dialogue…Elisa Johns…008

“I am so inspired by 15th and 16th century Japanese painting. I love the Japanese notion of the void—the idea that these empty or open spaces can provoke introspection.”


Can you tell me about the flowers in the works on paper that are featured at Gates of the West?

The works are of wildflowers that bloomed in Death Valley in a year they called the Super Bloom following the winter rains that flooded most of the valley. Fireweed is one of the types of wildflowers, and it is one of the first plants to grow following a forest fire.

fireweed after a fire

Watching the news coverage of the recent fires in California and the destruction that they caused, it’s easy to forget that forest fires play a natural, healthy role in the environment. Is this something that you are interested in?

Yes, the cyclical nature of the environment is fascinating, as are the cyclical patterns in history and evolution. Fire can be seen as both destructive and cleansing.

Elisa Johns, Fireweed and Diamondback, 2016, Ink and acrylic on paper, 22 x 18 inches, EJ-005
Fireweed and Diamondback, 2016

How long have you lived in Los Angeles?

I was born in Los Angeles, but only lived here for a few years when I was little. It’s funny when I had my daughter the hospital still had a record of me from when I was born. I’ve been back almost 16 years.

Your work feels insulated from the shifting trends in the art world in LA, however there are echoes of the light and land in your palate. How do you feel that your location affects your work?

I am very drawn to the western landscape. I love the light and space. I live near the water so I feel a sense of openness here. Much of my work focuses on the contrasts of the high alpine Sierra Nevada’s and desert landscape. I think California has both the high point Mount Whitney and lowest point Death Valley in the continental US.

Elisa on a backpacking trip in California

Your studio is in an old courthouse in Inglewood, Los Angeles. How long have you been in the space? Has the neighborhood changed since you first moved in?

Actually, I think the building has always housed artists and artisans. At one point when Inglewood was redoing the courthouse they set up temporary offices so the doors still say things like clerk’s office and jury room. The owner’s son used to have a hardware store and paint shop downstairs. They would work on custom cars. He ran the spaces and rented to local artists and woodworkers. There are still old furniture pieces in the rafters.

What led you to become an artist?

I think I’ve always gravitated to drawing and painting as a space where I could focus and feel centered even as a child. I never thought of it as a career but I attended UCSD for undergraduate and the program, which was very conceptual, was so exciting for me. David Antin and Eleanor Antin headed the department at the time and I loved their ideas about the way in which art and architecture influence perception.

photos in Elisa’s studio

The imagery in your work feels like it is inspired by a blissful dream, but you also take a lot of photos from your trips to parks in California, particularly the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Can you tell me how you decide on an image? Do you work directly from photographs or do they more serve to jog your memory?

I spend most summers hiking camping and backpacking. I think of this time as gathering inspiration. I shoot tons of pictures of a specific pass or patch of wildflowers. Then in the studio I might lay out 10 or 15 photos that I reference to create that moment in a painting.

The white backgrounds and soft tones feel like making sense of a location and place seem somewhat irrelevant to the experience of your work. What is the role of location in your work?

I think location is important. When I’m in a space experiencing it I find that I am taking in little moments. Each of these moments and things can culminate into something larger. A wildflower, a body of water or a passage of boulders that capture my imagination are what make me feel present.

Elisa Johns, Detail: Ghost Flowers 2, 2016, Ink and acrylic on paper, 44 x 40 inches, EJ-002
Detail: Ghost Flowers 2, 2016

You have discussed that since having your daughter, your work has shifted towards landscape, flora and fauna and away from the mythical figures that populated earlier works. It made me think that you were creating a world or special place for your daughter to inhabit or visit. How did becoming a mother change the focus in your work?

I love the idea of creating a space or a world for my daughter. In many ways becoming a mother has made my time in the studio much more focused. Painting has always been a fantastical space for me, a space to form some sort of narrative. The western landscape and its flora and fauna are sacred for me. Once I became a mother and my time in the studio became limited, I focused in on the most important aspects of my work and life experience as a vehicle for making paintings.

Birds in Landscape, early 16th century Shūgetsu Tōkan, 1440–1529 Ink and color on paper
Birds in Landscape, early 16th century Shūgetsu Tōkan, 1440–1529, Ink and color on paper

In your works on canvas and on paper you utilize empty white space to great effect, albeit with somewhat of a different focus. How is working on paper different than canvas?

The works on paper feel much more delicate. They capture fleeting moments like the flowers they depict. White space for me has always been a space for the viewer to have space for thought. I am so inspired by 15th and 16th century Japanese painting. I love the Japanese notion of the void—the idea that these empty or open spaces can provoke introspection.

Do you have a favorite flower?

I love Ghost Flowers and Fireweed.

Ghost Flower 2
Mohavea Confertiflora: Ghost Flower

Favorite National Park?

Kings Canyon

Favorite fairytale or myth?

I’ve always been obsessed with Diana the Huntress, but recently I’ve been reading more about Lilith. I’ve started thinking about how the wildflowers work in the context of the Garden of Eden and how the mythology of Lilith fits into that narrative.

Diana and the Stag, 2010
Diana and the Stag, 2010