Under the Rug a conversation with Courtney Adair Johnson
By Nuveen Barwari
Nuveen Barwari: According to my “good friend” Merriam Webster the definition of ‘sweep (something) under the rug’, means to hide (something that is illegal, embarrassing, or wrong).
What are some parts of your practice that you try to sweep under the rug? Not because it is “illegal, embarrassing, or wrong” but because you just tend to sweep it away … for example, sometimes text finds a way in my practice, and sometimes I try to keep it away… I intentionally keep the use of text out of my work (sometimes). Why? I don’t know, I find that by keeping that out of the work, it forces me to create my own language u know. Wbu?
Courtney A. Johnson: I hide words too. I write very personally and very emotive at times. Inner thoughts, word vomit and hiding them or restricting what I give the viewer is intriguing to me. I remember doing it in paintings, now I work in reuse and play on paper, with books, and with mundane everyday items like packaging or clothing.
My current work evolved from writing whatever I was going thru or wanted to process, mostly in love, on long strips of paper, salvaged from printers/print shops. Then fold and tear them down, rearrange the wording to tell the story I wanted and even cutting out words and rearrange/add elements.
I use words to talk on topics of love/lust and trash/resource awareness. Lately they have been single words, using both context. Words cut into styrofoam like Take, Cheap, Junk, Fast or fabric bra inserts with words sewn in them; Want, Fake, Love, Fake, Magic, Stuff. Sayings that can be perceived different ways; I didn’t need anything new, cut in to a styrofoam meat tray. Get Past is spelled out in styrofoam letters on an incense box.
NB: Can you give me an introduction about yourself and your work? What’s your favorite snack?
CJ: Hi! I am Courtney Adair Johnson. I call myself a reuse artist. I am interested in trash and what goes through our hands on a daily bases. How we can slow it down, make art from it, make/consume less. My art practice utilizes bookmaking, assemblage, conversations and information.
I also run the gallery at Tennessee State University in the Art and Design Department. I am co builder of M-SPAR, McGruder Social Practice Artist Residency in the neighborhood with artist Marlos E’van.
Ha, favorite snack. I travel with an apple a lot. That sounds boring. I would eat any snack.
NB: You call yourself a “reuse” artist but in conversations you have mentioned how curators and other creative professionals in the visual arts don’t like the term “trash” when referencing work that involves reusing and recycling discarded materials … Trash. Why do you think this is and do you think it is important to call it what it is and why some people feel so uncomfortable referring to materials as “trash”.
CJ: I think that comes from trying to present art as fine art, for the elite. Trash has lots of negative connotations. I want to throw it into our face. Where does your trash go? What are you consuming? How can you consume less? What are you buying new? What can you not buy new?
I think it is important for artist to look at how we are helping/changing/moving society instead of participating (in status quo) and being something pleasing to look at. I’m all about some visual esthetic but artist are problem solvers/creative movement. I would love every artists (and human) to consider reuse and creating more conscious ways of existing/participating and be willing to talk about it.
NB: You are one of those artists that I know who wears many hats… You are the gallery director at TSU, you co-founded McGruder social practice artist residency and are a practicing artist… You are actively building community around you whether that is through collaborating with students at TSU or finding opportunities for others that you find will best fit. How do all these different aspects feed into your art practice? Sometimes the public will portray artists as typically riding solo/ in isolation… How important is collaboration when it comes to art making, materials, and your everyday life?
CJ: Being a continual learner is important to me and my practice. I found reuse when I was working at an art supply store. I was around artist and talking about art constantly. The synergy artists (anyone really) can create together is pure magic. I went freelance from there and knew pretty quickly into my art practice I needed community. I landed at McGruder and started learning more about collaborations and community building. I love sharing information and building organic partnerships, so the university is a good fit for my practice. I get to share what resource (materials, opportunities and professional contacts) I have with students and community. I think it is fun (and important) to learn and work with other artists.
NB: There is a lot of text in your work… do you have a writing practice? Where do your words come from? They are often very poetic or look like they are bits and pieces from poems.
