The Multidimensional World of Travis Johnson

by Lynette Charters Serembe

Travis Johnson is a multidisciplinary artist, a prolific painter, sculptor, ceramicist, knowledgeable curator, and he has a deeply moving voice which will touch your soul when you hear it. He sings solo and tours with his family group Fivacious. (Fivacious is composed of the five Johnson siblings who have been singing acappella afro roots music for the last three decades). Johnson is a man with an easy smile and a friendly demeanor. Anything he sets his mind to, he follows through purposefully and unflinchingly; he is extremely serious about his art and art mentoring practices and if you spend time appreciating his many talents and disciplines, you’ll notice there is a strong common thread that runs through them.

Since he arrived in Olympia/Lacey area, he has blazed a trail of brilliance. He shows regularly at the Leonor R. Fuller Gallery at SPSCC, Vermillion Art Gallery in Seattle, and has been invited to show at Marfa, the huge indoor/outdoor desert arts festival in Texas. He has just finished his MFA at Pacific Northwest College of Art in Portland, Ore. and has retained many ties there. He shows other artist’s work as well as his own in the gallery in his studio. Receptions are by invitation only.

Johnson grew up in Phelan, Calif. with his family who were farmers in previous generations; they lived off the land amidst a strong community. (The animals from his formative years make an appearance throughout his paintings and sculptures). Later, as a young man, he encountered the LA art scene while working there and indeed worked closely with artists, but never seemed to find a way to be a more meaningful part of their community. He arrived in Olympia/Lacey on March 18, 2018. At the time he was working for a ride share company but had long known he had so much more to offer the world. He decided to put down roots here and seriously commit to launching his long-held practice as an artist.

Travis Johnson

To begin with, he didn’t know anyone in the arts community here; he knocked on many doors until at length, he got his first break. A friend introduced him to the owners of Tart Cider who at the time were looking for an artist for their tasting room. He says he got help from his friend with transport and help from another friend framing prints of his work. The show was a huge success, he sold the first piece on the first day of the show after which his artworks sold rapidly. He showed at Tart Cider for a span of 2-3 years. This was validating, and an affirmation that he was on the right path. Soon after the pandemic hit, he was invited to Nicole Gugliotti’s “Creative Something” through South Puget Sound Community College. This was a series of very successful interviews set up to continue the arts dialogue and strengthen our community during the days when we were all quarantining (you can still find his recorded interview on SPSCCs website listed below under LEARN MORE). This interview was followed by an invitation to show in SPSCC’s Futures Rising exhibition, which was a group show in celebration of local black artists curated by Thresea “Mama Tee” Yost involving 12 other artists and the Black Well Red Thread Collective. In this exhibition, Alan Motley, a freelance curator in Seattle, saw his work. Motley worked with Vermillion Art Gallery in Seattle owned by Diana Adams. Johnson has shown several times at this venue and has established himself as part of the community there.

Johnson’s paintings are powerful, colorful, and energetic; they are highly spirited but not aggressive. He employs layering of color and bold decisive brushstrokes sometimes with

cartoonish effect but never overproduced or polished. There is an exuberance to his work with a loaded sobering narrative. He said that to explain, we must go back to the beginning when black people were introduced to the US as slaves, where families, relationships, and communities were divided and dispersed as possessions at the whim and convenience of white slave owners. Because there is little to no acknowledgment of the tremendous damage done to African American communities during slave years and after, and a distinct lack of reparation or restoration (indeed history tells of sabotage by white people at African Americans own successful efforts in restoring and thriving), dehumanizing stereotypes with which black people are generally represented, thrive in our culture. “But the body insists on its humanity” Johnson says. He says there are usually a number of ways in which black people are portrayed, and none of them are authentic. In his paintings, Johnson revives rural black identity. He says he uses a variety of painting styles, from African, African American, to popular culture and street style to subvert the stereotypes and portray the real people with whom he grew up. They stand in unison with a strong, longsuffering but unapologetic and steady gaze, steadfastly denying the stereotypes that are projected onto them. In the US, black stories do not get told properly. He gives rural black communities visibility from their own perspective.

Johnson tells us; “The idea of the multidimensional perspective that artists in Africa had been exploring for generations was repackaged and sold as a new idea by Braque and Picasso in the beginning of the twentieth century.” Johnson reclaims this concept of multiple perspectives to represent black lives and black communities from their own vantage point.

Johnson’s sculptures are both charming and raw. They walk a fine line in both denying the materials they were made from, and at the same time celebrating them. Johnson says he observes in our society a relationship with materials which causes an excess in consumption, which he would rather not be part of but instead make use of. He repurposes what others deem as waste. His sculptures are made of discarded materials reimagined into familiar objects, or familiar objects repurposed into abstract art. They are charming and essential, and very personal in style, which references naïve/folk art but with an added intelligent wit; always staying in the moment and keeping it real. His ceramics carry the same theme. His bowls are handmade but some of them are finished on the potter’s wheel, playing with the two disciplines inviting you to guess the difference and celebrating the juxtaposition. His bowls are also charming, individual, mercurial, and defy mass production. He says, “I am not a factory”. He is influenced by Japanese potters and African Mingei, a term coined by Theaster Gates. Mingei is defined as art of the people. He tells me he is honoring the ceramicist David Drake, whose works contain their own individual essence and personality.

Johnson also has a clothing line sporting his individual style. He makes t-shirts and hoodies with his familiar logo, again with their individual flare and personalities. No one clothing piece is like another, but they are all uncannily familiar with his design sensibilities. He says his designer line is the fulfillment of an over-two-decades dream which started when he and his brother wanted to make a line of designer t-shirts when they were kids in high school. They were trying to figure out if they could afford the t-shirts to start their business or buy clothes to wear for school. The school clothes won, and the designer t-shirts were put on hold, but after over two decades they are here, and they have been selling well. He says he loves the connection he feels when someone identifies with their perfect piece of his clothing. He says there’s an affinity with the garment and owner which is hugely rewarding. His designs are statement clothes that are comfortable and wearable, his logos are distinctive; check them out. We like to think that art creates culture but as Johnson says, “Art practice is in opposition to the production of culture.” This is true also, especially if you don’t identify with the predominant culture.

Travis Johnson

Johnson also has a mentoring service where he nurtures artists with a wide range of professional development: career planning, defining your art practice, art educational planning for higher education, critical critiques portfolio review, and social media branding/story telling. He is looking for sponsors. “Creativity is a methodology” he says. “There is so much to learn and pass on

If art and art practice is to be sustainable, it has to come from the realest place possible”. This common theme runs through Johnson’s art, his life, and the communities he has nurtured.

Johnson exudes creativity. While chatting, he idly fiddles with some of the objects on the table in front of him, toying with compositions. “There it is!” He celebrates when he finds the composition he is looking for. He calls the creative process “digging into the abyss and pulling out the unseen.” In many ways, respects, and disciplines, he is a master.

Johnson has ongoing pop-up events so check his website regularly, but these are the events he has on the calendar coming up:

Black Salon showing in Travis Johnson Studio
Marfa indoor/outdoor desert arts festival

Black Salon: April 24
Marfa: April 1-15

Black Salon: By invitation only, check Johnson’s website for details.
Marfa: 102 S Plateau St, Marfa, TX 79843

Black Salon: $25.00
Marfa: Check website for details


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