Courtney Adair Johnson Tears It Up at the Downtown Public Library
Through March 29
by Erica Ciccarone
I never really liked new, shiny things. I’ve never been drawn to perfection.
Courtney Adair Johnson’s studio is a perfect example of organized chaos. She’s a reuse artist, so where others may have sketchbooks stored on shelves and canvases sitting regally on easels, Johnson’s world is a bit different. Open bags of paper, cloth, and Mylar slump against tables; the gold foil of a chocolate wrapper curls atop a cloth-backed book; an iridescent sheet of plastic climbs out of a garbage-can liner, begging for another life.
“I’ve always been slightly confused about why I’m making more stuff,” she says, “but with reuse, I’m saving it, bringing awareness with materials.” Knowing about her methods only adds to the heft of her oeuvre. In some of her abstract paintings, like the Smush Series, she uses vibrant colors and high contrast, letting the paint drip and smudge. Other work comes from a more conceptual place, such as The Landscape of Our Dirt, a series of abstract landscapes that reflect our destruction of the natural world. She likes to work spontaneously, yet her work seems calculated. She layers colors over colors and materials, resulting in abstract assemblages that have depth and resonance.
Johnson officially stopped buying art supplies in April 2008, and she’s gone rogue ever since. “I never really liked new, shiny things. I’ve never been drawn to perfection. I grew up in a log cabin in South Carolina. Everything was rough, and we were in the woods. I had to use my imagination a lot,” she says.
She’s been working at Plaza Artist Materials & Picture Framing for eight years, and it is there that she started to see the potential in what others cast off. Though she gives herself rules for not bringing new material to the studio, she doesn’t always abide by them. “Sometimes I feel like I can’t help myself if I can give something one extra life.” She rescues materials from the post-workshop trash at Plaza to use as a starting point: calligraphy samples, craft paper, practice prints from a gold-leafing class, doilies. She shows me her score from Hands on Creativity. “These are great starts. This whole box is from a lady who was doing printing. Of course you can use the backside. This could be a book cover. This could be a wall piece.” She sees potential in all of it.
She went part time at Plaza in 2012, after surviving Hodgkin’s disease. In fact, we met on her two-year remission date. She says, “When I got out of that, I thought, Why aren’t I full-fledged following what I’m supposed to be doing?”
Ever since, she’s been very busy. Fifty of her pieces have been used all over the set of Nashville (especially in Juliette’s dressing room, if you want to hunt them down). This year, she completed a master artist apprenticeship with Tennessee Craft, working in printmaking and book arts. She selected pieces from the past decade for an installation in Selvage, a textile art show at TSU’s Hiram Van Gordon Memorial Gallery. Johnson marked off her installation with tape, but her work pressed out of the edges and onto the floor, much like our deposits of trash that are steadily growing. In December, she made her curatorial debut at the Nashville Public Library Art Gallery with Paper, Thread and Trash, an exhibition of books (actual and conceptual) made by fourteen Tennessee artists. The catch is, their books are all made from upcycled materials, forcing us to think about the life cycle of materials as part of every narrative.
Johnson feels the call to activism and answers it with art. Her work presses us to reconsider what we waste and what we value. I think back to one of the prints she made during the Tennessee Craft apprenticeship: “We have to borrow from our tomorrows to pay for our yesterdays,” it read. With this strong voice in the art world, it might be the other way around.
For more about Courtney Adair Johnson, please visit www.courtneyadairjohnson.com. You can see the exhibit Paper, Thread and Trash at the Downtown Public Library through March 29. Find exhibit details on www.library.nashville.org.