Interview with Ann Johnston

Bellevue Arts Museum 2017

This post is also available in: Italiano (Italian)

Ann Johnston began her career as a textile artist in the 1980s, she specialized in dyeing and fabric design becoming one of the most renowned artists on the international scene. As an author and educator, she has held many workshops and published numerous books on design and dyeing and her book “The Quilter’s Book of Design, dating back to 2008, is now considered one of the main reference guides in this field.

Her artworks are in public and private collections in New Zealand, United States, France, Japan and United Kingdom.

This is the link to the artist’s website:

www.annjohnston.net

Ann, you are a textile artist known and esteemed for your wonderful art quilts and as an expert in fabric dyeing. Was the passion for quilts born first, or the passion for designing and dyeing fabrics? Can you tell us your story as a textile artist, how you started and why?

I always loved colors and shapes.My mother was a watercolor painter and I learned to sew clothing from her mother when I was in primary school. After studying literature at Stanford University, I went into the Peace Corps in Lima, Peru. I had very few resources there, so I decided to try sewing a quilt in my spare time.  All I knew about quilts is that they used a lot of floral prints. I did everything the hard way;it took 5 years to finish, and I thought I was done with making quilts. Later, back home, a friend showed me how to piece by machine. I was hookedforeverby the endless design possibilities of putting pieces together. That was in the mid 1970s, when there were few color choices in cotton, so I started dyeing fabric.  By the early 1980s I was using only my own hand-dyed fabrics and working on dye painting with precision.

By the late 1990s, I started to use many more dyeing, construction, and stitching techniques, including machine quilting.

You can see some of the changes in greater detail in my books, The Quilter’s Book of Design.

In 2010 I started my current series, continuing to explore the possibilities of dye and stitches on fabric as seen in my book The Contact: Sierra Nevada, Dyed & Stitched.

“Balancing Act III”, 1996, 57″ x 55 pieced cotton copyright Ann Johnston

“Caution Construction Zone in progress”, 1997, copyright Ann Johnston

“Leopard Lily”, 1987, 33″ x40″, whole cloth, silk copyright Ann Johnston

The Quilter’s Book of Design, cover, Ann Johnston

The Contact cover, Ann Johnston

As for hand dyeing, do you use traditional techniques, or do you like to experiment with innovative techniques and materials?

Over the years, I have learned to use Procion MX dyes in ways that were not largely usedby a lot of people, but I don’t think of them as innovative anymore. I do think it is safe to say that I have been instrumental in adapting the many uses of fiber reactive dyes and spreading knowledge about fun and easy ways to put color on fabric. I have taught these techniques in many countries and my publications are used around the world.

My most recent publications about dyeing are:

Color by Design: Paint and Print with Dye, updated 2nd Edition

http://annjohnston.net/project/color-by-design-paint-print-with-dye-2nd-edition/

DVD – Color By Accident: Exploring Low-Water Immersion

http://annjohnston.net/project/dvd-color-by-accident-exploring-low-water-immersion-dyeing/

 to view 3- minute trailer: https://vimeo.com/139288554

Ann, I’m going to ask you a non-professional question, because I have no experience in textile dyeing. When you dye a fabric and the result is not satisfactory, are you forced to throw that fabric away or are there techniques to recover and over-paint it? Can you recycle a badly dyed fabric and then use it in new works?

First, I want to be clear that I do not use the words dye and paint interchangeably. I pour dye on fabric in containers, and I paint dye on fabric laid out on the table; I can put dye on thin or thick, with spoons or brushes or rollers. When I use paint on fabric, I am referring to textile paints that are pigments that are mixed with something to make them stick to the fabric surface. Textile paints do not chemically react with the fibers in the cloth as dyes do. Dyes are a transparent medium, one color will show through another color, and with the final washing they do not bleed or change the hand of the fabric.I use textile paints occasionally as I would beads, as embellishment for a particular effect.

Regarding your “not satisfactory” question, I think there is hardly ever any such thing. It all depends on the eye of the beholder. “Badly dyed” for me means fabric that bleeds, washes out or fades. When I have results that I don’t like, I can over DYE parts of the fabric, changing the colors and the emphasis of the patterning. Keep in mind that when I paint on the dye with thickener, I can put it anywhere I want it.  Color from Procion MX is a very strong chemical bond and really can’t be removedvery well even with discharge processes. White spaces have to be planned as there is no white dye.I have put lots of fabric on the shelf I didn’t particularly like, or that didn’t work for the piece as I wanted; however, these sometimes turn out to be just what I needed on another quilt.

