Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Long Distance Residency

Toward the end of last year's residency season, a friend got in touch to alert me to the work of Heather Johnson. I was immediately taken with the detailed delicacy of Heather's embroidery and the striking quality of the juxtaposed imagery she utilized. The site specificity and topicality of her work made it seem right for the BoxoHOUSE program. When I got back to NYC, I contacted Heather and asked if she might be interested in considering a residency in Joshua Tree. I was not prepared for the strength of her enthusiasm or the scope of the project she undertook.

Heather Johnson, Crankshaft, embroidery on linen


When Heather and I got talking, it emerged that she is an avid motorcyclist, a wonderful contrast to the image of embroidery maker. Coming to Joshua Tree tapped into her long held desire to ride cross country, visiting places of artistic interest. On a studio visit to her home in Weehawken, NJ, the outline of the project began to emerge. Eventually named In Search of the Frightening and Beautiful, Heather undertook to ride a southerly route to Joshua Tree and return on a northerly heading. On the way, she was interested in stopping at sites of natural beauty as well as sites were man has interfered with the landscape in some way. Or, as we say it in the desert, places where the land has been disturbed. Many of these sites are on a database created by the Center for Land Use Interpretation. At places that provided a particularly strong experience for Heather, she placed small embroideries that she prepared for the journey in an act of exchange. These artworks also contained information on how to learn more about the project and how to reach her.

Heather set out for Joshua Tree on April 3, 2013 and a detailed account of her preparations and journey can be read here. She carried a tracker which allowed anyone to see where she was at any one point as well as what her speed was. I tracked the journey enthusiastically also following her progress on Facebook. Despite a shortish delay in Lake Charles, LA owing to a flat tire, Heather arrived at BoxoHOUSE on April 24. She was tired and rail thin though happy and safe. That evening we attended a guitar recital at Harrison House, a wonderful way to introduce Heather to the community and vice versa. And the next day was her birthday, an opportunity to sleep in, eat well and just relax.


The relaxation phase did not last long. Late April into early May is a very busy period in Joshua Tree - perfect weather that stimulates a wide variety of events and activities. Heather got a comprehensive tour of the area on the landscape tour which ranged from Twentynine Palms all the way to Landers. The following day, she attended a large groupwide meeting of Transition Joshua Tree and learned about the water challenges we face locally and throughout California. During her four weeks, Heather participated in a wide range of activites ranging from social encounters with artists and the wider community to the monthly artwalk to a sound bath at the Integratron, the JT Music Festival and a swanky birthday party in Palm Springs just for balance. One of the stand out days was a comprehensive tour of the Marine Corps base complete with simulated humvee rollover. Wherever she went, Heather made friends and fans, gaining insights and more material for the Frightening and the Beautiful.

Heather also hit the studio hard, creating templates and sorting through the wealth of material she was amassing. One of the key developments for her work was a change in scale - a move to go to larger pieces using burlap linen and larger stitching. One of the hero images she is developing is an almost full scale template of her motorcycle (Triumph Tiger) superimposed over an aerial map of the BoxoHOUSE surrounding area. The work is painstaking and it was rewarding to witness Heather stitching away. The contrast of the medium with the subject matter - motorcycle parts and rugged topography - continually creates a strong sense of engagement for me.

Given that the last weekend of Heather's time at BoxoHOUSE coincided with both the JT Music Festival and Shaktifest, we decided to do an open house for the community the previous weekend. Heather shared works in progress, templates and images from her adventures and the community came out in strong support. As there was still a week to go, Heather offered guests the opportunity to provide an interesting experience to her in exchange for one of the pieces she had made to leave along the road. There were some weird and wonderful suggestions with the winning suggestion coming from local artist and good friend Diane Best.



During her last week of the residency, Heather also made further excursions to an abandoned mine site that just recently was saved from becoming a major landfill site, as well as to the large windturbines that fill the valley above Palm Springs. Another local artist heard of her trip to the mine site and went in search of the piece she had left there - successfully snagging it.

Heather's last contribution before she headed out on the road for more adventures, was to attend and speak at the BoxoPROJECTS fundraiser held in Los Angeles on May 21. Her support was much appreciated and she made yet more fans out of the guests at that event. I am very grateful to Heather for having undertaken such an ambitious project and look forward to featuring the resulting artworks at the upcoming exhibition in New York at the end of September. Boxo



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