barry johnson has always wanted to be an artist, since his childhood in Kansas.
While johnson didn't go to art school, he continued to paint and draw, even after he moved to Seattle to work in the tech industry. He'd get up early in the morning and head out to his studio. And on his public transit commute, he'd don headphones, pick up a drawing pad, and make art on the way to the office.
"I always knew I wanted to be an artist but there was no one in my community making art that looked like me."
Now, johnson has evolved from someone painting, sculpting, and photographing on his off hours to one of Seattle's fastest-rising contemporary artists. For johnson, art is more than a path to self-expression. It's also a way for him to make sure his community's stories are well told.
johnson talked to co-hosts Vivian and Marcie about what drives him to pursue his dream.
ABOUT THIS EPISODE'S GUEST
barry johnson is a visual artist based in Washington State, whose work explores the figure and its relationship to space. Through his art, he strives to combat the historical erasure of Black figures in art and bring visibility to underrepresented communities. His focus on the figure allows him to capture the human experience and emotions, while space serves as a backdrop for the narrative.
Over the past decade, johnson has taken part in a radical studio practice where he devotes one year to work on a specific subject. This could take place in the form of a focus on a certain medium, narrative or color. At the end of the year johnson departs from the series and begins something new. Through his art, barry hopes to inspire conversations and promote social change. As a Black artist, he is committed to using his platform to amplify marginalized voices and tell stories that have been neglected in the art world. His art is a reflection of his personal experiences and the experiences of those around him.
barry's art has been recognized through numerous awards, including the Edwin T. Pratt Award, the smART Ventures award, and the GAP Award. johnson was finalist for Seattle Art Museum's Betty Bowen award along with Cornish School Of Arts Neddy Award. His work has been exhibited and collected across the United States including Washington D.C.'s State Department collection. Johnson has taken part in residencies including Amazon, Facebook and BASE Experimental Space and he has created multiple public artworks across the Pacific Northwest.
johnson is represented by Wiston Wachter.
Learn more about barry's artwork on his website
VIVIAN PHILLIPS (00:00):
Hey, I'm Vivian Phillips.
MARCIE SILLMAN (00:01):
And I'm Marcie Sillman. And this is Double
VIVIAN PHILLIPS (00:06):
MARCIE SILLMAN (00:06):
VIVIAN PHILLIPS (00:16):
DoubleXposure is a podcast where we plumb the deepest depths and the tiniest cracks of our world to understand how culture and creativity shape our lives.
MARCIE SILLMAN (00:27):
On this episode, artist and educator barry johnson on the power of art to forge community. Vivian, we are recording in, uh, the hottest day, I believe of 2023.
VIVIAN PHILLIPS (00:51):
But <laugh>, uh, but <laugh>,
VIVIAN PHILLIPS (00:57):
This seems to be a theme. I remember a couple years ago we were recording, it was 106 degrees outside or something, so, you know, but it's pretty hot. I don't, is today the hottest day? I thought yesterday was, I don't know. That's indicative of a fried brain. Thank you audience for listening.
MARCIE SILLMAN (01:14):
It’s just before we get to a really wonderful conversation with the artist barry johnson, who is just an inspiration at a pretty young age, very inspirational person. I have to say that Vivian and I convened in my hometown Detroit, Michigan, Detois, and it was great. I know you've been there before, but
VIVIAN PHILLIPS (01:37):
Oh God, yes.
MARCIE SILLMAN (01:38):
But this visit, you took your daughter Jazmyn to a family reunion, but you two did up in like two and a half days. You saw many of the major sites of the city.
VIVIAN PHILLIPS (01:48):
Well, you know, me,
MARCIE SILLMAN (01:50):
VIVIAN PHILLIPS (01:50):
I'm gonna find the art some kind of way I'm gonna find the art. And the beautiful thing is that I reconnected with an old friend from Seattle who's been gone from here for a couple of decades now at least. And we were very close and he is just like the center of the universe of the artistic black artists, the universe in Detroit. So when he heard that I was coming, we sat down together, I got a chance to go over and visit and he just ticked off all of these things. You gotta do this, you gotta do this, you gotta do that. And yes, um, we did the Charles Wright Museum and saw the Stil I Rise exhibit and also Derek Adams exhibit, which was lovely. It's in response to the Green Book. And they did a whole green book exhibit there too. We visited the Detroit Institute of the Arts. I mean, I told a couple of people I was going to Detroit and they were like, you gotta go to DIA. That was my very first time visiting there. And I was blown completely and totally away. In this interview with barry johnson, he mentions Romare Bearden as one of, uh, his inspirations. And when I went into the DIA and saw that gigantic Rome Bearden, I almost fainted.
MARCIE SILLMAN (03:12):
And gigantic is is the case. I think it's probably like four by eight feet. Yeah. It's like, if I'm not mistaken, it's huge. It's huge. I've never seen seen it before. It's next to, next to a giant
VIVIAN PHILLIPS (03:24):
Kehinde Wiley. Yes.
