Photos by Hillary Ehlen and Eric A. Johnson
Eric A. Johnson exudes an air of calm despite his what-some-might-consider-hectic schedule. We met with this prolific local printmaker at the Spirit Room to discuss his creative process. During this time, he also reflected on his life in and outside of the studio.
Originally from Embden, North Dakota, Johnson came to Fargo in the 1990s to attend NDSU. “I didn’t have any idea what I wanted to do. I could have easily skipped college and started farming, but I don’t know if I would have lasted very long doing that,” he said. Luckily, Johnson did well in art classes and eventually gravitated toward printmaking.
Now he is a well-known printmaker and an adjunct art professor at Minnesota State Community and Technical College, as well as Mayville State University. Surprisingly, he is not currently teaching printmaking, though he does spend a lot of time at PEARS, the Printmaking Education and Research Studio at NDSU. “I’m there, usually three times a week, helping with classes and working on my own prints,” Johnson said.
In addition to being involved with PEARS, Johnson has a studio space at the Spirit Room. He had his first show at the Spirit Room in 1997, three years before they made the big move to their Broadway location.
His Latest Exhibition
In April 2017, Johnson had a solo exhibition at the Rourke Art Museum in Moorhead titled, “The Nature of Things.” He also had his work on display at Kaddatz Gallery in Fergus Falls, Minnesota, during the months of October through November. Johnson plans on having his next show at the Rourke in 2020. For Johnson, having more time between exhibitions is “relieving” because the reduction relief process requires a patient and methodical hand.
Johnson usually begins with a sketch, then scans the image and has it blown up. Next, he transfers the image onto a block, which is made out of plywood PVC sintra, a dense foam. Johnson then carves the sintra, sets it on top of the paper and sends it through his hand-crank press. He repeats the process, carving layer after layer until he is satisfied with the composition.
Johnson likes to switch back and forth between abstraction and realism to keep himself entertained. “I try and keep myself interested,” he explained. Though his inspiration may seem random, it usually has something to do with Johnson’s past. Recently, he found inspiration in family research, which resulted in the print of his great-great-grandfather titled “Connection.”
Another print titled “Still” was inspired by a buffalo nickel that belonged to Johnson’s father. “There are so many people doing bison, I was kind of resisting doing one for a while,” he explained. However, the result is undeniably intriguing and unique.
His Life Outside of the Studio
When he isn’t teaching or carving sintra blocks in his studio, Johnson likes to spend time with his five kids. He revealed that the reason why he decided to stay in Fargo after graduating was to be close to his two eldest children, Alex age (age 21) and Hannah (age 18), who are now away at college. Today, Johnson lives in Hillsboro with his wife, Dera, and their three little ones, Ethan (age 5), Emmett (age 3) and Evelyn (age 1).
His Advice to Young Artists
Because Johnson chose to remain in Fargo, he was able to watch both his children and the local art community grow. “I think it’s a great time for younger artists here,” he said. If there was one piece of advice that he wants his many students to take away from his classes, it is that you have to be able to do different things such as network or promote your art. He also says, “Don’t be afraid to show your work. No one’s going to see your art if it’s hidden away under your bed or in your closet.”
Eric A. Johnson