Studio Visit with Mark Johnsen
I went and visited our current gallery artist, Mark Johnsen, in his Bayview neighborhood studio in San Francisco called Yosemite Place. This is the third time I’ve seen Mark in person and every time I talk to him, I learn something new about art or printmaking. Aside from making great art and caring about art, he is also such a laid back, down to earth person. My favorite kind.
Giselle Gyalzen: How long have you been making art, and how did you decide that creating art is what you wanted to pursue?
Mark Johnsen: I’ve been making art for about 10 years now. I was studying creative writing and history and just making photographs, shooting in 35mm in between classes. I realized that I couldn't wait to get out of class to take photos. I was also working at a software company at that time. I was photographing people’s desks when they were not there. It’s a weird office culture. I didn’t really think of it as art back then. I would show those photographs to my friends, wondering if they would believe me. I would show them a photo of the desk of this guy who made a foil ball, collecting foil from every sandwich that he ate for 10 years. It was a huge ball, just sitting in his office.
So I started photographing things like that. I had a friend who worked in a photo lab and I would send him the film and he would process it for free. After a couple years, he said that my photographs are pretty good, and encouraged me to go to school for photography. I didn’t think you could go to school for photography. I didn’t have any traditional art background at all, no one in my family really makes art. I got hooked on photography, and I went to school for it. The types of photography I liked were polaroids - small unique, one of a kind relics. Like little gems that were there with you.
GG: You’ve always been a one-of-a-kind kind of guy.
MJ: I have, I have.
I did some documentary work as well. Everyone at school was pushing documentary type of photography and I wasn’t making that. In my last semester at school 5 years ago I found out about monotype.
GG: You make monotype prints, a process that is rarely used today. What is it about that process that you enjoy?
MJ: What I enjoy most about the process is starting from something abstract - rolling out a big slab of ink and working reductively to shape an image, which I think of as memory. We store so much in our brains in order to recall something, we have to wipe away the excess information to get a clearer picture so that the process really caters perfectly to monotype. These are scenes that I remember from my childhood but there’s no way to perfectly emulate nature. Nature is perfect on its own and I don’t think I have a photographic memory but the more I make these prints, the more they get more photographic which is interesting.
GG: What do you mean?
MJ: It’s farther from the event that actually happened, this happened so long ago. I went to this place, I was overwhelmed by the power of nature, I try to remember it but I can’t, I get old and I can’t remember it. I’m constantly painting scenes and by practice and through repetition, scenes are becoming more and more photorealistic. So it’s kind of a nice closure for me.
GG: Most of your work is based in nature - from rocks to mountains. Why do you feel drawn to these elements?
MJ: I used to collect rocks as a kid. I would dig in my backyard all the time. I love the idea of finding natural things that are worth something. My parents thought I was crazy so they took me to a rock shop and I freaked out the first time I saw all these gems. A bunch of them came back home, I buried them at home and invited all the neighborhood kids over to watch me uncover these gems. It was pretty awesome cuz I knew where I buried everything and everyone else was just digging at granite, while I was pulling out a perfectly tumbled piece of rose quartz.
I love that idea of concealing information and trying to find natural beauty in the earth. I used to try to sell the rocks, that was not very fruitful and nobody bought them, so that’s what I’m trying to do now.
I just love collecting, I’ve always been a collector of things. And I love the earth, I think it’s really precious and I’m trying to create my own little world that I can manage cuz the world is chaotic. So if I can make something that’s personally meaningful and personally beautiful to me, I can hope that it has the same effect as a stranger looking at the scene. Everyone has their own interpretations of nature, this is my little world.
GG: Also just collecting rocks from when you were a little kid. It seems like you’ve always been drawn to that.
MJ: Yeah definitely. I didn’t know until I sat down and made my first monotype. I didn’t know how to paint. The first couple of prints I made, I absolutely hated but I like the way that the solvents interacted with the inks and the way that they look like minerals, that got me excited instantly. I’m a big geek about geology and the printmaking process so I use Stonehenge paper, I use mineral spirits, I print on limestone. I try to incorporate those elements as much as I can. The process is dying, not that many people are making monotypes, not that many people are making them with a lot of care. People don’t really take the time to clean around the edges and make them look like photographs. So I’m trying to preserve that and I’m trying to preserve my own experience of nature. It’s all so fleeting and I care about the environment.
GG: You mentioned to me in a past conversation that you are taking a break from printmaking, why is that?
MJ: I’ve been doing this process for about 6 years now and I’ve really enjoyed it, however, there are elements of it that are toxic. I use oil paints and mineral spirits and solvents and I’m starting to feel those effects a little bit. There are a bunch of green technologies being incorporated into printmaking now like soy-based solvents. So, I want to take a pause for a little while and then come back and go towards those green products.
