A sense of wonder

The art of Johanna Marie

Ted Heinonen

“Crush” Photograph by Johanna Marie
“Crush” Photograph by Johanna Marie

Recently I had the chance this summer to ask an incredibly talented young artist a few questions about her most recent work. Her images have a playful feel that reminded me in certain ways of American photographer Philippe Halsman’s images that he created with surrealist painter Salvador Dali and there was a touch of Johannes Vermeer in the color and imagery in her photos.

Johanna Marie was born and grew up in Duluth, Minnesota. She is currently attending Earlham College majoring in art with a concentration in photography and will be spending her final semester studying art at Penland School of Crafts. She recently exhibited her newest series, A Sense of Wonder, as part of Flux, a group show for Earlham College’s senior art majors.

Tell us a little about yourself... where are you from, where did you grow up.. what was your childhood like?

I was born in Duluth, MN and lived there until I moved away for college. When I was just a few years old, my parents bought land in the woods about 20 miles north of Duluth and began building a home. I spent a lot of time outside as a child and had lots of freedom to explore the natural world around me. I was a very imaginative child, always coming up with crazy stories with my younger sister. I also really enjoyed reading; I think all the story books and fantasy novels I read really helped fuel my imagination. Even as a young child, I loved anything creative and was always working on art and craft projects. I was very lucky; my parents recognized my love for art and always bought me art supplies to use and enrolled me in after-school or summer art classes.

I like the comment you have below your name on Instagram, it states “Artist, not photographer”
”How did you start making art and when did you realize that you wanted to be an artist?

I started making art as a young child. I loved pretty much any type of art I tried and switched mediums a lot. However, I didn’t start using the term “artist” to describe myself until within the past year. I’ve always felt a little unsure of labeling myself an artist, because I felt like my work wasn’t good enough and that I wasn’t a real artist because I didn’t sell artwork.

I think some part of me always knew that I wanted to be an artist, but I spent all of high school and half of college trying to convince myself to study something more “practical” than art. I had trouble during my freshman year of college and ended up dropping out for a year before transferring schools. In my year off I met many people who ended up doing very different things than what they went to college for. This made me question whether or not any major or career was really practical. The tipping point was when I realized that art classes in college didn’t drain me like my other classes. I could only spend so many hours writing papers or doing readings for class, but I was willing to spend as much time as it took for my art projects. When I’m creating, I feel fulfilled and happy in a way I don’t doing other activities.

The Instagram caption comes from my current experience as a summer camp photographer. Working as a photographer for the first time made me realize that I really don’t want to work as a photographer in the future, even as a freelance photographer with my own studio. I love working multimedia and switching or combining mediums too much to limit myself to just photography. I also feel like working in other mediums, including my favorites, paper and clay, allows me to more fully express myself and challenge myself artistically.

“Soar” Photograph by Johanna Marie
“Soar” Photograph by Johanna Marie

Why do you make art? 

I make art because I see images in my head that I want to exist outside of my head too. I think everyone has a really unique way of seeing and experiencing the world and art is a way to allow other people to see the way I do. Making art feels more like a need than a hobby to me. The images will come no matter what, and if I make artwork, I can let them out of my head and find new ideas and images to create. 

What is your most important artist tool? Is there something you can’t live without in your studio?

My camera is really important to me; I’ve been photographing for over 10 years and it’s a really natural way for me to express myself. However, I think the artist’s tool I couldn’t live without is my sketchbook. I can be honest and open in my sketchbook in a way I can’t be in real life. My sketchbook is where I can collect all the ideas and thoughts that might someday become artworks. All of the photographs in A Sense of Wonder started out as tiny, scribbly pen sketches in my sketchbook.

Is there an element of art you enjoy working with most? Why? 

I really love the problem-solving aspect of art. I remember hearing someone say once that art is a visual solution to a problem and I really think that’s true. The way I work, by trying to recreate images in my head, can be really difficult. My favorite part of my process is when I have a breakthrough moment and figure out a way to solve a problem I’ve been having. At that moment, I feel the best feeling of being on the right track and completely in the right place. It’s really exciting and fulfilling all at once and keeps me pushing towards the final product.

What is your thought process when you create, what sparks an idea for you.. do you see an image or story?

  I think pretty much anything can spark an idea for me, memories, things I see outside, songs, interactions with other people, etc. But I’ve noticed that I come up with more ideas when I consistently work in my sketchbook and on art projects as well as when I give myself time to daydream and to let my mind completely wander. I’m a really visual person; my ideas pretty much always come in the form of images. Even if I write down my thoughts in my sketchbook, chances are that I see an image in my head based on my words.

Who are your biggest influences?

  I’ve been really lucky to have many awesome art teachers over the years who have all greatly influenced me. I really appreciate how each of them have given me opportunities to create, encouraged me to continue to study art, and pushed me when they realized I could do better than the work I was producing.

“Flowers Comin’ Through the Shower” Photograph by Johanna Marie
“Flowers Comin’ Through the Shower” Photograph by Johanna Marie

What inspires you? 

  I’ve always been inspired by the natural world. I just think there are so many amazing aspects of nature that most of us don’t take the time to see. I’m especially inspired by light. My first college photography professor told my class to “photograph light as if it were a character” and that really stuck with me; I don’t just think of light as a way to illuminate my subject anymore because light often is my subject. I’m also very interested in the relationship between people and place and how memories shape our current experiences. I see both themes in my work frequently. 

Is there an artwork you are most proud
of? Why? 

Honestly I think that I’m pretty much always most proud of my most recent artworks. The challenges I’ve had to overcome are always most fresh in my mind, as are the feelings that inspired and went into the piece. I just end up getting caught up in the excitement of finishing a new piece and it always becomes my favorite. That being said, I think I do tend to be prouder of the works that required a lot of effort and emotion or forced me to overcome a lot of difficulties.

You can view more of Johanna’s work on her Instagram site: www.instagram.com/johannamarieart/