What advice would you give to an artist who wants to start a process of textile dyeing?

Get my books and DVD!They are organized as workshops. Get together with a friend and explore! The chemistry is elementary, like cooking. Some things have to be measured at the start, but the application process is up to you. After the dye is on the fabric, just let it cure correctly and wash it thoroughly.

Ann, do you work in series? Why?

Of course, doesn’t everyone, or at least anyone who has been working for years and years? One idea begets the next and the next. I make a quilt, then I learn from the experience. When I use the word “series” I mean works that stem from a similar idea but don’t necessarily look related. And the idea keeps cropping up as the years go by. I have continued with several series of quilts, sometimes with years between, and often very different from each other:  Balancing Act, Waves, Sky, Rust, Double Cross, Game Board, to name some.

“Balance 27”, 1996, 2006, 31” x 32”, rusted silk, copyright Ann Johnston

 “Balance 32”, 2010, 49” x 93”, pieced cotton copyright Ann Johnston

 “Balance 33”, 2011, 43” x 15” raw-edge machine applique, cotton
copyright Ann Johnston

Can you describe the activity of designing a new art work? Do you start from the fabric and then develop the quilt project, or do you start from a drawing of the quilt you would like to create and then, on the basis of this, dye the fabrics?

I always start from an idea. Then the process branches out, any of these ways.

A – “I often read and research the idea for more understanding.”

Ann reading in a high meadow of the Sierra Nevada 

B –  “I look at my collection of photos related to the idea.”

“Eureka Chimney”, source photoof a collapsed mine entrance, copyright Ann Johnston 

C – “I find fabric I dyed already on my shelves, or I dye fabric that fits the idea”

Fabric Shelves

Dye Tables

“Cirque 2” fabric ready on the table

D – “I frequently do small scale sketches of the idea.”

“Cirque-first 7” sketch on paper

E -“Sometimes I scan my drawing and use the computer to audition colors.”

Cirque – design outlines on computer

Caption: Cirque-evening colors on computer

Cirque-sunwashed colors on computer

Cirque computer version with grid to use for 7-foot drawing

Cirque 1” and “Cirque 2” at Bellevue Arts Museum

F – “Sometimes I work from a full-scale pattern.”

“Sheepherder’s Ledge”, 2015,using paper patterns on table
copyright Ann Johnston

G – “Sometimes I have a large drawing but work on the wall for placement of pieces.”

“Eureka Chimney-in progress”, 2013, copyright Ann Johnston

H –“Sometimes I start assembling fabrics directly from photos.”

“Cross Polarized Granite-in progress”, 2015, copyright Ann Johnston

I –“Sometimes I paint directly on the fabric, then applique on top of the painting”

“Wet Land”– dye painting in progress

“Wet Land-in progress”, 2019,57” x 60” dye painted with raw-edge applique
copyright Ann Johnston

L –“Sometimes I paint the whole design, whole cloth quilt from a full-scale drawing”

“Competent Rock-by dyeing”, dye painting in progress,copyright Ann Johnston

“Competent Rock”, 2018,83.5” x 38”, whole cloth, dye painted, copyright Ann Johnston

“The making of a quilt is a process of getting used to seeing what is becoming of my idea in the real world and making more decisions as I work on it. Each quilt idea has many possible outcomes, and as my skills at dyeing and constructing develop, I have more choices.”

In your art works, what is the relationship between abstract and figurative representation?

I use both abstract and representational imagery in my quilts, as I think it fits my idea. Some real images can look very abstract, and some abstractions actually do represent reality, so I don’t think about that distinction too much. An idea is only that; it could become anything. Making challenging choices along the way makes the process exciting and the result often a surprise. The most important thing to me is if I did the best I could for the idea.

Dyeing and fabric design play a fundamental role in your work. What role does quilting play instead? What does it add to your artquilts?

The texture created by the stitches is a big focus of mine. It is always a puzzle how to use thread to contribute to my idea and enhance my design. When the top is finished, I consider the thread color and weight, the stitch length, the pattern, and the density of the stitches. I have been asked many times why I make my fabric into a quilt instead of just framing it. The added dimension of the shadows created by the stitches is another part of the puzzle that fascinates me.