MARCIE SILLMAN (03:26):
Equally big. And these are part of the permanent collection in the DIA, which is the museum I grew up with. And it makes me think about barry johnson because he grew up in Kansas. In Kansas, yeah. And he told us, I mean, he's a self-taught artist. Um, he sounds like he had a remarkable, has a remarkable father. Yeah. Who's now living with him in the Seattle area. But he said he never saw any artists that looked like him. I mean, he wasn't like an art goer. And I just thought, well, wow, if somebody like barry had grown up in Detroit mm-hmm. <affirmative>, uh, where representation mm-hmm. <affirmative> is baked into the scene, you know, imagine the heights he would've been at at the age of 12, because barry is a guy who does pretty much everything. At one point you'll hear, he talks about how he taught himself video in the pandemic. 'cause he wanted to come out with something positive, I believe.
VIVIAN PHILLIPS (04:22):
Right, right. <laugh>. Right. Well, I'm, I am, you know how barry johnson and I have like this mutual admiration society, it's like, no, I like you. No, I like you. No, I like you better. No, no, no. You know, we kind of go back and forth like that. But he's a very deep thinker and I think that I learned a lot about barry that I didn't know in this interview, for instance, the way in which he addresses the fact that he uses lowercase letters for both his first and last name and someone without a middle name. And it's very different from some of the other explanations that I've heard from people. So I think this is just a fascinating interview.
Hey, barry johnson, welcome to DoubleXposure. You know, before we get into the very first question I have for you, I would love for you to explain why your name is spelled lowercase, lowercase b lowercase j. It's not the only one that I've seen, but just because we have listeners, I think it would be helpful for them to understand that.
BARRY JOHNSON (05:29):
One of the things that is really critical of my practice is like this ever changing nature of the work. I love to embody the spirit of a child when it comes to my practice. And I think that's indicative of like how kids write, this misunderstanding of how they use capitalization. There's always this juvenile quality to it. So not having a middle name and not ever being able to come up with something that would be suiting for an artistic name, it's just natural that I remain me. But whenever I drop the capitalization on the b and the j, and I feel like even as someone that just gets like really critical about manuscript and typeface, every time I looked at the capital b I just didn't like how it looked. So I chose many years ago to just take it away and just embody this juvenile quality.
BARRY JOHNSON (06:18):
And it always ends up being like a jump off point because I can't tell you the amount of people that I've had to go back and forth with. We're not gonna print it, we're not gonna write it lowercase. Like this is just a stylistic choice. Like, do we have to do this? And you know, I it's never a hard yes or no on me with it. Um, I've always just been what, you know, let's just do what works best. But for me personally, it's very important that like I use the under case because it's just, it embodies the spirit of just like the childlike nature of art and like the wonder and the, I'm still not complete or fully understood of what it is that I'm doing this way.
VIVIAN PHILLIPS (06:54):
I get it. And I'm, I appreciate you describing it. I thought about the fact that no one wanted to call Cassius Clay Muhammad Ali, right? So it's like this, this, uh, level of respect maybe that you're seeking from those of us who are printing your name. So thank you for that part. But I wanna ask this very first question that you, you, you're a multifaceted artist and you work in a lot of different media, like barry johnson shows up doing a lot of different things. So how do you describe all of the themes that underlie your work?
BARRY JOHNSON (07:28):
I think early on I started to think about my world as kind of being interdisciplinary. Um, just being able to kind of like seamlessly go through different mediums. And I started to think about multidisciplinary. And now that I've got to 10 years of doing this, I just like to go by artists. Um, I think that that journey, going back to the name, it's just never complete. But for me particularly, I have always liked art that has always challenged the notion of what is art. So I think that early on I made the full decision to be like, I am never just gonna have a natural fingerprint as an artist. I don't want people to be able to easily be able to identify my work. And I, that's one of the only few things that I stand prideful on as a visual artist, is that I want to continue pushing and challenging different forms and different mediums of work.
BARRY JOHNSON (08:19):
And whenever getting at the root of my practice, whenever we're talking about the black experience, when we're talking about combating the erasure of blackness, sometimes that story can't be told just through the lens of a portrait. So I need to show up in the way of film, I need to do that in photography, I need to do that in installation, I need to do that in sculpture. And when it even comes to the forms of visual art, be it painting, I want that work to be forever changing because our story is so massive. It's, you know, we've always talked about how like blackness is in a monolith, how we're continually changing. Like our story is just now getting the opportunity to be told. So it's very important for me to show up and show out in multiple different ways.
MARCIE SILLMAN (09:02):
I wanna take you back before you actually ever even defined as an artist at all, as a kid in Kansas, you talked about liking design, you liked cartoons, and I got to wondering if you knew artists or what you even thought art was at that point in your life?
BARRY JOHNSON (09:20):
No, not at all. And that's really one of the reasons why, even kind of going back to this whole idea of like having the lowercase name is being self-taught. I never went to school for art. I always wanted to be an artist. I always felt I was born an artist. I always knew it's something that I wanted to do, but there was no one identifiable in my family or my community or the area that I even lived in that was making art that looked like me. So my first go-to for that was just cartoons. I always loved cartoons. I always loved drawing. That was one of the things that, it's one of my first memories. It's like one of the first things that I was able to accomplish and something that I actually knew that I felt like that I can do a little bit better than people around me, was art.