Also, I’m going to graduate school, I’ll be teaching printmaking but I’ll have a chance to do anything I want. Sculpture, I could go back into photography, it’s pretty open.
GG: You originally received your BFA in photography from CCA. Is photography something you still practice? Do you wish you studied printmaking?
MJ: Yeah, I think about photography all the time when I’m creating my work. I try to make my work look as photographic as possible I’m using monochromatic techniques I’m making one of a kind paintings. There is a lot of crossover between photography and printmaking, and processes where you can combine the two - photo etching, screen printing. I’m hoping to get back into that. Sometimes I’ll take a bad photo and a terrible print and I’ll combine those two - I’ll run a print on top of the polaroid and the print. Kind of salvaging something and making something beautiful out of my mistakes. I make a lot of mistakes, that’s what the whole process is but it’s forgiving because if you make a mark you don’t like, you can just wipe it away and start again. It’s a living painting until you decide to freeze it forever by running it through the press.
GG; The pieces you have for the show will never be run through the press.
GG: Are there other mediums or processes that you would like to explore in the future?
MJ: I want to get into sculpture, I want to get back to photography. One of my studio mates is a ceramicist and I’m always ogling over that idea. People actually combine the monotype process with ceramics so you can make a monotype and print it on the ceramic. There’s a lot of crossover with other mediums so I’m excited about that.
GG: I know you’re moving to Canada to pursue your MFA soon. What media do you want to work with, and what do you hope to learn over the course of your education?
MJ: I want to gain more teaching experience. I’ve gotten to teach a lot of workshops and guest classes in the last 5 years which has been great. I got to travel to places and I got to work with kids which has been great but not having my MFA is preventing me from putting together a whole class and writing my own syllabus. The good thing about the school I’m going to, it’s a public school so the first day I’ll be teaching my own class. So I’ll be gaining lots of teaching experience, by the time school’s done I’ll have 4 classes under my belt. I’ve always wanted to teach. Maybe not so much immediately but I wanted to get my degree while I’m still young and have the attention span but I want to live a full life and want something to teach when I’m old.
GG: Teaching is so great because you’re passing down the art and what you know.
MJ: Oh yeah. I’ve been so lucky to have the instructors that I’ve had. A lot of them have recently retired, people who have taught over 50 years. It’s not just about their knowledge of the medium, it’s their own personal histories that they bring into it. JUst having that institutional knowledge is wonderful, I want to keep these dying traditions alive.
GG: I’m so immersed in this world, so to me, it doesn’t feel like it’s dying, since I meet people like you all the time. But thinking about it, when you step back there are not a lot of people making prints.
MJ: It’s tough, just explaining to my family and friends who didn’t make art growing up and explaining to them what I’m doing, they’re all baffled. “Why don’t you just scan it and print 50 digitally?”
GG: Tell us about your studio space?
MJ: We’re in a place called the Yosemite Bldg. I share this particular studio with 4 other artists. In this building, there are few other studios. There is a lot of fabrication happening here, there’s a lot of furniture, woodworkers, and metal workers. There are also painters and photographers, I think I’m one of the only printmakers in the building. One of my instructors had a screenprinting shop here for 20 years. He had a live/work studio here, which I didn’t know about until after I moved in.
Having a studio called Yosemite is just amazing. I do try to incorporate that in my art as much as I can. In my website I have a little section where people can mail me a self-addressed stamped envelope and I send them a print and it’s time-stamped with Yosemite Place, I just ask that they take a photograph when they get it.
I like to send out postcards a lot. Before I was in this building, I was making all my prints in Oakland at CCA. I would make a postcard sized print and every day, I would put it in the mailbox and send it to myself in San Francisco, just to see. I like having the time stamp. A lot of them didn’t make it which is crazy. I always like to think that maybe somebody liked it and just kept it for themselves.
GG: So you have a small press here, but you also make big work. Where do you print those?
MJ: The larger work, I print at CCA where I work. It’s a valuable resource. I can print 11 x 14s here but I have full sheet monotypes that are 22 x 30 and I use this old Charles Brand Press that was donated to the college through the Hamaguchi Award which they established 25 years ago. So it’s 25 years old and its old, crickety, it’s got that big wheel. It’s a lot of fun, it’s like a full workout.
GG: Besides going to school for your MFA, what else are you up to? Is there anything you want to share?
MJ: I just finished designing a series of skateboards. I love skateboarding. It’s through this skateboard company called Atlas, it’s a shop down in San Mateo, CA and twice a year they make guest boards with artists so I’m coming out with a series of 3 boards around September. I’m excited cuz it combines 2 of my most favorite things - art and skateboarding.