Annie May Johnston graduated with her M.F.A. in Studio Art in 2016, and since then has made her home in San Francisco. However, Johnston was recently pulled back to Austin for a mural commissioned by Facebook for their Austin headquarters.
Johnston answered questions from Studio Art professor and artist Leslie Mutchler by email.
Leslie Mutchler (LM): In your recent mural commission at Facebook (Austin), you've created a visually intense space—to say the least. The repetitive, hand-painted wallpaper of leaves, stripes and modernized fleur-de-lis is loose, expressionistic and vibrant; and over which you've added abstracted and flattened faux-doorways to interior spaces that bring to mind Memphis Design (Milan, circa 1980s). When you throw in the split complementary and warm/cool color schemes, it becomes an overwhelming, yet compelling mix. How did you arrive at this result? Was it planned? Was it intuitive? Can you walk us through your process?
Annie May Johnston (AMJ): Yes, I did have a plan, but I would say that I only stuck to the basic idea of a patterned hallway with doorways and houseplants. I decided that one side of the hall would be cool "wallpaper" with warm doorways and interior spaces and the other would be the opposite hue. My color choices mutated and changed from the start as the bright pink wall had an extreme reflective quality, so much so that it cast every color I chose for the green wall in a pink light, changing my colors completely. Originally, I planned to do the base of the wall with a stencil, but then I discovered a paint spray gun and the pattern developed out of moves that I had used before in smaller pieces. I also knew that I wanted to use milk paint, which is a type of material that is extremely matte and organic feeling, and I wanted to contrast it with bright acrylic and latex paints. I filled and layered the hallway until it felt satiated and could hold its own weight and was interesting enough on its own. The doorways were the next step, and I really felt they came out of nowhere as they were different from anything that I had made before. These pathways or portals needed to be modern and simple, but also absurd and a bit confusing. Ultimately, the result came from a combination of what the space needed rather than what I wanted and my own personal time spent wrestling and negotiating with the materials and surface.
LM: A patterned hallway and houseplants? What led you to this course of inquiry? Is there a reason you work with interior or domesticated spaces? And why are the houseplants important to the overall composition?
AMJ: Houseplants relate to our human desire to control nature. As captives in our home they completely rely on us for water, sun exposure and nutrients. Within wallpaper there is also that sense of wanting to control our natural environment. I link the patterns in floral wallpaper to expertly crafted gardens in their rows and circles and to our desire to be involved in our natural environment, but from a safe and warm location. The plants in this piece are important because they provide an anchor to the interior and to the "real world", a space that becomes separate from the more alien environment that exists through the portals or doorways. In previous work, my focus was on mapping and the psycho-geography of cities. My focal point was turned towards objects in the cities and later the objects in my own personal space. All of these areas felt too distant or too specific, so now my images are abstracted from my own personal memory. I'm currently trying to find a balance between anonymity and nostalgia.
LM: While here at UT Austin, you made prints and paintings—some installation—but ultimately the work always had an element of repetition. I'd say you are a printmaker at heart—although you work in a great variety of media and ways. How do you think your interest in print, specifically contemporary print, relates to how you make and what you make?
AMJ: I think to describe my relationship to contemporary print means I must talk about my introduction to printmaking. For some time I worked for an atelier in Paris that specialized in lithography, and I had the great honor of working with a wide variety of artists whose prints we pulled and published. At the workshop, Michael Woolworth Publications, we didn't just do editions. I saw prints pulled using pressed and pulped flowers and dried flies. Prints were painted over, folded, added on to, and some incorporated printed materials like books or magazines. Early on I saw print being used in dualities, (e.g., the monotype vs. the edition or the precious print vs. the zine) and in using the medium you encounter a kind of push and pull between intention and form. My most recent work sprung from an exploration of plants, pattern and space, so a natural arena to consider was wallpaper, an art form with its roots in the world of print.
LM: It's great to hear a printmaker talk about print in a less restrictive way. I think your background in print, especially your experiences at the publication shop in Paris has allowed you to work with the idea of the multiple and process in an innovative way. What's next for you?
AMJ: I really enjoyed having free-reign of a 90 ft. surface, especially the uniqueness of a hallway, so I imagine I will look for opportunities to work with other large surfaces in different spaces. My experience changed the way I'm currently working through compositions and colors, and I feel very fortunate that the environment challenged me. I have a show coming up in San Francisco in a space that has really old decorative accents and I am planning on doing a hand-painted area, so I'm looking forward to using the tools I gained during the Facebook project to continue working with the wall directly.