BARRY JOHNSON (10:02):
So it's just one of those things that early on I was like, okay, cool. I think I'm finding a way. I think I, I think I'm onto something. And then when it came time to, I'm the first person in my family who went to college and they're like, Hey, like what is it that you wanna go to school for? I always had this idea of design in mind. I wanted to be able to, thinking about growing up as a kid, like making cartoons. I wanted to be able to be someone that like made those types of things, um, for myself. So I just decided that going to museums early on really helped me to give like, my first experience with what actual visual art was. Because getting away from just the natural form of like the cartoon and starting to get into like what is a painting and what makes a painting like good, really being able to have access to museums and places that have art early on helped me to understand like, oh, okay, like this is what people are doing. These are things that they're making and I think this is something that I'm interested in. And I just started it from there and just slowly develop that into more visual art.
MARCIE SILLMAN (11:03):
If I can just clarify again, you're not just self-taught, you're self-motivated. It was something that was intrinsic to who you were and you, you were seeking it out for yourself.
BARRY JOHNSON (11:14):
100%. It, it sounds interesting hearing it said by like that, but like that, that, that's, that's 100 percent true. And I, I really, I give all thanks to my dad for that. Like, my dad is the person that raised me, he's like here with us now in Seattle. He's an incredible man and he's one of the people that, 'cause you know, growing up in Kansas, like my whole life has just been ran by this being torn between Black and white. Like in Kansas we're so close to each other that people are very Black and white about Black and white. Um, so people let you know how they feel from the gate. And just even before that, like us being in the south, like we're very, you know, race is a very real thing. So he, I remember there was this kid that was teasing me in class, like, and my teacher didn't step in, he was calling me burnt boy.
BARRY JOHNSON (11:58):
Like I was the only black kid in class. And like, he just made it like normal for everybody in the class to call me burnt boy. My teacher didn't say anything about it. And I remember like coming home and I was just so upset and I was like, yo dad, I'm about to knock this kid out. I can't take it anymore <laugh>, because you know, I wasn't gonna cry about it. I was like, no, no, no, no, no, this is, this ain't gonna work like this. Um, and he looked at me and he is like, yo man, I'm tell you something. He was like, yo, you never let another person define your self-worth. And it was weird 'cause I was in third grade whenever he told me that. But it's like one of the first memories that like really laid the foundation for who I am. So as I started growing up and started watching my neighborhood and my community change around me, I always knew that like, going back to this whole idea of art, that I would never let anyone define who I was and what I was able to do within art. So that really helped to put a battery on my back to continue to believe in myself and my capabilities of doing it even without going to school for it.
VIVIAN PHILLIPS (12:51):
You know, I was watching your TED talk and one of the things that you, well the Ted Talk is based on personas and the different personas that you embrace. Um, I know that you're a self-taught artist, you're a driven individual, you, you're intellect is, you know, only exceeded by your passion it feels like. But what was it barry that really pushed you to pursue art as a full-time passion?
BARRY JOHNSON (13:22):
<laugh> You know, whenever I was given the opportunity to come out here from Kansas, I was working in tech and that was really cool. And it was something that no one around me had done. And it was the thing that I thought would be a cool way for me to be able to, you know, get into the creative world and still be able to be business barry. I quickly found that that's not the thing that I wanted to do. After working there for a few years, it was a great place and they taught me so much about what it means to be self-motivated as an individual, to go out prospect projects, deal with clients, be able to project manage. But the really interesting thing about it is, like while I was working as an analyst, my, my past life was just in numbers. Like the team that I worked for, we said that we famously read the internet for a living.
BARRY JOHNSON (14:09):
Like we were understanding the behavior of people online and helping brands to understand how to go to market to talk to different audiences. So I'm really in this world of anthropology and analytics and working with a team of data scientists, which, you know, I'm always like an analytical person and like that's something that's like really interesting to me. But what was happening is that I was spending so much time obsessing over the numbers that I was like, it's giving me headaches. So I went back to the foundational thing that I did growing up. I started drawing and I was taking the bus to and from Federal Way every single day. So I'm on the bus drawing and I got my notebook and I'm just scribbling. We're going over bumps. And it was just one of those things that I was like, oh yeah, I forgot how much I love this.
BARRY JOHNSON (14:58):
Like, this was something that I felt for a moment was taken away from me. And just through this weird series of events, I found my way back to it. So that just turned into my obsession, born again. So I started drawing, started getting kicked out of <laugh> different meeting rooms for bringing like notebooks in, drawing left and right. And then shortly after I would like had that love reinvigorated. I was like, Hey, like I appreciate y'all, it's been cool, but this just ain't me, you know? And it was funny. It's like, 'cause everyone there and I, I love that company, but you gotta understand like we're in consulting. I'm working for one of the big four consulting firms in the world. And I walked in and was like, yo, like this isn't working for me. I want to go back and start pursuing visual art. And they're like, okay, cool. Like, yep.
