An Interview with Carmen Cartiness Johnson

Your work is so exuberant and joyful, full of life and movement. You say your work is inspired by songs, poems, novels, and proverbs. Can you share which in particular have inspired you?

Probably songs, it usually is not the titles of the songs or books but takes an idea from the contents. “Cup of ambition” is from the Dolly Parton song 9 to 5, “Tumble out of bed and stumble to the kitchen pour myself a cup of ambition.” “You’ve got me waiting,” is from Sitting in the Park, a Billy Stewart song from the sixties, with a remake in the eighties, I think. “I can see China,” is from the Diane Reeves song Nine about her childhood memories. A phrase in the song, “Anna brought a bag of her mama’s cooking spoons, so we can dig a hole and try to reach China, and get there by early noon.”

I love the different angles and points of view in your art. Sometimes we see a busy scene as though we’re floating above it, sometimes as though we’re just looking in from the next room. How do you think about perspective and point-of-view in your art?

I don’t know if I really think about my perspective. I am concerned about getting the idea on canvas. So I just go with the flow. Point of view: I understand the technical need of a point of view when it comes to describing work. I cannot say that I intentionally seek to paint with a specific point of view.

People have asked me about the “floating above thing” as if it were intentional. It is not.

The human figure is so generously and joyfully examined in your work. Especially in images like I Am. Your art seems to transcend ideas about body image to  express what it means to be human and alive. But the act of painting the human form is always going to raise questions of body image, representation, etc. Is this something that you think about?

I do think about what colors that maybe associated with large-bodied figures and what that figure is doing in the work or what behavior the color and shape may be associated with. Also what fashions will say about the figure.

Women pay a great price for aging. I Am is about acceptance of so-called flaws, age, weight, body changes, hair, no hair. I attempted to show in the image that she believes every part of herself to be glorious.

I Am

After a year and a half of isolation due to Covid, your paintings that depict gatherings are such a pleasure to see. It’s so joyful to see people enjoying each others’ company. How was the quarantine for you? Did you find yourself able to create and share your work?

The first few months were hard even though I was rather prepared as far as not having to go out and purchase anything. I was extremely concerned I would contract the bug and die. I was worried about my 95-year-old mother in Kansas City, Missouri. My son is in Atlanta and my daughter was in Los Angeles and moving to Portland. The political climate. Climate change. Pollution, Allergies. When I worry I tend to sleep a lot and watch reruns of horror movies. So I don’t think I painted very much.

I wrote a little bit and tried to clean up existing writings. I created a nineteen-second stop motion movie called Get Out!! about a bug having lunch and a rodent resembling the then-president getting swatted. I was rather proud of that because I didn’t really know what I was doing and was just trying to keep busy.

I put finished work on my website and shared it to Facebook, Instagram and the like.

In January I got a commission out of the blue from San Antonio Arts/Culture for a Future: Women’s Exhibit. So that kept me busy for about five minutes. I worked on unfinished projects. My days didn’t really change, other than concern about the pandemic, because I work from home. I just became more aware of fomites, and washed my hands constantly

I Used To Be Someone

An abused woman, the background shows some reasons why women become homeless. The figure’s jacket contains pictures of homeless people. The backpack lists types of people who can become homeless. The figure is sitting on a surface that is a list of organizations established to aid those in need.

I find myself examining your images as if reading a story. Do you think about narrative in the creation of characters and their interactions? Your figures are so full of life and personality—are they based on people you know?

Yes, I do think about the story, sometimes figures are based on people I know. But mostly on my own judgements of people I see who I don’t know. Usually I make up stories about the interactions.

In continuing with the idea of storytelling, I love the images of people reading—to themselves or to children. It seems like one of several themes that run throughout your art. Do you think of your work in terms of recurring themes or motifs?

No, not really. When I start a work I don’t have expressed intentions of including a central theme or motifs. Those things are after-thoughts.

What visual artists have you been influenced by?

I like Diego Rivera and Romare Bearden, both storytellers. I also still have the first book of art I purchased in the eighties on Japanese Eroticism. I still sometimes use it for inspiration. Ninety-six pages with nice and simple illustrations.

Your art is so lively I almost feel that I can hear it. Do you listen to music while you work? If so, what do you listen to?

Yes. I am pretty picky when it comes to music. I only listen to songs I like, instead of playing the whole CD of an artist, I take only what I want and add it to my playlist. I buy single older tunes online. I am eclectic with what I liste to. I like what I like and I am pretty much across the board. Lots of music from the sixties and seventies. I am a fan of EWF, Emotions, Van Morrison, Z Breaux, Maze, Incognito, Temptations, Carly Simon, Diana REeves, also some jazz, country, a little rock, a bit of classical. Show tunes and intro scores of old movies and television like the new West World. Most of my listening is pretty dated. I tend to gravitate to music I can actually hear the instrumentation and there is not a lot of noise. Telling my age here! I try to keep up. My son keeps me in the loop with new stuff.

There’s a feminist saying that “the personal is political” and I think that applies to your paintings in many ways, in terms of examining the working of human lives, of our inner world of emotion and imagination, and our outer world of social interaction and family. Some of your works on paper are even more overtly (and brilliantly) political. How do you think about the role of politics in art?

I felt uneasy over this question because, in my mind there is a difference between “politics in art” and “art in politics.”

Politics in art, to me, says there could be levels of possible restrictions, societal limitations, who can do or say what, about whom. There could be repercussions to speaking up in the arts. Politics in art effects how history is taught, images are portrayed. Music, theater, literature, comedians, spoken word. Who are the people to decide what is acceptable in the arts? These are my concerns, especially these days in an overly-sensitive cancel culture.

Art in politics. How can it be left out? Art is everywhere. Freedom of speech. Complaints. Knowledge. Humor. Beauty. Offensive. Provides information allowing for free exchange of ideas. To be heard, to be able to express one’s self without fear. Art allows for differences of opinion, ideally without retaliations.

Artists who want to speak up on issues should, and artists who choose not to add obvious political opinions to their work should not be criticized for that.

I love the images that show layers of human space—inside a house, a hallway, a porch, a window. People looking from one space to another. Your work has such a wonderful balance of warmth and coolness, not just visually, but emotionally as well. Do you think about varieties of balance in your work? Visual, emotional, or otherwise?

When I started painting I worried about a lot of things within a piece. Especially how to place elements that are “supposed” to be in a work, like balance, texture, line, etc to make the work good. Not anymore!

When I start a piece, I think about the subject, placement, shapes, color and filling the whole canvas. Yes I do think about the relationships of the figures when I paint. Occasionally I paint main figure and build up the structure around that. I am concerned about the appeal of the work, that seems to be later in the process. Asking myslef what the work needs to be better.

Carmen Cartiness Johnson creates narrative figurative work using bright and bold colors that tell stories of everyday people, largely women facing ordinary life’s challenges and joys. Her artistic influences include Diego Rivera, his use of color, political content and composition, the simplicity of Jacob Lawrence’s shapes, and the complexity of Romare Bearden’s collages. Her work is in collections around the country, including the Charles A. Wright African American History Museum in Detroit, The Philadelphia Museum of Art, and the Library of Congress. See more of her work here.

1 reply »

  1. Absolute wonderful person I had the honor to know Blessed with a true original painting by Carmen called Bath day”. I can’t say enough of how proud I am for her. The journey has been remarkable Thank you for the opportunity to know you and your family. Sincerely Brenda Scott Phillips. Louisville KY

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