To step is to rise

Interview with Jeanette Johns

By Andrew Lodwick

The following interview took place via email throughout December 2016. 

Andrew Lodwick: A lot of your work seems to strike a balance between the personal and the universal, contrasting what seem like small, intimate observations or actions against a certain detached, almost scientific point of view and a fascination with how things seem versus how they are. This push-and-pull between large and small feels very genuine and organic, but I'm wondering whether it's something you're aware of as you work, and how it might play into your approach or philosophy towards art making?

Jeanette Johns: I think when I start a project or start researching a certain subject I purposely try to leave the personal to the side, for awhile at least. I like seeing where an analytical approach will take me – how far I can gather facts before inserting any of my own conclusions. Those more small, intimate, personal observations are where I find beauty but alone they seem to be too easy of an answer to what I'm after. I guess in a way my approach to making is the long way around, I really lean toward scientific material and ideas, mashing large facts together until the smallest hint of something poetic comes out. It's a fine balance though and I often immerse myself too deep into subjects that are way over my head. I end up taking out large stacks of books from the library and mostly just end up looking at the pictures.

I've been thinking about this sort of dichotomy a lot more recently though - I just read an interview with Ursula LeGuin and she talks about the balance between the analytical and the intuitive. She said, “Both directions strike me as becoming more and more sterile the farther you follow them. It's when they can combine that you get something fertile and living and leading forward”.

 AL: You mention LeGuin and that brings to my mind The Lathe of Heaven, in which a draftsman has the ability to alter reality based on what he dreams. He alone remains aware of how things were before and how he has changed them. There's an attractive nugget there, aligning drafting with this "effective" dreaming and the ability to rewrite reality. Technical drawings certainly factor into your art practice, and I'm wondering how you came to embrace them and what roles they play for you. Is drafting a tool to communicate your ideas, a means of understanding some of these heady subjects, or simply a way of working that appeals to you?

JJ: I've been meaning to read that book - I'll have to put it on the top of my sci-fi list. That idea of "effective" dreaming is interesting because I see drafting essentially as that - a tool that brings information from the reality of the mind into a concrete reality. Well, technically it brings it from the mind, to a drawing, then from that drawing, a physical object can be constructed. It's really kind of an amazing and effective language. When reading a technical drawing there is no guess work or anything lost in translation. As a tool, it really does help me communicate certain ideas by being able to put on paper 3D objects and spaces.

I took some drafting classes in high-school and was seriously considering it as a career path but I got scared away by the introduction of the CAD programs. For me, at the time, there was just too huge a gap between the process of hand-drawn and the computer systems. What I liked about analogue technical drawing, and still do, is that for me it strikes a really nice balance of active and passive thinking. There's a lot of calculating and measuring but then drawing the lines you just focus on the end of your pencil. I find it quite therapeutic actually. 

The idea of precision as a concept interests me. Something can be drawn as exact as possible but it only remains as precise as the tools that were used, and the tools that interpret it. Drawing with a pencil onto paper is scaled to our human proportions - our hands and eyes have a very limited range of precision. For the series A Mountain is an Inclined Plane I drew lines every millimetre trying my best to be exact but also expecting imperfection. It's an approximation of exactness.

These days I do end up drafting a lot of my work on the computer and I enjoy it quite a bit. I tend to get lost in the ability to use vectors and scale in and out. It's definitely a different sort of tool than drawing on paper but I've come to see its uses. Now I kind of regret not continuing on with drafting classes and learning CAD. I'm skeptical of new technology and so always slow to come around to see how it could be useful for me.

AL: I'm interested in the title you've chosen, To Step is to Rise. To me this has an almost inspirational ring to it, invoking the human spirit and notions of transcendence. I'm curious where it came from, and whether it was an early development that might have guided the work, or a later conception intended to encapsulate some of the thinking behind it? Could you expound on that a little?

JJ: I always find it tough to find titles for exhibitions and name artworks. It's usually the very last thing that I do. I was telling Lisa when she was asking for a title that it took my partner and I two weeks after our baby was born find a name for her, joking that naming an art show should be an easier task than naming a human.

For titles, I often like looking at technical names or phenomena that are associated with the subjects that I have been working with. Stairs are a reoccurring theme for me at the moment so I've been noting a lot of the nomenclature around them; the distance between two landings is called a run, a stairway can be called a flight. The two main components that make up each step are the rise (the vertical height of a step) and the tread (the horizontal part you step on), the pitch is the angle at which the stairs go up. I also like the terms for tread and riser in French - la marche and la contremarche. All these terms have different associations that could, like you said, transcend the physical.

