In Studio with Eric A. Johnson

Eric A. Johnson‘s prints are vivid and colorful, swirling with unexpected shapes and practically pulsating with energy.

All photos in this post are provided by Eric A. Johnson

He’s a North Dakota native (raised in Emden) who now lives in Hillsboro with this family, but he travels all over the Red River Valley and into Minnesota lakes country as an adjunct professor at NDSU, Mayville State University and Minnesota State Community and Technical College in Detroit Lakes and Wadena.

When he’s not on the road, in the classroom or with his family, you can find him in his studio in Renaissance Hall on NDSU’s downtown campus. In this edition of In Studio, Eric shows us what he’s working on now, explains how printmaking works and talks about the spiritual side of being an artist — and how to make creativity a priority.

How do you describe your work to someone who has never seen it before?
“Usually I start out by telling them about printmaking. There are four major types; lithography, intaglio, relief, and screenprint, and for each of those there are many different ways of doing each.

Then I explain the primary process I use, reduction relief method (also known as the subtractive method) was invented by Pablo Picasso in the 1950’s. This method uses one block to print a multicolored image instead of using one block for each color. The first color is printed from the largest area of the block. After printing a color, the area of the print that is intended to stay that color must be cut from the block. The uncut surface of the block will be used to print the next color. As the image develops the block is reduced with each cutting. This is repeated until the desired image is created.

I have a few different categories of artwork that I make. Overall I think most of my work can be described as colorful, and I work most commonly on abstractions from my imagination. It’s difficult to describe though, because my work goes from slight abstraction all the way to non-objective. I’m also starting to work more realistically again, using photos I have taken as the starting image.”


How long have you been creating?
“Really, all my life, I think. I’ve always loved to draw and I have been blessed with a great imagination!”

What inspires you?
“My kids, music, and my wife Dera. My kids are great and keep me young at heart. They all are creative, and super funny, and that makes for some fun times when we are together. My wife has no problem giving me an honest opinion on what I’m working on and really has pushed me into getting outside my ‘comfort zone’ creatively.

Music has always been an interest of mine, and I seem to be able to ‘listen’ to lyrics in songs more clearly than some people. I am constantly listening to music while I work in the studio, and have used song lyrics as inspiration for many works.”

What’s your favorite project that you completed last year?
“I made less work in 2013 than in some years past, but I believe the work that I did do was among the best I’ve done. I completed a work for the Rourke Museum’s Midwestern Exhibition (titled ‘Content’) last year that I think turned out really interesting.


What projects are you most excited about this year?
“I’m planning several different projects for 2014. One of which is working on some larger ‘unplanned’ prints in which all I start with is the block, and work in a free-flowing manner. I don’t do any drawing on the blocks, I just see what happens, and respond to what I have done in the previous step. It’s a fun way to work, and probably goes against the “norm” of printmaking, in which things are usually planned out quite thoroughly.

I’m also working on creating reduction prints from photographs, something I haven’t done much of in printmaking, and I’m excited to see what happens with these as well.

And the third thing I’m working on this year, is something that came about sort of by accident in my free time while working at Gallery 4 in Fargo. I started doing some ‘automatic’ drawings on blocks to pass the time. With these I have nothing specific in mind and just start drawing with a Sharpie marker on smaller blocks, and see where that leads me. So far I already have one done, and have several more that are ready to start printing.”

Another print I am really proud of is the last collaboration I did with Star Wallowing Bull, ‘BlueStar’.”
“Blue Star” by Eric A. Johnson and Star Wallowing Bull

What’s your creative process? 
“While I’m printing, I am focused on doing the printing or cutting, but it usually is a time when I am able to concentrate on other things as well, things happening in the studio, music, or thinking about things going on in my life. It’s almost like a meditation for me.”

On this topic, a couple years ago I was asked to paint during our church service, and I had asked the pastor what I should do when everyone was praying. (I felt like I should almost stop, and pray myself.)

He told me that the process of creating is a type of prayer, so I could just keep on working, which has stuck with me since.”

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“…the process of creating is a type of prayer…” – Eric A. Johnson

Can you describe your studio space for us?
The studio space I use is located in the NDSU Visual Art Department at Renaissance Hall in downtown Fargo. The printmaking studio (called the Printmaking Education and Research Studio or PEARS) is one of the best studios in the Midwest and is run by Professor Kent Kapplinger, who was one of my first art instructors and has been a great friend and mentor to me for over 20 years. It’s in a nearly 100 year old building and has a great atmosphere for working.

The program that I am currently in is called the Artist Development Residency, it’s a program that serves the art community by providing a variety of ways of engagement opportunites in the NDSU Art facilities and studio faculty members. This program is intended for artists who are in transition and have need for space and expertise for continued artistic growth. The program allows for time at NDSU for 4-12 months at a time. This is my third residency in this program , and it has allowed me to continue to make new work in printmaking.”

A note from Alicia: You can find more information about Eric’s residency here.


How do you balance your work with the rest of your life?
“This is always a challenge, and something that my wife and I have worked on for quite a while! We’ve worked things out now so I have certain ‘studio’ days/nights we agree on ahead of time, based usually on how busy teaching for the semester is for me.

Usually it’s 1-2 days a week, and since I usually only teach 2-3 days a week, it has been easier to make sure I have family time, as well as some days to just relax — although making art is very relaxing for me.

Why do you think it’s important to support local artists?
I’ll quote something I have seen several times on Facebook for this that pretty much sums things up:

‘When buying from an artist/maker, you’re buying more than just an object/painting. You are buying hundreds of hours of failures and experimentation. You are buying days, weeks, and months of frustration and moments of pure joy. You aren’t buying a thing, you’re buying a piece of heart, part of a soul, a moment in someone’s life. Most importantly, you’re buying the artist more time to do something they are passionate about.'”

What’s your favorite part of what you do?
“I really like everything I do if it involves my work. It’s rewarding for me to see something go from a sketch or marks on a plate to something that is on the wall in a gallery or in someone’s home in a frame.

When I was little, in 1st and 2nd grade, I LOVED show and tell, and I guess that never went away. It’s almost as much fun for me to see what people think of my work, as it is making it.”


What’s necessary to live a creative life?
“I think you really need to make a decision to make creating a part of your life, and make time for it. Time is a huge issue, people are so busy with other things that unless you say ‘this is my time to create’ and stick to it, it’s probably not going to work.

Sometimes I wonder what it would be like to be able to get by just making art, but the reality is that unless you are independently wealthy, don’t have bills, rent, a spouse, kids, or someone supporting you financially, it’s going to be hard to make it just on creativity alone.

So, you also have to be creative in how you live. Look for a steady source of income that also lets you have time to be creative. Surround yourself with people who understand you, and that being creative is not just a hobby, but is part of who you are and something you need to do to be happy.”

You can connect with Eric on Facebook, purchase his work through his Etsy store or contact him on either site to learn where you can see his work in person at various museums and galleries throughout the region.

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