VIVIAN PHILLIPS (15:44):
And someone on the bus ride looked over your shoulders, so the story goes Yeah. And went encouraged you and said, Hey, that's really good.
BARRY JOHNSON (15:52):
Yeah, yeah, that, yeah, exactly. Like that was like such an amazing like woman. And you know, it's funny, like we rode the bus like every day and her and her husband would like sit across from me. I think they saw that. I was like, okay, that dude is, he's trying to do something because he seems so intensely focused on what it is that he's doing. And you know, I got my headphones in, I'm just vibing out to some Michael Jackson just like, just drawing. And I still remember that day that I was listening to Dangerous. And I remember like, she nodded, she nudged me and was like, Hey, like that, that's really good. And I was like, oh, okay, cool. Somebody that's a little bit of confirmation that maybe I'm onto something, you know? And I just kind of used that as like, okay, maybe the universe is starting to signal something for me to be aware of. And I won't forget that it was like such a subtle, you know, by all accounts, a pretty minor experience. But it was super impactful.
MARCIE SILLMAN (16:42):
You talked a little bit about your dad really giving you that guidance and at the age of eight or nine or whatever you were, which was wonderfully wise, but I, in all those ramblings that you were doing in museums and, and thinking about, you know, this is me, I'm an artist who work. Were you looking at, what were you looking at that you said that I could do that or that is great ,or that is what I wanna do.
BARRY JOHNSON (17:09):
So, what, what's also really interesting about growing up in Kansas at that time, the way that they treated Black History Month was a lot different than what it is now. Like we really would spend the time understanding the work of, and the contributions of different artists throughout the time. And we had to do a report in class about a visual artist. And I did a report over Romare Bearden. And I remember being like, yo, the work that Bearden is doing is so different. And you know what's funny is in the weirdest study of events is like I got to go to the Fry eand do a workshop last year. And I remember walking through these different eras of Romare Bearden's work and turned around and was talking to the audience I was doing a tour with. And I was like, you know, to the untrained eye, person that doesn't know anything about their work, you think you just walked through four different collections of work and this is all by the same person.
BARRY JOHNSON (18:06):
So that, looking at that style of work early on, it's funny, I'm like kind of realizing it now, set that path for me to be like, oh, well what happens if I change the work if I really ground myself to the practice? Like this whole notion that we use of the practice, like really getting steeped in the work and then trying to continue to pull out these different amalgamations of these different works, these different narratives, these different things that I'm coming up with. So that work of Romare Beard and like really pushed me. And then of course like, you know, when it comes to, 'cause at first I was just doing a lot of colorways and a lot of expressionistic work, but as I started like drawing on that bus, I found myself going back to like, hey, like I always remember that like my friends, like one of my first forms of currency was like trading drawings for money. So it's like my friends would have me like whip up like a quick little sketch of them. And I was like, what happens if I go back and start like trying to draw people again? And then finding my way back to Kerry James Marshall really help to set in the stone like, okay, I wanna start to go down this path of the figure and become obsessed with the figure.
VIVIAN PHILLIPS (19:10):
You know, when you're talking about the fact that you traded art for money, it just made me think about Jean-Michel Basquiat and how, how, um, his work really started to develop in that way. But, you know, I read barry, that one of the things that really impacted you was this image of Michael Brown murdered in Ferguson, Missouri in the street. And then fast forward to 2020 in Seattle and the protest, the protest, uh, around the death of George Floyd and your involvement in the Vivid Matter Collective. So I, you know, I can imagine that some of your work is in response to societal images, issues, activities, you know, that kind of thing. But what other ways do you embrace a kind of imagination for the kind of work that you want to create?
BARRY JOHNSON (20:11):
All of my work leading up just being completely forthright to the last two years was a response to societal traumas and societal things happening within the Black community and my community. I always like talked about how I'm just externalizing my internal monologue. I'm just taking the thoughts, the things that I see and I'm just responding that back in these different forms of art. And I did that through so many works and the amount of people that I painted the responses to these events that were happening. I remember, you know, whenever Mike Brown died, literally like painting the room, that was my studio black. And then spending, that was the capstone of the first of me, like really digging myself into a different series. And I just painted my studio black and was, and created nothing but black and white works for a year. And that was a really dark time because that's when I started to really realize like the effects of what was happening around the world and how people responding to it.
BARRY JOHNSON (21:14):
I'd always known a bit, but it became a little bit more politically charged. So it's like no matter what it was in your face. So I did that for my first eight years and then the last couple years, particularly during the pandemic, I was like, you know, I spent so much time looking at what's happening outside, but like what am I doing about the me of it all? Like where where am I showing up as myself within these works? And that's what's really brought about the last two years of really starting to do more work that's based off of my life. 'cause that was something that I was really scared about doing. You know, it's like I, I had this really interesting way of growing up where I came from, where I showed up. I didn't come to this place and like really get the blessing of like a gallery or school or have any foundational backing.
