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Sixty on Sixty: Zachary Johnson

Zachary Johnson has been with Sixty Inches From Center and the Chicago Arts Archive since the earliest day. Aside from being a consistent and engaging contributor, Zachary is also an artist himself. He draws inspiration from religion, culture and the community around him. A very social man, he is always looking to talk to other artists, audiences and to find ways to make the viewer an element in his work.

Zachary has been involved with the Chicago Craft Scene for several years and wrote an art history thesis paper on the Arts & Crafts and DIY Craft movements. When we met in my office, I asked him about the Chicago Craft Scene.

Andrew Roddewig (AR): How did you become involved in the Chicago Craft scene?

Zachary Johnson (ZJ): Two years ago I went the Renegade Craft Fair for the first time, and it really excited me because I’d foreign exchanged in Japan. There design is a lot stronger and more exciting and cuter and prettier than in the US. Here you can’t find a pencil that looks cool, but in Japan you can find a million of them.

I had been missing that, and then I went to Renegade and it was like, bam! Everything looked awesome, and everyone was making things that were amazing. It kind of reminded me of the design that I missed.

So that got me interested in this whole scene that I knew nothing about, and I wrote half of my art history thesis on it. Then I decided I should start making things.

I like old things so I started collecting old vintage magazines and cutting them up. And now I’ve made a million envelopes and don’t have an Etsy shop. But that is supposed to happen at some point.

Zachary Johnson. Dadachary, 2010. (Photo courtesy of Zachary Johnson)

AR: When you first went to Renegade Craft Fair, what where you expecting?

ZJ: I just heard it was good and that I would like it. So I didn’t quite know how big it would be or what I would see. It’s been funny going a couple of times because now I spot the trends: Like “mustaches”—okay, “whales”—okay.”

The reason I like art and am in the art world is that I like creativity. That’s just my favorite thing in life. Being creative, seeing people being creative. And Renegade to me was just an explosion of creativity and good design.

AR: So, the craft world, does anyone actually refer to it as “the craft world?”

ZJ: I don’t know. I don’t think it’s big enough to be called a world. I’ve heard a lot of people refer to it as the craft scene. It’s interesting to me because the DIY craft movement, as a young movement, has loose things that bind it together. One of them seems to be that people are very non-competitive as far as I can tell, and very helpful and nice. And I learned that from my research for my paper, but it’s interesting to see that in practice.

It seems friendly and non-competitive. And the people I have interviewed have said the same thing

AR: Do you feel as though there is a heavy line between craft and art? Is someone either on one side or the other?

ZJ: I feel like it really mixes, but the difference I can see in what splits people either way is how they market and how they sell their work. I know an artist who went to the Art Institute and majored in fine art. But she concentrates on making more visual, less conceptual works, and selling them on Etsy and through stores like Renegade or Inkling. And because that’s where she focuses her sales, more than gallery shows, she falls more into the craft world. But she makes art.

So I feel like it’s kind of how they market. But it’s pretty blurry or porous. Unless it’s functional, then it’s craft.

AR: Is that how people define it, the difference between art and craft? If it’s functional then it’s craft?

ZJ: It’s a slippery slope, but I think that’s ok. I don’t get as serious as some art historians as to what art is. But one definition of art I heard once was ” an object that serves no other purpose than to be art.” So in that definition, if you could use art as a cup then it would be craft. But I don’t know about that, (laughs) as a good way to define art.

I finally sat down and came up with my own definition that really works for me. I thought about priorities, and I thought that you can split up the creative fields by priorities and constraints. So art is something that is made to be art or chosen to be art, like that urinal (laughs) — maybe the most important piece of art from the twentieth century. But it’s something made to be or chosen to be art where the number one priority is creative freedom. Then maybe craft, creative freedom is pretty high up there but then functionality becomes important as well.

For example with architecture, creative freedom is part of it, but you must also think about structural integrity. So I started thinking about creative disciplines defined by their priorities.

AR: So what is it that drew you initially to the craft movement, as opposed to what you are doing now which is more conceptual art?

ZJ: Yeah, I really like conceptual art. But I think I was drawn to craft because it just felt really accessible. I felt it was something non-artists could do. That people who didn’t think they could make anything could do. It was really something that was mobilizing people to be creative.

