Now Featuring Elena Johnston

Baltimore artist and musician Elena Johnston works across a variety of media, making work that feels like a carefully crafted invitation to play. It makes sense then, that Elena is also drawn to collaborative projects and teaching as well. We talked about her process and the tape she released this summer.

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MH: I wanted to first ask about the sense of play in your work… It reminds me a lot of the sense of relearned simplicity and naiveté in artists like Calder and Miró, but with a pop sensibility as well.

EJ: I love Calder and Miró. They are big influences on my work. Someone just did a studio visit with me and said that my work was playful yet considered at the same time, which I liked. The idea of play has been something I have explored or years, in my own work, shows I have curated, and essentially collaborating with others is playing with them in a way. I have always enjoyed the simplicity of playing with basic shapes or lines- the challenge to create an interesting composition, like a game.

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MH: Can you talk about the videos you’ve made… they’re like moving collages!  I really enjoy the most abstract parts, where what I’m looking at feels like so many things at once, as I’m recognizing marks and shapes as what they are (ink, cut paper) as well as seeing them abstractly, and then seeing them as moving parts whose motions are separate from the motions of the gestures (a brush on paper, for example) that they also represent.

EJ: The videos are a fairly new medium for me, and have been really fun to make. It was an exciting challenge to consider real movement, as opposed to the implied movement in my two-dimensional paintings and collages. “A Dream of You and Me,” is a collaboration with William Cashion, the bassist for Future Islands, who wrote the song. William studied painting in college, and it was really fun to collaborate with him on this, because although we share a similar aesthetic, he is responsible for some of the materials, such as glitter and candles, things that I would not have chosen, but changed the video in a unique way because it allowed light in as an important element.

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MH: You do a lot of collaborations and projects with groups like bands… what are those group endeavors like, how do they compare with more self-directed work?

EJ: Collaborating is a great way to switch things up. It is important to be open to other people’s ideas, especially if you respect them as creative contemporaries. I think musicians usually have an interesting take on visual projects, as they are always thinking of rhythm and unity in their own music.

MH: How do you arrive at the colors you work with… I have enjoyed how your work has surprised me with new color schemes as I’ve looked through it.

EJ: The color choices are intuitive. Some combinations repeat as I reflect more on the work, like sunset colors. Sometimes the combinations are dramatic, but mostly they flow together in a subtle way.

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MH: In other interviews, you’ve mentioned making an album as a goal, and I know you sometimes collaborate with musicians.  What does your own music sound like?

EJ: My own music is melodic, meditative, blue, repetitive, serene, layered keyboard tracks. It is usually a first thought, best thought process. I don’t usually plan what I am doing when I begin a song, but record layers on top of each other and trust that the right notes will find each other. I wouldn’t call myself a trained musician, but did grow up with it always around me, and have continued to surround myself with musicians and music throughout my adult life. It is integral to my process as a visual artist, if not the most important thing. My music project is called Chac Mool, and my first tape release is coming this summer on Marginal Records. I recorded the tracks onto tape in my studio in Baltimore, MD.

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MH: What are your biggest challenges in studio and in your other creative projects?

EJ: It’s a challenge finding time to work in the studio this year, as I have been studying Art Education, and now teaching art. But I did manage to make the stop-motion, paintings, collages, and I just came out with my debut cassette release, so I do pack in projects in the little time I have to work on art. It is really important for me to maintain an active studio practice while teaching.  Another challenge is having space to work on large-scale work. My flat-file is full, and my studio is a multi-functional space. It would be nice to try a sculpture series, but I am not sure I would have the space to store them anywhere.

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MH: What projects do you have coming up?  And what do you dream of trying that you haven’t gotten around to doing yet?

EJ: I am collaborating with artist Jordan Bernier on a split cassette of music and artwork. We used to have a music project called Bamboo, which was sort of an experiment because we both considered ourselves more visual artists, and it was fun to collaborate with a new medium and approach. It should be coming out sometime this summer. I am showing a few artworks at the Sondheim semi-finalist exhibition in July. I have been planning a lot of art lessons for young artists, so I have also been working on that a lot. In terms of dream projects, I would like to work more on music videos, and another music album of my solo project Chac Mool. In general, I want to join my music and artwork more.

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MH: How do you think touring with bands has influenced your work?  I know that travel can be really inspiring, but for me it makes it hard to get actual work done, for that I have to wait until I get home.  What about you?

EJ: Travel has been very inspiring for most of my work. I usually only travel for short periods of time, such as a few weeks on tour, and then come back to the studio with new ideas. Traveling really shakes up any creative energy that may have been stuck and creates a momentum for creative thinking. At home and in the studio, I like to collect things that are inspiring, but sometimes these objects or artworks can congest my creative process, because I feel tied to them. When you travel, you realize that you don’t need many things, and you can let them go. This can happen physically and metaphysically. I return to the studio with a clean slate and new ideas.

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MH: What artists and makers are you excited about these days and why?

EJ: There are so many rad artists in Baltimore that are inspiring. DJ Rice, Chris Day, Chloe Maratta, Molly O’Connell and John Bohl, and are all doing cool things at the moment. I also really like Zachary Utz music.

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