BARRY JOHNSON (22:02):
I was told by artist friends that are now friends early on that was like, I don't know if it's gonna work out for you if you continue doing this. And a lot of, um, sticktoitiveness that had to happen. So I just wanted to reflect that back into me. And then I think that I spent so much time moving pain around that it took a lot for me to even understand what it is that I wanted to communicate. So when you talk about the things that I'm thinking of, like I wanted to think of these ways of centering a figure, myself, but not making it specifically about me, but more about the time. Again, that's being reflected. Like the last year series was, you know, I spent 10 years making these different series of works and so many of 'em, it's just set and collected dust.
BARRY JOHNSON (22:45):
I really became more known just in the last couple years after you gave me the opportunity to do Midtown. But I've been here doing this for so long. So I wanted to remind folks of like a lot of the work that I've done. And now, um, this last year in a weird series of events, I had like a lot of people really close to me just die from addiction. And I've always wanted to pay honor to like the early landscape painters like Richard Mayhew. So I started doing this series of these landscape works with myself and, um, just reflecting, they're just real grief images. 'cause it's been really hard over the past few years.
MARCIE SILLMAN (23:20):
You have just persisted as we've said, and you've followed this passion. And I'm wondering as you continue to do the work, if there, if you've thought about the societal role beyond what you're expressing, but a role that an artist might play in society or should you play a role?
BARRY JOHNSON (23:41):
Oh, 100%. I mean, I'm biased 'cause I'm an artist, but I think that we're charged with being the, the, the storytellers of what's happened throughout history. I mean, right. Like how could we ever not know what has happened in the past without looking at the work that was there? Like how, at any point in time, going back to cave drawings, like going back to the explosion of our, during the Harlem Renaissance, like looking at all the, uh, signs that were held in protest for all the unjust killings that happened during 2020. Like this is, we're visual folks, you know, and those of us that are cited that are able to be able to see what's happened is like artists are charged with that. And that is where I have the hardest time as an artist personally showing up is through public work. That is the thing that is always like, I obsess over, I have to just go away, get lost.
BARRY JOHNSON (24:31):
Because I always have thought of public works as the greatest form of love and declaration and being able to crystallize the moment in what's happening throughout like, time. So whenever it comes time to do a public artwork, I'm like, okay, what is the most radical boombastic thing that could be done, but how does it embody and encompass everything that's happening? The work that's on Midtown is just not a color series of work at the top of it, you see these black lines, it's an expression of breaking through a history of redlining. I spent so much time digging into and talking with the folks that made up that community and like, Vivian, you were there. Like, they made sure. They're like, Hey, check in. Make sure that what you're doing. And I absolutely feel that responsibility. Really, even though I've been here almost 15 years now, I'm still very much like a visitor to this community.
BARRY JOHNSON (25:21):
It's like, you know, and, and I wanna make sure that folks understand that. So whenever it comes time to be able to do a public artwork, it needs to be something that people can look at, take away face, take away eyes. They need to see themselves in it. They need to feel it. And if they don't feel it, I failed. So I always talk about with my friends that there's two core tenets about public art. There needs to be an impact and there needs to be an activation. If you create an artwork, there needs to be an impact. And that needs to in turn, activate someone to do something. So if I look at something, even the activation of like, oh, let me pause for a moment and think on this work, but there needs to be a response that comes from the work and just being completely forthright. If that doesn't happen immediately, then the work didn't work.
VIVIAN PHILLIPS (26:07):
I think in some ways too, it's just, you know, an opportunity to stop and breathe, particularly in an area like the Central District where your work is on the Midtown building. It's, it brings us that moment of relief. Like, okay, all right, I can breathe for just a moment. It is just a moment. Um, but it's important.
MARCIE SILLMAN (26:31):
I mean, you have had gallery shows. Do you wanna elicit that same response? If I come into a gallery and see a work of yours, no matter what medium it's in?
BARRY JOHNSON (26:42):
A gallery is set up for you to be able, it's like a tranquility space. You want people to walk in, you want them to be invited by the work, you want them to be able to ponder it. You have the unique opportunity in a gallery to be able to walk around and spend time with the work, meditate on it, read about the artist. You don't get that whenever you get a public artwork, you might drive by it and be like, whoa, hold up. And then it's only incumbent upon you to be like, what did that make me do? Like Vivian said, to pause for that, that is the activation, like it needs that impact. Or, and we could look at it even the reverse of it, the activation of the art needs to create an impact in the viewer. Like there needs to, it needs to elicit a response. So I love, love, love doing public artwork, and I'm always thinking about, okay, 'cause I went, you know, to school for architectural design during the pandemic and started to think about what has been done historically and how do we do something a bit different.
MARCIE SILLMAN (27:50):
Our conversation with barry johnson continues in a minute.
VIVIAN PHILLIPS (27:56):
Our music is courtesy of Big World Breaks, many thanks.
MARCIE SILLMAN (28:01):
And this year we welcome our sponsor LANGSTON, Cultivating Black Brilliance from their home at Seattle's Langston Hughes Performing Arts Institute in the historic Central District.