CJ: Ha, I would like to have a writing practice. I do write, and a lot of different ways. I collect words, I write to process information/emotions, I keep a daily astrologically journal that I write in. A lot of time I am just free writing thoughts or words that come to me, consulting or referencing my workbooks some. I do think of them as raw poetry. I have really enjoyed reading them out loud, has a full circle or complete feeling to it. Not in public yet. I have only recorded the readings and shared with friends, there are two recordings on my website.
I use words to set the pace in my books, and move you along the pages. I love having a bold cover word like; Universe, Space, Life, You Suck.
NB: what have you been thinking about lately? What have you been reading?
CJ: A lot on the topic of love. How we can love more, better, fuller.
Reading Healing Love through the Tao and Tantra Yoga of Ecstasy. So juicy love books!
NB: If I was in your studio right now, what would I see? Be honest. Works in progress? Tell me about what you are working on currently.
CJ: It is pretty clean right now but a large double stacked flat file with papers all over it. Stacks of stuff in process; paper piles, plastic, glue, incense packaging, some random strings. I work on lots of little things at once. I make a mess and then try and clean it up. Behind the “work table” are shelves with trash waiting to be transformed. More plastic (mostly bags), styrofoam, tissue paper, packaging material, old clothes, and whatever else has been collected. A box of small books in process. I have a pile of air pillow packaging waiting to be made into letters. I want to spell words with them.
NB: You have a show up at Femme Gallery August 20 – September 3rd “The show is titled If I Loved” what was the thought process/inspiration of the title of the show. Tell me about the gallery space, how does your work respond and interact with the space?
CJ: I have been making a book series called love/lust story book series as a way to process relationships and love for a minute now. These books service as intimate ways to see or move through thoughts. I pick up old unfinished ones and start new ones all the time. Playing in the stories. The books are made up of words, drawings, collage and cut outs/overlays in small multi page bindings. The words or thoughts might spill out into whatever is laying on the studio table. Styrofoam, bra inserts, socks and I write or sew, sometimes cut it into the material.
I have a piece in If I Loved that is black material and leggings wrapped and sewn around a board. You see the words Love Me boldly but between them very small on paper is the word, made. I liked how you could interrupt it and vulnerable it was but really a declaration of my self love. I sewed If I Loved into a random black sock, I wanted to add ‘you’ but there was not enough room but also it makes it open ended.
When I first was approached by Brooke Hialeyh at Femme Gallery I started looking at what I was making, thinking about in the studio. The parallels of love and earth, how we know both are constant but how do we best honor it. We can all be better lovers. To ourselves, strangers, the environment. Love is universal, we all understand or want to understand it better. Also universe (old) underwear that no one wants, broken sunglasses, relationships that didn’t work out, and sushi containers.
Courtney Adair Johnson BIO:
Courtney Adair Johnson is an artist and curator based in Nashville, TN. Her art practice works to create sustainable community through reuse awareness. She is interested in creating new ideas with art to generate awareness of our waste and consumption habits. Courtney has led reuse projects with Frist Center for the Visual Arts, Tennessee Craft, and Springboard for the Arts (Fergus Falls). She is presently Gallery Director of Tennessee State University Art Department and Co-Builder of McGruder Social Practice Artist Residency (M-SPAR).
Nuveen Barwari Bio:
Nuveen Barwari was born in Nashville, TN and spent her adolescent years living and attending school in Duhok, Kurdistan. Barwari received a Bachelor of Science in Studio Art from Tennessee State University in 2019 and a Master’s in Fine Arts from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville in 2022. Barwari’s expansive practice includes installations; writing; performances; collecting and repurposing artifacts from her community such as photos, rugs, fabrics, and Kurdish dresses; and an online shop that supplies apparel and art internationally. Barwari has worked with and completed projects with the Frist Art Museum, Oasis Center’s Art and Activism Series, Coop Gallery, and McGruder Social Practice Artist Residency. She has exhibited in numerous locations such as Kurdistan’s first Fashion Week (2018) in Erbil, Kurdistan region of Iraq, the University of Michigan (2019), Sugar Gallery (2019) in Fayetteville, Arkansas, Zg Gallery (2020) in Chicago, 21c Museum Hotel (2021) in Nashville, Tennessee, NGBK Gallery in Berlin Germany (2021) and Duhok Gallery (2021) in Duhok, Kurdistan. Barwari is represented by The Red Arrow Gallery in Nashville, TN.