The act of taking a step is quite simple but "foot over foot, man may rise to the height of birds" (I don't remember where I read that). To rise, can mean to ascend, to overcome an obstacle or to float beyond the material. We are so tied to the physical and the rules that conduct our movement on this earth that we have to find ways to use our limited gestures to wiggle beyond their constraints. People don't just climb mountains purely for exercise, there is the mental challenge of the ascent, the view at the top and of course the fact that you can say you did it. There's the idea there that the body in action, even if it's just eyes that are looking, has the capacity to evoke something greater.

With the title I also had the vocabulary of comparison or ratios in my mind. Like you said earlier, some of the work in the show considers things how they are perceived versus how they really are and so this idea of "A is to B as C is to D" kept coming into my mind even though I don't feel like I'm laying out any comparisons that clearly. "To step" is "to rise" as "to tread" is to... I don't know. There is logic buried in it all but I'd be hard pressed to explain it in a linear way. Maybe that's why I have a hard time naming things - I don't want to limit meaning to the limits of language.

AL: Titling is tricky, but I like the idea of the same constituent pieces reconfigured and presented in different spaces under an alternate exhibition title. Have you had the opportunity to show the same bodies of work at multiple locations? If you did, would you revise certain pieces, make additions or deletions? That maybe ties into how ongoing the process is for you -- is it an intuitive matter as to when certain threads or motifs have run their course for you?

JJ: The last couple of years I think like I've been working in a way that let's me do a kind of "mix-n-match" when I have a show. Bodies of work are tending to blur into one another, or maybe I'm just slowing down and taking longer to explore various ideas, and letting them blend into one another. So, for my last few exhibitions, I took the opportunity to reconfigure what I've been working on -- to put a different emphasis on pieces that have already been shown by pairing them with new work. I think I often look back through my work chronologically and try to include relevant pieces that link up with what I'm doing presently. Constituent is a good word to describe it; like variations on a theme but that theme isn't necessarily super defined.

As to when ideas have run their course, yes, I think it's really just an ongoing process though not totally intentional. Some threads just fall away to the side because I was never able to find the right way to integrate the idea, or it just wasn't clear what I was doing in the first place. I tend to accumulate a lot of interests but there's only so much I can juggle at one time. Thematic elements sometimes subside not because I wasn't interested in it but because another subject took its place. It's fun to go back through my notebooks and pick up on something I've forgotten about.

To Step is to Rise consists of all new work. It's kind of a scary thing not to have any pieces that have been shown to the public before. But it's a great opportunity to see what people respond to and for those who know my work, how they might make links to previous stuff. On one hand all the work seems strange to me because it's so new, like it dropped from the sky, but on the other hand I can make links from each piece back to familiar ideas. It's good to occasionally stop and think "how did I get here" -- it makes decisions seem a little less arbitrary.

AL: As you mentioned, you and your partner recently brought a little girl into the world. She must have been gestating along with many of these ideas, and a major factor in your life through the majority of its realization. Could you share some thoughts on how her presence might have affected this new work (if at all), and whether she has made you feel any different about your art practice in general?

JJ: It was actually exactly one year ago that I found out I was pregnant with her. I had just started a year-long residency in a printmaking studio in Montreal and essentially had to give that up because I didn’t want to be around so many chemicals. More often than not my work involves some sort of analogue print process. So this last year when didn’t have access to the tools and methods I was used to using, I had to shift to some different ways of working. I guess it’s how I got back into technical drawing. I needed some methodical process to employ. I bought myself an extremely precise millimeter ruler to have some kind of material inspiration and I just started experimenting with that. That’s how the series of pencil drawings came about. I also developed images for print on paper with found imagery and photography but used almost all digital methods to print them. Being pregnant and especially being a new mom didn’t leave me with a lot of energy, so my studio habits suddenly went from long sessions of meandering, thinking and puttering, to being efficient with the little time I had. I started making decisions faster, not second-guessing myself.

One interesting thing that happened along the way was that some of what I was reading about birth and baby development was related to some of the subjects I was looking at for this show. This new work uses images that illustrate the role that our bodies play in the experience of space and the subtle mechanisms that mediate the way we look at pictures. Like when looking at a picture of a moon crater lit from below we see as a convex bump. This is because our eyes expect to decipher an object with a light source coming from above. It’s the idea of expectation - in the womb, babies are developing for life in the specific environment of Earth. Inner ears are expecting gravity, lungs are expecting air, even skin is expecting to be touched.

As far as how having a human grow inside of me and then depend on me for life has changed how I feel about my art practice - it’s all still very new and wild so kind of hard to say. But going back to your first comment about the personal versus the universal, it really blew my mind to hold my newborn baby - it’s too much humanity concentrated into a tiny little squirmy nugget. It made me feel both totally helpless and hopeful. And with those fresh feelings heading into my studio, it surprised me that it felt right to see art making as essential to both my personal needs and the larger picture. I thought maybe that I’d see a studio practice as a frivolous activity compared to caring for a baby but I think now I understand how it gives me space to be myself. It lets me enter into a little world that helps me deal with the bigger realities of living.