VIVIAN PHILLIPS (28:29):
Barry, honestly, you have blown up. You are the it, and I'm not gonna say the it man of the moment because that indicates that it's only a moment. I think your, your longevity is a lot greater than that. But I wanna ask you, even at this early stage of your artistic life, what is a legacy that you wanna leave? Or do you even think about that?
BARRY JOHNSON (28:57):
I like to think in 10 year periods. Yeah. So even whenever I first started this, I knew that, hey, like it might not catch on, but you know what, if I keep staying devoted to the practice, people will really understand this changing nature of a work. Legacy is so critical to me because it is my responsibility and the responsibility of every artist that is really truly doing this to either walk through a door or kick open a door and to look back and to say, come on, y'all, come on. I need to hold that door open for additional creatives. So whenever I think about what it is that I'm trying to do, I'm trying to, as I said at the beginning, challenge the notion of what constitutes as an artwork. Like folks have always said like, oh, what is, what does it look like to show up in the form of a public artwork on a building?
BARRY JOHNSON (29:46):
I think that myself and additional seven artists that were able to work on Midtown showed what that could look like whenever you let new ideas. And that's why I called the work, New Perspectives, come in because we're challenging this idea of like, oh, you might get a nice little splash of color and that's what like really activates the space, but maybe we could just do the whole thing and then see what happens from there. So I think that that is accountable on me to continue to do that. And the also, while I'm doing that, I have completely bisected my work, making public art, as I said, about the community at large and making my studio work about me. There will be this continual narrative of my life and the works that I've done through the studio works. But whenever we get outside and it comes time to capture the moment, remind y'all about this history of redlining and remind y'all about the fact that we keep getting killed unjustly.
BARRY JOHNSON (30:36):
Remind y'all about the importance of equity and inclusion. The importance of being able to lift up really encompassing this ideas. Like until we all free, we ain't free. Then it is incumbent up on me to continue to challenging status quo and pushing forward what happens next. And I just, I, I want to continue to do that. And I've always done that. I've always been a ferocious collaborator. To date, I've collaborated with over 96 artists. I paid 96 artists out of my own pocket. I don't even ask and go try to get grants for, which is, I know I could do that, but I get supercharged up and be like, dude, let's do it now. Let's do it now. Like how do we, how do we figure it out? Whenever I'm working on public art projects, I always believe in creative autonomy. I'll bring another person and be like, yo, like, well, here's an idea of what we're trying to wrap a container around, but like, what do you think?
BARRY JOHNSON (31:23):
And then I always follow the simple notion of best idea wins. And last year I started my project portraits where I started profiling the short documentaries about the works that are coming from other folks. So it's always important for me as barry johnson to get my ideas out. And I felt that I'm in a place now where I can continue to do that and I'm incredibly, incredibly appreciative for the opportunity to be able to do that. But make no mistake, every point along the way, I've always tried to bring other people with me. I've always wanted to keep that door open.
MARCIE SILLMAN (31:54):
It sounds like the different 10, is it 10 year cycles? Mm-hmm. <affirmative> that you were mentioning mm-hmm. <affirmative> that they kind of develop organically. But do you have a set plan or a vision for 10 years out from now? What are you thinking?
BARRY JOHNSON (32:08):
I'll be teaching. Yeah, I'll be teaching. Yeah. I'll, I'll be, I'll be teaching. Yeah. Because I mean, like, I think that, you know, there needs to be a point to where I can walk in challenge and, you know, get involved in the educational part of it and really help to procure and pique the interest of the, the next generation of artists. Because a lot of folks, I think, and the reason why I think teaching is ultimately the thing to be able to do, there will always be that community activation element and being able to, on a, on a societal level, change my neighborhood, right? Like, I don't, I don't think larger than what's happening in my neighborhood because I know that I can change and impact my neighborhood. That's why I love public art, because I get to have the reciprocity of being able to do good work and then have good work done at the same time.
BARRY JOHNSON (32:59):
It's a, it's, it's, it's a two way thing. I'm making it for y'all and I hope that y'all appreciate it, but in teaching, I would have loved to have had someone early on to be like, yo, like, you know, if you just stick to it, it might work out. You know? And not only, well, it might not work out if you just follow the simple idea of just sticking to it and just find these interesting and creative ways to get your work out. 'cause we have the internet and these, this next generation of creatives are so bright, they're so smart. Like, and they're fearless in the way that they're going about, like, challenging what historically we used to have to be faced with. You know, like, I don't know what this whole notion of race looks like for them. I don't know if I, I, I caught myself in Kansas, like early on saying, I think we got like maybe like five more years of this racist stuff. <laugh>. And then 10 years came and I was like,
VIVIAN PHILLIPS (33:50):
BARRY JOHNSON (33:51):
We got like 20 more years of this?
VIVIAN PHILLIPS (33:52):
BARRY JOHNSON (33:53):
You know what I mean? It's like, whoa, I got, I got really ahead of myself. You know, these kids are, they're, they're finding these different ways to, to combat it. And you know, I don't know what that manifests because it's so real time, it's so real time and there's still, you know, there's still so much more to come. But I definitely wanna be in a position where I'm helping to procure their imagination. So I think that maybe teaching is the only way to be able to like, do that continually inside, outside of just let's do a studio visit because it's never just about me. So it's like, yeah, I'll continue to paint and I want to continue to do that and find more interesting opportunities to be able to create artwork. But I think there's the understanding of business and how you go about like, understanding yourself, your practice that can really help you along that way that I want to be sure that I share with folks.
