Name and Year: Kelsey Halliday Johnson Hometown: Haddonfield, NJ Degree: Masters in Fine Arts (interdisciplinary) and certificate in Landscape Studies Medium of Choice: Photography, Drawing, Painting Website: www.kelseyhalliday.com *Kelsey is teaching Photo I in the spring.*
Street: You say most of your work is “place_oriented.” What does that mean to you, and what are some examples of projects? Kelsey Halliday Johnson: Each body of work I make situates itself within a given site (historical or literal) and becomes a kind of investigation of the cultural or social histories that lie within the landscape or particular place.
I entered my undergraduate degree planning to major in geosciences, so the physical environment has always been a sincere interest of mine. My first major self–directed project was my undergraduate thesis, where I received a grant to photograph geologic areas in Iceland. This place was of particular interest to me because of the mythical stories about the landscape or how natural phenomena or specific features in the landscape were explained in the Sagas through a more spiritual and narrative understanding of the landscape. I then returned to school and incorporated large abstract gouache drawings/paintings on paper within the groupings of those photographs to make a bigger story about the kind of amorphous understanding I began to have of what really made up the “place.”
Since then my projects have ranged from a book of found water–damaged photographs in New Orleans post–Katrina, to analog black and white photographs of the landscape of agricultural Italy, which is also a small book project. In the area of Italy I stayed in, the idea of “nature” is very much a difficult thing to describe when there is no real green spaces left. The health of the landscape (its wear, growth and history) were mirrored in the contradictions of the Italian social, political and economic climate of the recession I witnessed. The landscape, in many ways, is just a massive sculptural record we can access about human activity, so I find myself returning to it again and again in my work.
Street: What attracts you to a certain place? KHJ: “Attraction” is a funny word. The places I love the most are the places I would never consider making work about, if only because there is a comfort there that is debilitating to me. I have been really fortunate to travel for my work because being somewhere as an outsider allows a certain level of discomfort with places and you begin to observe things that the accustomed eye would overlook. The places I choose to make work about always hold a magnetic tension for me between what I see and what I know is or has happened.
For example, try photographing in Yosemite. That place lives through its photographs, and how can you add on to that history? I wanted to photograph there but found it incredibly frustrating with the crowds and how over–photographed it already is. Yet, when I found myself in an area of a park where a forest fire had taken place and the crowds were suddenly going back to their cars because things were not postcard–perfect, I knew I was seeing a different Yosemite. Suddenly there was this tension of the natural place in flux that I witnessed and the place we all want it to be as a glorified National Park. That is when I picked up my camera.
Street: How much research do you put into your artistic process? KHJ: Quite a lot, but I do think it depends what kind of work I’m making and what you consider research. A studio painting practice can be a kind of research its its repetition, tests and lab–like setting. Most of my projects I get very intellectually and emotionally involved with and collect and hoard a vast amount of media about it from articles, books, radio clips, blogs, movies and other images that I think are related. Right now I am in a fabulous class here called “Creative Research” taught by Orkan Telhan (who is at the MIT Media Labs) and that is actively changing how I think research plays into my work. Every artist has an obligation to be a kind of researcher, whether its within the technical/formal aspects of their medium, the boundaries they push, or for the cultural knowledge they are producing.
Street: How do you decide what to paint and what to photograph? Do you prefer one medium? KHJ: The dancer Isadora Duncan once said “If I could say it, I wouldn’t have to dance it.” This goes for any medium. If I could photograph it, I will photograph it, but if I can’t and I feel it’s crucial but its just not there to be in front of the camera, then I paint it. Every medium has its limitations and frustrations as well as its strengths and miracles — I am just glad to be in an era where I don’t need to be a “photographer” but instead can be an artist who knows what I feel is urgent and has the freedom to express it in the appropriate medium. Penn’s MFA program is now interdisciplinary which was one of the exciting things that brought me here.
Street: What kinds of projects are you working on currently? KHJ: I am working on some local photography projects in some alternative and less celebrated historical sites around Philadelphia. However, my main focus has been building/modifying an old Polaroid camera into a kind of personalized viewing device that meters information from my body using an Arduino microcontroller and imposes that on the photographic image as an abstract color field from LEDs. This has been very research–heavy and is a little out of my comfort zone, but I’m excited to begin a body of work that will be made with a tool of my own creation.
Street: Do you have any artistic role models? KHJ: Emmet Gowin, and I was lucky enough to study with him at Princeton. Photography and the darkroom for him have always been a kind of beautiful science and a realm for research and exploration. But this is not a science that was hard and rigid but instead fluid and playful. And, of course, his work is significant to the history of photography and incredibly tender and beautiful. I think that his level of curiosity and emotional study embedded itself deeply in my work in unexpected ways that I am still discovering today. I can only hope to be as generous and inspiring a teacher as he was to me.
Street: Do you sell your work? Do you have an opinion about art as a commodity? KHJ: It is an easy thing to be critical of, but a hard line to draw when you are about to graduate into a a very economically–depressed world where this is your career. I have sold work and it’s frankly what you have to do as an artist. However, gross financial inequality is something well represented within the art world, and I am happy to see and participate with a younger generation of artists are having a fresh dialogue about it in the wake of Occupy Wall Street.
Street: What do you see for yourself in the future? KHJ: I am teaching Photo I at Penn in the spring and am currently working at the Penn Archaeology Museum as the Pottery Collections Manager for the Ban Chiang UNESCO World Heritage Site Project. Ideally, I’d love to keep teaching and working in museums alongside making my own work. I work best when I’m multi–tasking and engaged in a diversity of realms, so I just hope to keep my plate balanced and full (and maybe even do some more school) as well as keep the momentum of my studio practice going after my MFA. My gut feeling is that if the world keeps changing environmentally and politically as we begin to tackle new global issues, that the role of the artist in society will change dramatically. So for the more distant future, I hope to be at the heart of those issues and negotiating ideas and dialogue for the shape of what’s to come.