“Cross Polarized Granite-detail”, 2015, copyright Ann Johnston

Ann, your 31 works that make up the exhibition “The Contact: Quilts of the Sierra Nevada”, have particular dimensions, are mostly long and narrow, they develop in height. Can you explain the reason for this stylistic choice?

Over many years of enjoying the California mountains called the Sierra Nevada, I had only made a few small quilts that touch on the subject,but I always put off making the important one, because I couldn’t contain all my ideas in one quilt. I finally realized I could create a group of quilts to be seen altogether.  I envisioned a series of fifteen quilts focused on general themes of gold mining, history, and geology, as well as landscapes. I spent a year experimenting with dye techniques and structuring the pieces with a predominantly vertical format to mirror the extreme elevations of the Sierra. The vertical format would also visually tie together so many diverse pieces, some literal, some abstract and some purely imaginative. There are now 38 pieces, 27 of them are 7 feet tall (widths vary from 25” to 60”.)After a few years, I started adding square and horizontal quilts to fit some of my ideas. Now there are six 60” x 60” square and five narrow horizontals, about 25” tall, (widths 75” to 110.”)

“Rock Garden 3”, 1990, 33” x 30 whole cloth, dye painted silk,copyright Ann Johnston

Can you tell us about the experience of the exhibition The Contact, which was very successful, and which travelled to the United States arriving here in Europe? How was this project born, how long did it take to implement it and what experience was it for you in your path of artistic growth?

The Contact started with 14 quilts in the first exhibition in 2013. The Martin Museum of Art in TX invited me to do a solo exhibit with3 years to prepare. That’s when I realized it was time to start my Sierra Nevada series. I make my quilts to be seen. It took me a long time to admit this because I was making them and not often enough exhibiting them. So, it is very rewarding to have this collection viewed by so many people in so many places. Preparing for the exhibits with the curators and preparators has been fun and a different kind of work.

These are the places The Contact has been shown since the first exhibit in 2013. Images of each can be seen on my website http://annjohnston.net/category/exhibits/

Martin Museum of Art, Baylor University, Waco, TX
The Contact: Quilts of the Sierra Nevada, 2013

Exposicion Nacional de Patchwork, Sitges, Spain
The Contact: Quilts of the Sierra Nevada, 2014

Festival of Quilts, Birmingham, England
The Contact: Quilts by Ann Johnston, 2014

University of California, Merced, CA
The Contact: Quilts of the Sierra Nevada, 2015

Carrefour Européen du Patchwork, France
The Contact: Quilts of the Sierra Nevada, 2016

Bellevue Arts Museum, Bellevue, WA
The Contact: Quilts of the Sierra Nevada, 2017

Johnsville Historical Society, Johnsville, CA
Gold Fever, 2017

Northeastern Nevada Museum, Elko, NV
Dye, Cloth, Thread: The Sierra Nevada, 2018

The Lincoln Center, Fort Collins, CO

Sense of Place, 2019

Bellevue Arts Museum 2017

Current exhibition, http://annjohnston.net/2019/02/01/exhibition-at-nevada-museum-of-art/

Nevada Museum of Art, Reno, Nevada

The Contact: Quilts of the Sierra Nevada, February 16, 2019 – May 19,2019

Ann, you are a renowned teacher. I ask you a question that I often ask to the artists I interview: first the technique or the creativity? What do you think determines the perfect success of a work? When does creativity risk being suffocated by technique?

I think that the idea I have must determine what techniques I will use.That’s why it is important to improve and learn to have more choices. The more skills I have the more likely it is that I can communicate my ideas.

What do you think is the most important difference between a craftsman who work with threads and fabrics and a textile artist? When does a fiber work become art?

I think there is no difference–it’s all art– just different levels of quality and complexity.

What are you working on right now? Do you want to tell us about your current textile projects and current or future exhibitions?

I am working on a series of tiny quilts I am calling My Wild Garden while continue making more large pieces for The Contact for future exhibitions.

1 Comment on "Interview with Ann Johnston"

  1. Jim, the bag carrier | 27 March 2019 at 20:01 | Reply

    After all the preparation and work and after we saw the show in Texas, I put my arm around Ann’s shoulders and said great, you are finished with this project. She laughed and replied not quite. Sheesh, how little I know!

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