VIVIAN PHILLIPS (34:43):
Well, you have a pretty broad practice though. You work in a lot of different mediums. So I'm assuming that you will bring all of that into your classroom experience, but what exactly are the different mediums that you work in? I mean, I think we only know a few, and it may be many more.
BARRY JOHNSON (34:59):
So painting is something that I absolutely love. I could not afford whenever I left my job to start painting full-time. So I just started with latex paint. So I just go into Home Depot and just getting mix tins, like the, the paint that was left over. And it was like, oh, then I started going down a road of like understanding hue, saturation, chroma, and like worked a little bit in acrylic. But I always like, I like the permanence of latex paint. I like the fact that it's one of those thingss where, you know, Black folks is we are the literal incarnations of lemons to lemonade. So it's like, it's so on your house, but it's on my canvas, you know, they both serve the same purpose, you know what I mean? And then I just recently like got into oil painting and that's like where I'll spend the rest of my time doing oil painting 'cause I love it so much.
BARRY JOHNSON (35:42):
Outside of that, you know, I've always like been really interested in video. Um, so during the pandemic I like, wanted to make sure that walking out the pandemic that I had found a way to lift myself up. It was a very dark time for a lot of folks, but I wanted to make sure that I stayed devoted to this notion of being a continual student. So I just locked myself in and figured out more about like video. I'd always like played around with it. And then the first thing I wanted to do was start profiling other creatives. Um, again, just wanted to be really locked into the practice of portraits, just figuring out like how we take the moving portraits. So through video, and I'm always interested in new technologies, going to school for architectural design, you figure out CAD, you figure out these new, these new platforms.
BARRY JOHNSON (36:27):
So then it's like, hey, can we three d print, uh, sculpture? And then when it comes to public art, you know, it's always like, Hey, if we can figure out how to adapt these different designs through these different textures, I can't wait to y'all to see the work that I'm doing now. It's like this five story tall, suspended bridge that's like a wave. And it's like, it's gonna, it's gonna come out later this year, but I'm so excited about it <where> it's a, uh, a new development that's in the Central District. It's Hilty apartments. I got the opportunity to make the largest like sculpture, um, slash like installation that I've been able to do. And it was, it was such a labor of love and I'm really excited to be able to debut it later this year.
MARCIE SILLMAN (37:12):
You remind me a little bit of August Wilson going to the library and learning how to be a writer, um, on his own. You're a little bit like the visual artist version of that. So you're gonna be a teacher and you're clearly gonna, you know, open that door and help the next generations. Not not a singular generation, but I'm curious if some young person came to you and said, you know, Hey barry, I really wanna do this. What's the advice that you have for them based on how you came up and, and the way that you've invented yourself.
BARRY JOHNSON (37:46):
Process over everything. I tell that folks, that process, you always have to fall in love with the process more than anything else because that is what's gonna carry you over whenever you get thousands upon thousands of nos. Like I have in my email, when you get told that that's not it, that's not quite it. I don't like that. When people don't respond to the work. Whenever you spend weeks, days, months working on a piece of art, then you hit upload on Instagram and then five minutes later people are onto the next thing. And all those other things is, stay dedicated to the process over everything, because that's the thing that's gonna hold you over. There's so much more that I could say. But the thing that is really going to help to push folks further is just to know that like as artists historically, and always, we're playing a long game.
BARRY JOHNSON (38:40):
That's it. Like, that's why I love this field so much. Um, just growing up in the eighties and just being able to like watch the introduction of like hip hop, reach its golden era and go so forth and so on. Like, it's one of those really interesting things where it's like people graduate to these different eras in life. Like people start to pay less attention to 'em. And I've never believed that. I've never, I literally like went and saw Erykah Badu do last week and was like, this is the greatest version of her right now. And she's been doing this for almost my entire life. Just a phenomenal creative like literal bucket list that I got to check off. Um, but as an artist, like as we continue to grow and do more, people start to understand the work more, looking back at it, that's the only thing that's really made my story more unique than anyone else's.
BARRY JOHNSON (39:29):
It's, it's not unique at all. It's just, I've just been here and have just done the work. And now that folks have been able to take a look at me, they're like, oh wait, if we go back, he's been doing all these different types of work. And that's why I love it as an artist because your work just continues to kind of do this really interesting KickUp as time goes on. And that's what, you know what all what so many artists that aren't here anymore. You're, oh, like we found this old work by Basquiat. We found this old Gordon Parker photo. Like, it's all these things where it's like, oh, we didn't even know these works even existed. You know, that's what I love about this.
