Chris Johanson and Johanna Jackson live an artistic lifestyle. They are careful and creative in everything that they do, their artistry extending from canvases and gallery walls into how they live and what surrounds them. Visiting their Silver Lake home is like entering into an ideological sanctuary that forms when you collide mixed media art, high end craft, locavore culture, and a way of living: that is Chris and Johanna’s artistic lifestyle.
The couple are artists. They are married and do work independently of each other as well as together. They are constantly collaborating, which results in the blurring of their personal lives and their “work” lives. They’ve reached a point that all creators aspire to: creating is your life.
They’ve come a long way, though. Nearly a year ago they were living in Portland. “We have a house in Portland. It’s totally filled with things,” Johanna says. She sits at the table rerolling balls of yarn. Chris sits across from her leaning back in a small chair he made. “It’s a big house–and it’s full. We moved here to get away from it all. The law was that we wouldn’t discuss any single thing we brought in, we weren’t going to have a little bit of affection for something and live with it.”
“We’ve been here almost a year,” Chris says.
“We’re slowly making it.”
Being in California isn’t foreign to them, though: Chris grew up in San Jose and they actually met when Johanna was living in San Francisco. “I always made art,” Chris says, adding that he was in and out of higher education (he spent time at San Francisco City College and San Jose State). “I dropped out. It was the best thing I ever did.”
“I was already painting and making visual art,” he says. “I had this idea that I would do design for a magazine but then I got there and I had no idea what I wanted to do. I started taking photography classes, which is how I met Barbara DeGenevieve. The class with her, weirdly, involved performance art. I knew I had to get out of there, though. So I just quit. I moved back to San Francisco and was playing in bands, fried out.”
“Fried out some useless neurons, yes,” Johanna chimes in.
The two laugh.
“I did negative research. But sometimes negative research gives you positive rewards.”
Johanna explains a bit about herself. “I’m from Columbia, Maryland. My first introduction to art was makeup. I studied English and Art History for my undergraduate (which was at University of Maryland) and I have a Masters of New Genres from the San Francisco Art Institute.”
“Didn’t you have something else, though?”
“Oh, right: I also got a Women’s Study Certificate in undergrad. But, Women’s Studies wasn’t a valid major back then.” Johanna gives a laugh that causes her to stop knitting. The two riff off of each other’s school stories.
“I remember taking this art class and a design class at San Jose City College. I absolutely had no idea what I was doing at all. It was a design intro and the assignment was to draw nature and I did all of these shells. I remember this guy telling me that my shells looked like cauliflower ears. I remember how mean that was.”
Johanna laughs again: “…that still comes up when you’re looking at your art!”
“I’ll never forget it. It’s a weird thing, critiques. People talk about going to grad school and it sounds like a really weird nightmare,” Chris says. “I loved -ologies, though. I’m glad I went to school even though I dropped out. I got a well rounded education in terms of history, sociology, anthropology–those kinds of things. It’s so important. I don’t really care about art stuff though, with the exception of a few people I took classes with that were incredible. For example, Robert Dawson taught an environmental photography class I took. He was a friend of Ansel Adams–but younger–and he did all this photography that looked like Adams’ but was all about environmental degradation. He was a hardcore environmentalist. He and Barbara DeGenevieve really influenced me.”
Chris expounds on DeGenevieve’s pedagogical practices. “Her trick was to not have fear. She created this environment during a class. In the second or third class, you had to go to the front of the class and pick out a word and do a performance based on it. A lot of people dropped the class because they were terrified–and I was too! I didn’t want to do a performance. For some reason, I stuck it out. It took three classes to get through and, by the end, people’s performances were riffing off of each other in a positively empowering way. A lot of the performances were about harm or childhood trauma–really heavy shit. It was cool because the class became a safe place and like a family. I always thought it was really admirable for her to create an environment for people to grow. I fucking grew from that class.”
“When I was in grad school, Annie Sprinkle came to a class I was in,” Johanna says. “We were all super concerned with being good artists. She came in and had this shitty little radio and a ball and she made us stand in a circle. She’d throw the ball at us and we were supposed to ‘do the dance we would do on our own grave.’”
Johanna laughs. “I couldn’t do it. When she threw it at me and I responded that I couldn’t! Then, I couldn’t even think about having a grave…although I probably would rather have died then and there rather than lost any face to my peers.”
“Do you think it was super heavy for you?”
“I was just so uptight,” she responds. “I was very wrapped up in my own persona. Another time someone else came in and wanted us to feel the opposite gender, acknowledging its existence in ourselves. I was like, ‘No, I don’t have one–at all. I am all woman.’ I think it was actually because I wouldn’t look inside myself for any complications in public: what I was projecting was all that I would even allow myself to be aware of–it wasn’t that I disowned the phallic energy in me or anything.”
