In February 2013, artist Heather Johnson began preparations for a cross-country motorcycle journey from New York to Joshua Tree, where she would complete a month long residency at BoxoProjects’ BoxoHouse residency program. “When I met Bernard Leibov, who directs the BoxoHouse residency,” she says, “I was searching for a means of changing my practice and everything surrounding it, my entire life, really... I basically said yes to his invitation without even thinking it through, just knowing somehow I would be able to figure it out.” But she had not yet fully arrived at the idea of becoming nomadic.
She began writing about the journey in a blog she called "In Search of the Frightening and Beautiful." More than the sum of its parts, her blog offered insight into a practice that was becoming increasingly ephemeral, signaling a metaphoric journey as much as a physical trek. The blog would encompass her preparations, journey, residency and the work she created at BoxoHouse. It would also include accounts of her return to New York, a culminating exhibition at BoxoProjects’ New York space and subsequent projects. Johnson would later also name her real life cross-country odyssey "In Search of the Frightening and Beautiful." Over the next three years, the undertaking would expand to include three increasingly ambitious journeys.
Embroidery would play a big part in the project, and, in her blog, she wrote that she planned to appropriate “faded texts, architectural plans, weather maps, old newspaper or magazine articles -- anything revealing the history of this place [the Mojave] in relation to the unique qualities of its landscape.”
Long before her departure for the Mojave, Johnson was making embroidered works that resemble drawings, and leaving them in the landscape as a gesture. As influences, she counts “artists like Francis Alÿs, who simply make gestures. Maybe they’ll go out and move something, and they’ll walk away. I love artists who have this ability to redirect your gaze by doing something simple.” (Alÿs, an artist whose work draws from social practice as well as interactions with the landscape, is known for works like "When Faith Moves Mountains" (2002), in which he worked with 500 volunteers outside of Lima, Peru to shift the location of a sand dune.)
"Cracks in the Pavement," Johnson’s earlier geocaching-styled project in Austin, Texas, and "The Pickup," her New York collaboration with artist Eleanor Eichenbaum, reflect her interest in indirect gestures. For both projects, Johnson posted maps online directing others to the work. In Austin, she says, there was “a veritable feeding frenzy of enthusiastic people looking for art; it also helped that this project involved a large number of national and international artists.”
In New York, with "The Pickup," Johnson and Eichenbaum collected stories from fellow New Yorkers and hand-embroidered abridged versions on found, vintage handkerchiefs, placing them close to the sites identified in the stories.
According to Johnson, environmental concerns are also important and were definitely embedded in her project early on. “A lot of my motivations for it came out of my relationship to the landscape and its use... 'Desert Cantos' [Richard Misrach’s photographs of the American desert] was a huge inspiration, and that was one of the things that did in fact make me excited about going to the desert.”
She also identifies earthworks artists as influences, especially Robert Smithson. “The fact that he worked in the desert,” Johnson notes, “but also that he did a lot of his earlier work in New Jersey and was really interested in these dystopian, kind of boring, discarded types of landscapes” also inspired her.
“Once I got to the desert and came to know it,” she recalls, “there was something about the quality of that landscape in particular that enhanced [my] fascination with the destruction of things, of things you find out in the world that are incredibly dried and brittle and faded.”
Although, from a particular point of view, Johnson’s writing, motorcycling and embroidery coalesce in an enveloping project, she is reluctant to think of these things together in a Fluxus-like melding of life and art into a fluid performance. In an email exchange, Johnson noted that although her movement by motorcycle informs the rest of her process and the objects she makes, she thinks of performance as needing rules and structures while most of her decisions, especially aesthetic ones, require her to be fluid and spontaneous.
Johnson says she thinks of her writing as a way of delving into things that her visual art does not. Even so, writing leads her to make decisions about what she wants to make as an artist. “Do they [her writing and visual art] live alongside each other?” she asks. “I don’t know. That’s a question I have not figured out yet, and I’m in the middle of that right now, figuring out how the physical artwork that I make and the written language live together.”
Within this ambiguity, she is clear on motorcycling’s importance: “I started riding motorcycles in New York City about nine years ago, and that discovery -- the act of riding -- totally changed my life and is instrumental to how I live it now. The act of riding is akin to what I imagine flying to be like. You move in this very fluid, fast way through the landscape, and this was particularly liberating to me as a woman,” she concludes. “It changed my work.”
Motorcycling’s liberating effect seems catalytic in Johnson’s desire to wander. The idea of perpetual movement dawned after she finished her BoxoHouse residency. “As I made the trip and as I was returning home, especially,” she remembers, “I realized there was no way I could go back to the life that I was living before... that I needed to do everything I could to embrace this idea of being nomadic.”
Around that time, she reconnected with curators Barbara Levine and Paige Ramey, who asked her to house-sit for them in Mexico. “It was basically in the fall of 2013 after my first 'In Search of the Frightening and Beautiful,' after the first BoxoProjects exhibition that I formulated a plan, through their invitation to house-sit, to make a second leg of 'In Search of the Frightening and Beautiful,'” she says.
In February 2014, Johnson rode solo to San Miguel de Allende, staying for five months in what she called her own mini-residency. “I started incorporating text in Spanish into the pieces that I dropped in the landscape... little bits of text that described experiences that I’d had on the road in other places,” Johnson says. After a small exhibition at YAM Galley in San Miguel de Allende, she rode back to Joshua Tree.
In Mexico, and later, in other parts of Latin America, embroidery allowed Johnson to negotiate cultural boundaries. “Embroidery is rich in terms of the gender history that it embodies. It’s an act that is very cross-cultural. Women from all different kinds of cultures stitch,” she says. “I can sit in a square in Mexico, or wherever, and stitch. Initially, I might be thought of as some tourist, but because I am stitching, women, particularly, become very curious about what I’m doing. And they approach me and try to talk to me about it. And the fact that I’m stitching motorcycle parts, schematics, opens the conversation up to men. So it ends up appealing to all these different groups of people.”
Levine and Ramey, who are co-curators of Cherryhurst House, a privately funded residency program in Houston, invited her to complete a residency there and were instrumental in helping Johnson raise money to fund the third leg of "In Search of the Frightening and Beautiful," which started in Joshua Tree in March 2015 and ended in Buenos Aires, Argentina.
Johnson is currently in the middle of her residency at Cherryhurst House, which will conclude in February 2017. Afterward, she plans on returning to Joshua Tree and Wonder Valley, where she will plot the fourth leg of "In Search of the Frightening and Beautiful" and work to raise the funds necessary for the journey. Although nothing is certain, Johnson mentions that she would like to travel from the Bering Strait, through Asia and down to Australia or New Zealand.
“The project has evolved into a series of impressions of things, things that I’ve seen and felt on the road. These are personal, open-ended impressions, and as such, I’m hoping that -- if they’re open-ended -- people can relate to them. I see them as fragments of a larger picture, and the spaces between those fragments are loaded,” she says. At the Cherryhurst House residency, Johnson is making watercolors based on fragmentary pictures, creating incomplete narratives. “I guess what I want,” she concludes, “is to instill a sense of the vitality involved in the search itself, the actual search [for] meaning.”
Exhibition "Heather L. Johnson: In Search of the Frightening and the Beautiful" runs from September 24, 2016 to February 19, 2017 at Cherryhurst House in Houston, Texas. Learn more about the residency here.
Top image: “Fire [Jiquipilas, Chiapas, Mexico],” watercolor on paper, 2016. | Photo: Heather Johnson.