VIVIAN PHILLIPS (40:00):
You said that you don't want people to be able to readily identify that's your work. So you're, you know, kind of changing over time. I hope the time never comes when I can't look at something and say, that's a barry johnson <laugh>,
BARRY JOHNSON (40:15):
This is gonna sound very kid like, art is magic. It really is. It, it, it, it, it's, it's magic. So I grew up in a time when magic was like a really cool thing. So it's like that whole slight of hand, like you don't know what's gonna come next, has always been very thrilling about me. And that's why I love so much music, because I love the artists. My favorite artists in life are artists that continue to do new and interesting things. You know what I mean? It's like Rashid Johnson. I, I love the work of folks that like, continue to do just really new and interesting things. So I think I've got to the point now where folks probably are like, oh yeah, 'cause there's a certain painting style that I do now there's a certain color saturation. I do wanna be like, oh, like, oh, this is the next iteration. Or like, oh, I saw this work three years ago and you can see the continuation of it.
VIVIAN PHILLIPS (41:03):
Well, barry, this has been an incredible opportunity to just kinda sit and chat, get in your head and be with you. So I'm just totally appreciative of your time.
MARCIE SILLMAN (41:13):
Barry, thank you very much for taking this time. And I think maybe after teacher, perhaps philosopher.
VIVIAN PHILLIPS (41:21):
BARRY JOHNSON (41:22):
I want folks to know that things are possible if they just, you know, continue after it. I do hope to impart some information with folks so they can, you know, hopefully not encourage much bumps and bruises as like myself. I'm sure you and Vivian have occurred along the way. You know?
MARCIE SILLMAN (41:37):
Vivian, I loved hearing barry without a pause. Say, I'm gonna teach. Yeah, I'm gonna teach. I mean, there was no hesitation. What's in your next 10 year plan? I mean, this is a man who makes art for himself, but also for his community. Yes. And he's completely dedicated to that.
VIVIAN PHILLIPS (41:58):
Completely and totally. I mean, to have the kind of vision along with the creativity and just the groundedness that he has. I don't know how old barry is, but I can't imagine that he's, you know, even 40 years old. Yet he is just an exemplary citizen.
MARCIE SILLMAN (42:21):
He is, he's really fascinated me. I've seen his art. And the other thing that it is mentioned in this interview, but just to reiterate, especially for people in the Seattle area, barry went from cartooning as a kid, to sketching on the bus on the way to his tech job. I believe he worked in the tech sector mm-hmm. <affirmative> to being represented by one of the high end galleries in Seattle. I mean, he did pass through your Midtown center creating some…
VIVIAN PHILLIPS (42:50):
Yes, he did.
MARCIE SILLMAN (42:50):
public art. But now the commercial gallery he's at is representing, you know, some of the, the big names and barry is with them.
VIVIAN PHILLIPS (42:59):
Yeah. Can you imagine? Well, you already know 'cause we both went to the Seattle Art Fair and made a beeline, I'm sure, to the gallery that represents barry and saw these two, these two pieces that were prominently displayed. You know, barry paid me the highest honor a few months ago as a part of a organization Key to Change, Quinton Morris's organization, that made me just cry all over the place by recognizing some of the work that I've done in the community. Barry designed the glass piece that was given to me, but that's not where he stopped, barry gave me a piece of his work, one of his early works from his own personal collection. Oh, wow. That's so, I I shouldn't say that. 'cause that might make me worth a whole lot more <laugh>.
MARCIE SILLMAN (43:55):
VIVIAN PHILLIPS (43:57):
MARCIE SILLMAN (43:59):
You are priceless.
VIVIAN PHILLIPS (44:00):
Just say that. Yeah. Priceless.
MARCIE SILLMAN (44:02):
And you deserve that honor.
VIVIAN PHILLIPS (44:03):
MARCIE SILLMAN (44:04):
Now, if you haven't gone around the city of Seattle and looked for barry's public work, of which there is a lot Yeah. It's time in including a new sort of sculptural installation that's going into a housing project. It's time to do the, maybe we should make a map of the barry johnson public works.
VIVIAN PHILLIPS (44:25):
Put it on our, our that's not bad idea because we don't have anything else to do.
MARCIE SILLMAN (44:29):
VIVIAN PHILLIPS (44:30):
MARCIE SILLMAN (44:31):
You can see that our brains are very warm right now.
VIVIAN PHILLIPS (44:35):
<laugh>. Oh, hi brains. Well, listen, I, before we bid adieu, I just wanna say hello to the Detroit listeners.
MARCIE SILLMAN (44:45):
You met them.
VIVIAN PHILLIPS (44:45):
I love them. I got to meet some of them and I'm so, so elated. I love you all and Detois
MARCIE SILLMAN (44:54):
My home sweet home. See y'all next time. Thanks for listening.
VIVIAN PHILLIPS (44:58):
MARCIE SILLMAN (45:10):
DoubleXposure's Executive producers are me, Marcie Sillman,
VIVIAN PHILLIPS (45:14):
And me, Vivian Phillips, associate producer Hilary Northcraft
MARCIE SILLMAN (45:20):
If you like what you're hearing on this episode of DoubleXposure, be sure to follow us on your favorite podcast app and check out our website, doubleXposurepod.com.
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