So, I liked how it had a really strong emphasis on being democratic and accessible. Sometimes the art world doesn’t seem like that for people.

Zachary Johnson. Sacred Space, 2011. Chalk. Mcnabb, IL. (Photo Courtesy of Zachary Johnson)


AR: Can you tell me about the chalk spaces project and how you use framing in your work?

ZJ: The chalk piece is called Sacred Spaces. I don’t usually title things but that is what it’s called. I was inspired by Quakerism, and I had never made a religious piece before, but I kind of wanted to. Eventually, I came up with the premise that Quakers don’t have churches, they just use rooms for their services. Like the [Quaker] meetinghouse I was living at in Hyde Park, we just had a living room. I like how arbitrary it was. And the rooms became sacred by how they were used. The Quakers use them in a sacred way so they became a sacred room, for the duration of the service.

So I was interested in taking that idea outdoors and seeing how people would react if they ran into something sacred and how they would use it. I wanted to see what would happen because I think that people don’t often think about religious themes outside of Sunday or possibly at all.

AR: How did you go about creating outdoor sacred spaces?

ZJ: I figured I could make straight lines with a yardstick and I got some colored chalk and made a square and then I made another color inside that border. I basically just used the shape of a sidewalk square. Though, sometimes they have been triangles. I had a book on guerilla art [that featured] making chalk stencils. So that’s where I got the idea to make the words [SACRED SPACE PLEASE USE] with an X-Acto knife and paper. Only after the project was done did I find out that spray chalk is a thing, and that would have been awesome. The Chinese characters were really hard because they are so delicate.

Zachary Johnson, Sacred Space (Little Saigon), 2010. Chalk. Chicago, IL. (Photo Courtesy of Zachary Johnson)

AR:What else are you working on?

ZJ: I am trying to start a collective.

AR: So why do you want to start a collective?

ZJ: I have been trying to figure out this one idea for awhile. I wanted to do something completely new and different in how I make art. And I thought I could see other people making art in the same vein and in an interesting way. So why not start a collective? Basically I’ve been really interested my whole life in art, but I’ve also been interested in culture just as much or maybe more. And I’m really interested in how to jam those two together. So I started reading a lot about folk art and folk life and folk studies. Because folk art, to me, is art and culture intertwined. But I just don’t really like how folk art looks most of the time. But I like the idea behind it. That it is something visual that creates cultural identity — which I think is super interesting.

But I don’t think folk art makes sense for everyone anymore; everything has changed since the 1800’s. Actually [the term] folk art is from the 1920’s. It’s not even a very old word. So I wanted to make a collective around the idea of a contemporary folk art, or a new spin on folk art. So, we’ll see.

AR: How do you plan to start a collective?

ZJ: The idea is that folk art used to pull on a shared visual style, which doesn’t work for most people anymore. So I kept thinking what if people made art that was based around something else that was shared? So the shared element is basically the constraint of the collective, which I’m calling Lolk, because it’s local and folk together.

The idea is that people would  make art that’s based in a specific community or location around something that a community shares. So for instance, the particle accelerator in my hometown is shutting down. I feel like it’s a big deal for us, because it was the biggest in the world till about three years ago.

So, I am working on a street art project for Batavia that would be about that closing down, but in a really lighthearted way. So right now I’m calling my friends from Batavia and asking them for input on things.

I’m also interested in artists who would fit into this already by accident. Candy Chang, for instance, did a project where she would go to different areas of Brooklyn with flyers, with pictures of Pac-man style ghosts on them, and a number you could text. And the signs would say “a ghost lives here”. So you would text them, and the signs would text you back the story behind the street name.

Zachary Johnson. Farewell Tevatron, 2011. Batavia High School, Batavia, IL. (Photo Courtesy of Zachary Johnson)

To me that would perfectly fit because it’s delving into the history of an area. So that is what I’m trying to build this collective around because I think it would be cool. Obviously I can make stuff about the towns that I have lived in, but what if someone from Georgia made a piece about a town they have lived in that I’ve never heard of? So I’m trying put this whole thing together.

Zachary Johnson also makes art under the name Zachary Trebellas. His work can be found here.

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