor it and work hard. Sometimes I go to another exhibition, and I am like damn it! I was doing that or I was thinking about that and they did it first. I think our ideas are not our own, it more about if you are willing to work towards it, distill it down so it will come through your own hands in whatever style you have.

AP – I also agree what with you said, in that nothing is original. Someone else has always done it before, so I just try to do it better.

HJ – Or in your own way. That is the space that I am in right now and thinking about ego. I am not that person I would ever even listen to 10 years ago. I am a mom, trying to figure out how to make artwork with kids. It is really challenging. I do not have a lot of time and space. As an artist, I want my work to be smart, emotionally engaging, meaningful, and touch on something that is much larger than me. I want it to be crafted well. I want it to be conscious of things going on in the world. I want it to be aware, and resonate. I do not have a lot of time right now, so this is a challenge. I am going to make 500 felt lemons. I do not know why, I am just going to do it and sit with them for a while and see where it goes. I wish I could tell you that I spend 100 hours a week in my studio. If I did, I think my work would be really great. As someone who has been parenting and not working, these are some of the things I miss: getting to finish a thought and having focus. There is a real pleasure in having focus.

Heather Johanson
Examining value systems and place is at the core of Heather Johanson’s practice. Her minimalist paintings, prints, drawings and gardens often focus on the invisible or unappreciated worlds we exist within and are rooted in vulnerability, grief, anxiety and a sense of responsibility while living in the time of the Anthropocene. Her most recent body of work focuses on the drastically changing localized ecosystem of the Midwest. 

Johanson earned an MFA from John F. Kennedy University in Berkeley, CA and BA in Painting from Minnesota State University, Mankato. Between 2008 and 2013 she served as Residency Program Manager at the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts. She has exhibited nationally. The artist lives and works in Omaha, NE. 

Alex Priest
Alex Priest is a curator, spatial thinker and producer holding degrees in Landscape Architecture and Design Studies from Iowa State University. He curates exhibitions and organizes public programs at major institutions and galleries. He works as the Exhibitions Manager at Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts. He also volunteers as the Managing Curator for the Omaha Public Library’s Michael Phipps Gallery and is an Arts Writer for The Reader and Flatlanders. His current research includes spatial anxiety and CrossFit.