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In Studio With Darien A-Johnson

Were you drawn towards any activities as a kid that served as a foundation for your interest in sculpture?

As a young child, Play-Doh was my favorite thing to model.  As I grew, I enjoyed figuring things out. For example, getting a transformer and manipulating it without the instructions. Similarly with Legos, I only enjoyed the bucket of various sizes; nothing predetermined or planned for me. Building forts and getting into my grandfather’s tools probably falls into this category as well. As a teenager, I began oil painting at the community art center. 

During your interview on “Tales of a Red Clay Rambler,” you mentioned that you were an avid skater and snowboarder when you lived in Minnesota. What attracted you to that and do you still do both?

I’ve always been active, beginning very early with martial arts. But even when I was young, I wasn’t interested in organized sports. I wanted to be fully responsible for the result of the activity I was engaged in.  Skating and snowboarding gave me a physical activity that had a community, but the result of my improvement was primarily my own responsibility. As an aside, engaging in these activities has stimulated thoughts about how we navigate our physical environment and the effect that has on the way we think about it. Skating isn’t really something that makes sense for me to do anymore... hurting my hands would be a big problem as an artist and I was always one to take big risks. Along my road I’ve engaged in different activities, yoga, swimming, lifting, hiking, mountain biking, racquetball etc. 

Was there a moment that redirected you to create art about memory and the digital world? 

There’s one instance I often relay during lectures that was a bit of an “ah ha” moment that took place in my graduate school studio.  My computer glitched as I was working in Photoshop. This moment was the impetus for considering how screens were having an impact on the way we think.  However, it's been a slower unveiling of ideas that were present when the glitch happened and as the work has developed since then. My mother is a retired psychologist and conversations about the human psyche and how people relate to one another were commonplace in my youth. These discussions influenced my artistic interests as I developed, and while working on the intellectual trajectory of my creative practice in graduate school, most of my research time was spent digesting contemporary psychiatry and theories of mind.  Between that research and the influence my materials and processes had, this work started to take shape. 

Have you ever dealt with a massive accident in the studio?

When working with clay, technical failure is inevitable if one continues to ask new questions of the material, and I tend to want to nudge the material and myself close to the line of what is possible. Sometimes I cross the line.  Even for my current exhibition “Found Through Fragmentation,” I ran into a massive loss only weeks before the exhibition. With the newest work, I wanted a number of pieces to be free-standing while maintaining focus on the porcelain component of the sculpture.  My resolution was to create a vertical structure with an element of networking just below the porcelain form. The network relates to the idea of the physical underpinning of human consciousness that is our neural network. The first iteration of these pieces were made of clay.  Knowing that clay does not do well with thin and vertical, I took steps to make it work (such as firing to a lower temperature than the clay can reach) but even after taking those steps, all but one of the pieces warped in the kiln. In the end, this accident lead to a better resolve for the work- as I was able to use a better combination of materials that allowed me to keep the new components thinner and still allow for evidence of hand, which was also important. 

Who are some of your favorite contemporary artists?

There are so many great artists working today. A name that often pops up for me is Francesca Dimattio. When I was first introduced to her work it was primarily painting, and her current ceramic work is also very strong.  Anders Ruhwald, Nicole Cherubini, Susan Beiner, Annabeth Rosen, Ron Nagle, are all artists making very strong work in clay. Rachel de Joode is somebody I’ve recently been looking at whose work also deals with physicality and illusion.  David Hockney and Frank Stella would be on my list too. I like how Hockney approaches painting and deals with undervalued genres. His iPad drawings are really fresh. Stella’s recent integration of digital fabrication is of interest to me and I’ve always enjoyed the intersections and movement of form within his work. 

What was your biggest takeaway from traveling abroad?

Traveling abroad is always a significant experience, but living in Denmark for three years provided the largest takeaways. Perhaps the biggest one was learning a second language as an adult and how thinking and communication change when vocabulary is drastically reduced. Also how the structure of a language influences the way things are considered.  This experience is reflected in the juxtaposition of mark making in my newest work. Refined rending and the slow building of marks sits next to quick naive marks and scribbles that are both digital and analog. Cadence, ability, access to thought... these are all things that I’ve considered differently since this experience.  

Do you have any advice for artists looking for residencies? 

Residencies have so much to offer. The advice I will give is that an artist would be best off having an idea of what he/she hopes to achieve at a residency and then apply to a number of them that would make those goals possible. Major considerations would be, duration, facilities, location, material focus (or possibly the breadth of material being utilised), and peer group. 

What are some questions you ask yourself to plan the trajectory of your future?

This query assumes I actually spend time planning my future trajectory, which, I suppose, does have a morsel of truth. Once I realized how important creating was to me, I made a goal that I would always make. The questions that relate to any goal are, what do I need to do in the near term to ensure this goal is met in the long term. What is being sacrificed and when is the sacrifice being made.  

Creatively, I’m always asking where a certain idea in the work might take me. I’m never lacking in ideas about what to make, the harder question is which idea deserves the most attention and time.  There are of course other questions, but I also respond to life events in a way that is flexible. Guiding my trajectory seems more feasible and enjoyable than attempting to force a specific rigid goal onto myself. 

You’ve lived in many different cities, is there any place you call home?

Ahh… where’s my heart? So cliche, but place does have such an influence on consciousness. I’m old enough now that I’ve spent more of my life away from the place I grew up, and most of those years have been spent in segments. That transience has been influential. Without a doubt and to be honest I’ve never really felt committed to any single place strong enough to call it home.  That said, my wife and I moved to Atlanta with the intent to do just that, and it’s certainly starting to feel like home.

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