neurologically produced synesthetic forms and color. Studio Visit with April Zanne Johnson

April Zanne Johnson is a graduate of Parsons School of Design/The New School for Social Research (1993) and received her M.F.A. at Montclair State University (2013). She resides in New Jersey in a rural northwest community where she keeps a studio. April is a synesthetic artist who incorporates perceptions from additional sensory experiences and weaves them into her practice.

Permanent collections can be seen in the Williamsburg Art Historical Center in Brooklyn, NYC and EVS in Fairfield, NJ . She has work held by several private collectors in Mexico City, New York City, New Mexico, Los Angeles, London and Australia. Recent honors include; Best of 2013, Saatchi Art, London U.K., curated by Rebecca Wilson, spotlighted in the series: One to Watch. April was awarded Herhusid Artist Residency in Iceland. She was the Dedalus Foundation Fellowship Nominee as well as the Nominee for Executive Women of New Jersey Graduate Merit Scholarship Award chosen by the Montclair State University graduate faculty (2012,2013). Inka Essenhigh selected April for the Atlantic Center for the Arts Artist Residency in 2015. In 2016, April was included as an IASAS Founding Member. Her work has been featured in numerous publications internationally.

AMM: How did you find your way into a creative life? Give us a glimpse of your artistic background? 

AZJ: I never have had interest in anything other than making art. I cannot imagine a life without creativity. I didn’t attend art in elementary school because I attended speech therapy. Maybe that was my earliest obsession with creative materials. Later, the school recommended I be placed in a senior art class my freshman year of high school. This was absolutely terrifying, but my teacher John Orinski encouraged me. When my high school ran out of courses for me to take at age 17, I attended a college summer painting program at Parsons School of Design. I decided that I would apply, and later graduated in 1993 from Parsons / The New School with a B.F.A in Illustration and a minor in Art Education. I had several jobs after I graduated, such as working in historic restoration of tile murals for a summer. I also worked briefly as a cut and paste person for a small advertising agency, but hated that job. The people I worked for screamed on the phone, and at each other, all day. I was a recreational/art therapist for a private juvenile detention center. Eventually, I ended up teaching art for many years in public school and loved working with the students. As a single mother working more than one job and commuting two hours a day, I had no interest in showing my work in public but always painted late at night and maintained a sketchbook. I would go to local bars and draw people from the corner of the room in the dark light. In the early 2000s, the State of New Jersey initiated a push for teachers to receive a master’s degree in their field of expertise to remain a “highly qualified teacher”. I did not see how a master’s degree was possible with my schedule, and I was not interested in an M.A. Eventually, I applied for and was offered a sabbatical to attend graduate school. In 2013 I received my M.F.A. I no longer work full time as an art educator. I teach as an adjunct one day a week for a local college. I love the interaction with other creative people; it keeps me grounded. It is easy to become reclusive in the studio.

AMM: Describe your subject matter, inspiration, references and meaning behind the works.

AZJ: My subject matter varies and is usually derived from a deeply personal situation or concern. My painting language is developed entirely from neurologically produced synesthetic forms and color. These are produced while listening to sound or experiencing an extreme physical sensation. I use these colors and forms, like an alphabet, to create a painting vocabulary. From this vocabulary develops a visual language that creates a new environment in my work. Many of the paintings are comparing real worlds (micro or macro, medical or technological) to questionable phenomena that science is not able to fully explain. I get excited about possibilities.

AMM: How did your painting style and use of materials develop? 

AZJ: Through trial, error and meaningful mistakes. I have been using a saturated color palette for most of my adult life in an attempt to translate what I see. In the 1990s I added pattern in to my mostly figurative acrylic paintings, trying to demonstrate what I see around people. But the way I was drawing in paint was stale. The images, materials and application left much to be desired. I simultaneously love and hate these old paintings. Most have been painted over. At that time I was not in the studio every day and it was obvious. Later, during grad school, I spent each day trying to get to the heart of what it was that I needed to do to effectively communicate through my work. Meeting with working artists in my studio for private critiques was the most helpful in figuring this out. Some of my professors encouraged my understanding of materials. I was like a sponge soaking it up. It was a massive experiment… my entire practice is a big experiment.

AMM: Your paintings are full of color and technically stunning. Tell us a little bit about your process. How do you come up with the color palettes in your paintings? 