She gives another big laugh, putting her hands up: “That’s half of my Women’s Studies certificate!”
Chris and Johanna met in San Francisco. Chris had moved there after leaving school and Johanna had moved there because the city interested her. She eventually went to school there and the two met in the art scene. “We met at Scene/Escena, which was a gallery in the Mission,” she says. “It was in a shack, in the back of Jim and Darin Klein’s. The space was almost like a wood shack, right?”
“It was a carriage house, a one bedroom apartment or studio, I believe.”
“They had a show in 1996 for zines and put up flyers for anyone to apply. That was my first art show.”
“We got together through art,” Chris clarifies. “We met and started collaborating on these pieces we did for a friend who passed away. There was an art benefit and we ended up making art together, which is something we did right away. It’s been a very natural thing for us to get closer and closer creatively.”
“That’s true,” Johanna says. “We could draw together before we could even talk to each other.”
“It’s been really fun. I think its really good. Our stuff overlaps so much now which I think is very nice. It’s a good, awesome thing.”
San Francisco played a big part into their coming together and figuring out their lives together in art. The two eventually married and stayed in the city but found a desire for something else, something new. “Even though we loved our friends, San Francisco is really small,” Johanna says. “Everyone’s an artist, too. Every single person–even people you don’t know! It’s a great place to start being an artist because you don’t have to defend your point of view. We found that we started to get really on top of each other art wise and we had such a common language with each other that the language became common in our art. We moved to Portland to be alone.”
“We realize this in retrospect,” Chris adds. “I don’t think it was such a conscious thing. We look back on it and realize that is what we were doing. We tried to live in Berkeley but couldn’t find a place. We were up in Seattle at one point and we drove down to Portland to look at houses. We ended up buying one.”
“In Portland, we were doing our art and traveling all the time,” Johanna explains. “We got seriously burned out and an emptiness crept in.”
Chris tacks on to this idea. “We couldn’t travel because we just couldn’t. We were tired. But we wanted to make art. To be a professional artist means so many different things. And it can become stale if you let it, which I say with respect for it. If you are traveling all the time, you don’t stop to think about what you’re making–”
Johanna steps in: “Especially if you are making them and sending them away to the homes of people who can afford to live with your things.”
“I think think the Art Farification, this commerce element in art, was really psychologically a weird thing to take in. You don’t even get to see things in the context of a show!”
“You’re making work and they’re being sold like sunglasses,” Johanna says. “Things should be nice–not a super fetish object.”
“It brought up a lot of questions,” Chris says on their behalf. “Traveling and objectification and the harshness of art and commerce all became really stale to us. Fuck that. We basically stopped doing that for a while.”
They stopped in Portland and their home was the seed for completely living this artistic life. It became centering and important as did everything else. “We started to focus on things like growing food and cooking–I even read Martha Stewart’s book on how to clean because I didn’t come from a clean life,” Johanna says. “Even cleaning became something super interesting and something to put your energy into, something to meditate with. That’s how we began to move into the lifestyle we have now, I guess.”
Johanna clarifies what she means by “lifestyle” and “lifestyle art”: “I say ‘lifestyle art’ in quotations as its more ‘the art of life.’”
“The first stuff we started to really make together was in Portland. Would it be the planters?” Johanna asks. “I think it started with planters. That’s the first thing I can think of that really was an authentic piece.”
“You were already planting things and I was helping. What happened was Johanna wanted planters.”
“We have a big suburban sized yard and a garage with a black top that shoots off sunlight. We wanted to plant up there for the hot crops.”
“I no longer wanted to be around loud things–”
“Things that were loud and have violent motions–”
“Anything to do with being ‘on the clock,’” Chris says. “I would cruise around the neighborhood looking for wood, which is something I always do. I just made planters from there by cutting the wood by hand. I put them together–”
Johanna describes them with her eyes closed, almost as if they are painted behind her eyelids. “There are a million pieces put together, making planters twice the size of this table. They’re all stuck together and put together by hand. They’re perfect.”
“It was a healing ritual. We started planting stuff around our house. We have a living landscape now.”
As they mentioned before, they left Portland to escape their full house. They had a full set a crops that they removed and replaced with a manageable group of fruit trees. Coming to Los Angeles, they started with nothing, only living from things they found or bought from friends. They literally brought and made what fills their Los Angeles home by bringing things in sticks at a time.
