IDI Interviews Artist Jeremiah Johnson

Many, many years ago I came across a recipe suggestion in a magazine that advised thrifty cooks about how they could put an out of date packet of digestive biscuits to good use; the hook being that rather than bin the soft and soggy items, the savvy chef could convert them into an economical but tasty treat. However further inspection revealed that several truffles, a specific and exclusive brand of Belgian chocolate and a couple of shots of liqueur were also involved thus elevating the cost of the recipe to that of a luxury dessert.

The point being that the actual cost of reusing discarded stuff can be far in excess of any likely savings. And this is the basic argument put forward against recycling. For recycling to be an economically viable option the correct balance between environmental benefit and the cost of any manufacturing or redeployment process involved must be achieved. Otherwise what we are left with is an endless series of vanity projects.

And this is why I like what is being done by American artist Jeremiah Johnson.

Based in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, Johnson teaches drawing and printmaking at Lycoming College by day but works in his basement by night producing art based around issues relating to folklore, culture and survival. But this is art that uses the detritus from Johnson’s everyday life as its raw material.

Jeremiah Johnson

For example since being diagnosed with ulcerative colitis in 2001, Johnson has collected and then reused his prescription medicine containers to create his “House of Worship”; a cathedral like edifice that converts potentially depressing items into a thing of singular beauty.

jeremiah johnson

jeremiah johnson

Johnson has also produced a series of 11 individual houses modelled after different homes in his neighbourhood. Each structure is made from an assortment of unopened credit card applications, masking tape and hot glue. In other words, these pieces consist largely of the junk mail that he receives on a regular basis.

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It would be disingenuous to suggest that these pieces come at little or no cost. The artist’s time alone is a significant factor. However, as pieces of art that have been produced from rubbish, these are exemplary and should be highlighted, perhaps as part of an educational exercise in how recycling can be used to enhance our lives.

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We caught up with this innovative artist recently and asked him about his background, influences and current projects:

1. Can you tell us something about the influence your background has had on your current practise; for example, did where and how you trained and what you studied have a positive or negative effect for example?

My first influences/inspiration regarding the use of recycled materials came from my farming/horticulture background. Growing up on a fruit and flower farm in the country, my father taught me the value of the old saying “Waste Not Want Not”. He was always saving things to get more use of them. Not to the extreme of hoarding, but somewhat close to that. It had all started in the family during the Great Depression though, my grandparents and their parents didn’t throw out as much as we, as a society, do today (if it still had good use in it). Back in the early 1970’s there was an oil scare which caused the price of plastic to go up dramatically, so my dad used all the tin cans he could get for flower pots at the time.

2. Who or what are your greatest influences?

My father. He also owned a flower shop, and although I never realized it growing up, I was constantly surrounded by creativity. I took it for granted. I was completely unaware that I was learning how to design and construct naturally.

3. I notice that you are also a teacher. Do you think it is important for teachers to also be practitioners within their particular discipline?

Absolutely! I enjoy teaching what I do, because I enjoy doing what I teach.

4. Do you find it difficult juggling the demands of two vocational jobs, namely educator and artist?

Well, not at the moment, the art came first for me, before and since graduate school. I worked off and on at frame shops and had several odd jobs including flower delivery person, landscaping, gallery installation, video sales, industrial screen printer, substitute teacher and then finally started part-time teaching at college level. Through it all I kept making art, my mind was always on my artwork, so I’m glad I was able to finally start working a job that wasn’t so far off from that. At Lycoming College I’m able to work with the students and alongside the students. It’s a nice balance.

For anyone still working a regular 40 hour a week job and making art out of school, I’d suggest making your living room your studio if at all possible. That way when you return from the outside world you’re able to retreat back into your personal work. Always leave the studio with something unfinished each day.

5. Do you highlight the concepts of reusing/recycling/up-cycling in your work as an artistic or political/social statement?

I use it for both quite often. It starts with economy.  At times I couldn’t afford paper, so I found myself reusing rolls of paper and other students discarded prints for the good paper; I could just gesso over it. It’s just something I kept doing over the years. I sort of get a kick out of the idea that I’m revaluing materials by giving them a renewed purpose in art. The political/social statement came with how my own personal experiences influence my work. I was always fascinated with the fact that junk mail started becoming extremely personalized. In college, I started getting about 2 personalized credit card applications per week. I don’t make much money, so why would they send them to me? I figured I’d collect them and paint on them or something… It took 12 years of saving them and a housing market crash to finally have an idea. I never opened the applications (even after the Dream Homes were constructed) as a sort of insult to the credit companies.

Healthcare is another giant issue right now in America, but I was already struggling with it since I was diagnosed with Ulcerative Colitis back in 2001. That’s when I started saving the prescription pill bottles to make “House of Worship”. The idea to make a church out of them came after. More a reflection on how we worship medicine, believe that it’s going to save us. There’s no cure for Ulcerative Colitis, it’s not in the medicine; I have to find it in myself.  So I’m trying to make something beautiful out of something ugly.

6. Would you describe your work as highly personal in that it reflects aspects of your life?

Absolutely, my work is a direct reflection of my life. Van Gogh was a big influence on my early years. Him feeling like an outsider in his life was something I felt back in grade school, and like him, I learned to be productive about it. I learned to express personal feelings and emotions through my work.

There are a lot of subtle things about the work that makes it regional too. For example the “Dream Homes” are modelled after the houses in my own neighbourhood, and the “House of Worship” is modelled after the standard Lutheran churches we have in central Pennsylvania. Hex Signs are also a regional symbol painted on barns, and once used to ward off witches and evil spirits. Sort of like modern medicine.

7. Your work suggests that you are a patient person – the amount of time spent sourcing materials must have been considerable – would you agree?

Yeah, especially since the source is my own. I don’t really save a lot of materials, only specific things that somehow are personal. I may think there’s something to be said in the specific materials I choose to save when I start saving them. I am very patient. I guess ‘cause I grew up with a father that is always late for everything. He always keeps busy, so he’s always late to the next thing he has to do. You gain a lot of patience from that.

8. Do you regard yourself as a mentor to your students or can/do you separate these two aspects of your working life?

I don’t know… You’d have to ask them that question. I’ve had a lot of great teachers/mentors in my life. I just like sharing what I know with the students and I also am honestly interested in learning from them as well. We all come from different experiences. I share as much of my experience as my mentors have with me and still keep an open mind for new and different ideas.

9. Is there a particular project that you would really like to tackle?

Each work that I make informs/inspires the next. There’s a quote from an artist (can’t remember who specifically) “Ideas are like rabbits, get 2 in a pen together and pretty soon you’ll have a dozen”.

10. Do you regard your role as an artist as someone who makes critical comment on their observations of the world they inhabit?

I try to.

11. What is the most important piece of advice you have received as an artist?

The encouragement to develop my obsessions into magnificent tools for exploration. I’ve learned that from many great artists like Vincent Van Gogh, Robert Crumb, John Waters, Howard Finster and a former professor Mark Alice Durant.

You can find out more about Jeremiah Johnson and his work by following this link to his website:

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