AZJ: Some of the synesthetic forms (that accompany sound and physical sensations) are colors that are very difficult to place near each other (in paint) without creating mud. Violet and yellow do not mix without turning to a shade of brown in paint, but when I see that combination in a physical sensation, the color does not mix to brown but has an almost pale white/pink/yellow where the violet and yellow touch. I am always challenging myself with attempts to recreate some of the color combinations I see without making mud. I use color wheels and paint chip samples to look at color and tones. I pre-mix paint and oil and store in plastic containers from household refuse.

AMM: Describe your perfect day in the studio. 

AZJ: A perfect day is when I completely deviate from my intention midway and find something completely new.

AMM: What influences outside the visual arts inspire and impact your approach to making work? Are there particular things you are reading, listening to or looking at to fuel your work? 

AZJ: Music and sound is the cornerstone. The natural environment heavily influences me as well. I am surrounded by it each day of my life in the woods. Also, I hoard objects in my studio that hold memories or are fascinating to me for some reason or another.

Some outside influence comes along without invitation lately. My most recent Migration Series of paintings came as a direct reaction to finding out my father has cancer. I am processing. The drawings I am working on right now are reactionary to this chaotic, terrifying political up-heave in America. I recently experienced direct bigotry by a local Trump supporter, a man I had known for most of my life. This is very disturbing. 2016 has the stage in my studio. I’m angry because I want to change these fates. This is driving my new drawings. At this moment there are photos and collages pinned up in my studio with little bits of abstracted pornography cut and pasted on to political magazine clippings. I have clippings of the president-elect’s mouth in ”O” shape. There is a Maxwell Ernst painting of a suited monster. I have abstracted and collaged pictures of healthy and diseased body parts printed off the Internet. I have print outs of Internet-Troll statements. I have a sound bite of my previous personnel director saying, “ Even people with cancer go to work” on a loop. In the drawings I am pulling sound forms and arranging them with graphite, Gamsol and a bit of oil from pork fat on large drafting film. I prefer not to talk about the music I am working with. I do not want to be judged on my musical taste, I am working with sounds for reasons other than pure enjoyment. Currently re-reading Enter the Dragon, essay by Dave Hickey. My new drawings need this. In the studio I am looking at books with work from Albert Oehlen , Inka Essenhigh, Katherina Gross, Julie Mehretu, Francis Bacon, oh, and volumes 1 &2 of Vitamin P, obsessively.

AMM: What artists or movements are you currently interested in? 

AZJ: In my studio right now I am looking at Francis Bacon, Maxwell Ernst, Katherina Gross, Albert Oehlen, Julie Mehretu, Inka Essenhigh, Clyfford Still, Wangechi Mutu, Cy Twombly, Cecily Brown, Louise Bourgeois, Gerhard Richter. I have a revolving stack of books, postcards and posters I surround myself with. Some movements I have interest in are futurism, neo-expressionism (Neue Wilde), and artists of the New Leipzig School.

I am searching for other artists to whom I might relate. I suppose I am part of some unnamed movement that is currently developing. As a painter, I am trying to understand high intuition, yet searching for a concrete answer. This is an unreasonable and conflicting idea. When I am inside the painting, attempting to possibly glimpse a future that navigates cautiously in an anxious, uncomfortable, questionable, beautiful, terrible, future apocalypse where nothing makes sense but I have control over this place, and its past, and I have created it.

AMM: Share a brief piece of advice that helped you in your art career. 

AZJ: I make a schedule for work. I am motivated by my own obsession and compulsion to create. I rarely sell anything, when I do I put the funds back into supplies. I am very low on materials currently so I find new materials to work with. A rare auto-inflammatory condition rules my body, so getting out to meet people can be difficult only when my body is flaring. I use my social media to generate interest in my studio practice. I am only an hour from New York City and I still have difficulty getting the appropriate people out to my studio…so I bring them in via social media. Art is about finding a new way, not finding excuses.

AMM: Are you involved in any upcoming shows or events? Where and when?

AZJ: I am invited to participate at bG Gallery’s Spectrum Gestalt 4 Exhibition by owner/director Om Bleicher in June of 2017. I am excited to participate in this show in Los Angeles. Also, I am putting together a curatorial proposal for a three-artist exhibit with myself, Diana Roig of the Netherlands and Mimei Thompson of the United Kingdom. Together, the work has a great visual dialogue. I plan to have that proposal package put together next fall to select exhibition spaces in New York City and possibly elsewhere. Wish us all luck!

Photography Credit: Nadine Stevens
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