“We wanted to make everything,” Chris says. “We wanted to fill the space with art–”
“But not filled!”
“Not filled, right–just some,” Chris clarifies. “There’s an Andy Colquitt…Samara Golden…Lisa Williamson…Cali deWitt…and Johanna Jackson!”
They both laughs. Chris continues. “It’s peaceful here. In Portland, there’s no sun in the Winter. If you’re sensitive to not having sun, that town will really start to bother you.”
“It’s also a completely uniform population,” Johanna says. There is an unsaid complacency despite the very active lifestyle of the Pacific Northwest. Chris and Johanna were in Portland, living in their home, for five years yet they never felt like they settled in. The feeling of their life up North sounds like the chrysalis phase in a butterfly’s life.
They eventually craved California and decided to give Los Angeles a go. “I like California! I like LA, too,” Johanna says. “Even though Portland is so very natural and the Earth grows anything you give it, LA has this quality that the Earth is about to break through the concrete and take over everything. Trees that were this big one day ago–”
She gesticulates a tiny amount, perhaps the size of her hand. “They’re now that big!”
She points out the window toward little trees that are perhaps four feet tall. She follows up with her requisite bubbly laugh.
“I don’t drive, either,” she says. “We thought LA was stupid. We thought it was funny–but then we loved it! I mean, I’m funny, too. We’re all funny!”
“I missed California a lot. I didn’t realize it!” Chris says. “Portland is really far up. When you drive there, you realize you are really far up there. It’s a different head space. Psychologically it must be something to do with the Equator. I feel like there was some heavy shit up there.”
“It’s an introvert’s realm,” Johanna follows up.
Coming from there, there has been a definite, palpable influence of Los Angeles. It’s charm has fit into their artistic lifestyle. “First of all, this wood is wood you can only find here,” Johanna explains, placing her hands on the table. “I started taking classes at Los Angeles Trade Tech too, which has taught me how to do things–but not the way you do them in art. Things like sewing–but in the ways you do them in trade tech. The colors of everything are different, too.”
Chris feels the same. “Individually and collectively there’s been a change. In my paintings, they are all so much brighter.”
Johanna pauses from her knitting. “Your art now, your paintings that are showing this Fall, are so LA. They all look like windows, with space flowing through all of them. It’s really exciting. It’s probably the most location change I’ve ever seen.”
Chris nods in agreement. “They’re really peaceful,” he says. “Art is always autobiographical and I definitely think a place–like here, where I can look out into this insane backyard–makes you mellow out. Our art is mellow. I feel that we want to make peaceful, mellow things you can live with. All the textiles in here Johanna made and, with the exception of collaborations, I made all of the chairs. We made the couch together, too. There’s so much garbage everywhere: we have to reuse it.”
“We live with it and die with it–or it dies with us.”
Chris and Johanna feel that they are evolving and are taking what they can from Los Angeles in terms of inspiration. It’s a welcome change. “You always need context. This–Los Angeles–is something new,” Chris says. “We’re just getting into it. There are so many mediums! Collectively and individually, it’s all so different from anything we’ve done earlier. Of course there are connections. I would love to see the possibilities for public sculpture. Trying to make things positive and beautiful as a gift to society would be through public sculpture. Art is life and life is art.”
“We’re thinking it would be nice to stay in California,” Johanna says. “But it would also be nice to move every ten years.”
The lifestyle in Los Angeles is perfect for theirs, too: it isn’t too high stakes nor is there pressure to always be on the go (which is what they escaped from in their Portland reprieve).
“Working too hard is not good for you,” Chris states.
“It’s shitty and its boring. It’s like spinning wheels,” Johanna adds. “You don’t want to be a professional: you want to be an artist who translates the universe into things. It’s not all get ahead, get ahead, get ahead!”
Chris agrees. He picks up where Johanna left off. “I really feel like I was a workaholic. I’m not anymore. I’m over that. To me, being a workaholic is not cool. If you don’t take breaks and are a visual person, you won’t have anything to say. My attitude has changed dramatically in the past three years.”
The two nod, Johanna still knitting and Chris still leaning back in his handmade chair. Johanna looks up, seemingly taking a note handed to her from the open door at the head of the table.
“I could imagine us living here and going up those stairs as old people,” she says, pointing. “That’d be really fun.”
For more on Chris and Johanna, check out Chris‘ website. If you are in New York from now until October 20, you can catch Chris’ Windows at Mitchell, Innes & Nash. In December, Chris and Johanna will have collaborative furniture of theirs on display at the Hammer. That same month, Johanna will also be having an exhibit at the Portland Museum of Modern Art within their Mississippi Records compound.