Devon McKnight in conversation with Ashley Johnson
It’s the beginning of summer in North Carolina. You can feel the heat creeping in, the cool breeze of spring on its way out. Everything is green. Green on top of green on top of green. Almost too much green.
I meet Ashley at a restaurant in downtown Winston-Salem. A city in the middle of the state known as "City of the Arts and Innovation" and also, perhaps, for Camel cigarettes. This is Ashley’s hometown. We are both sweaty from the heat of late afternoon that’s gotten trapped in the concrete of downtown. We talk like girlfriends. Mostly about men and work and our vivid dreams, and we laugh so loud and full. I am unbelievably at home and happy and I can’t help but think it is this land and its nature that drives its women to be so loud and in love, secretly building up enough sweat under their ass to fill a swimming pool, all while dining on pasta. There’s so much I want to ask her but forget to, sidetracked by us being us, together, finally.
I started speaking with Ashley earlier this month after coming across some of her photos via social media. I was floored by them. Dark yet bright, colorful yet largely black and white, mystical yet familiar.
I now realize we got Ashley Johnson right out the gate. She’s fresh and she’s in it right now. Her first bomb, Woven.
I really wish that the approach to Woven had a dynamic backstory. When asked about the series, I make sure I don’t generate intent where there was none. The truth is that Woven was simply practice. It was my first time trying to translate the images in my mind, and it all started with these magnolias growing near my job. They were the first blooms of the spring and they were dying. The idea of blooming dead really intrigued me.
Every day I would look at them and mentally commit to using them. I realized that by the time I figured out what I wanted to do with them, they’d be gone. So I asked models to sit for me and set a date--still with no idea what I was going to do. I figured if I just moved forward on it, the ideas would invent themselves. I noticed the bag of wool in the back of my car the day before the shoot and that’s where wrapping faces came from.
I didn’t plan any of the poses, I took pieces I had already made with the same materials and I improvised for each model. I also incorporated some large leafy greenery to some of the portraits.
A lot of people have called the portraits haunting. Someone compared them to Caravaggio paintings. Others, who know about the skin series I’m working on, talk about anger or oppressive aspects of the pieces because of the facelessness. Most of the photos I take and post are light and minimal. Woven was the darkest thing I’ve done from both an editing and conceptual perspective--even though I’m still not 100% on what the concept is. I learn more about what the series could mean as I observe and listen to other people’s experiences with the portraits.
I’ve started to write reflections as I’m conceptualizing and working so that when I’m asked these questions I know from where the work derives. The ideas don’t manifest until they’re out loud sometimes. And by then it’s too late to say “here’s why I wrapped their faces in wool.” I’m learning to be more intentional with the documentation of my ideas.
I lived alone for the first time in 2013. Imagine going from living in my tiny childhood home, 2 bedrooms, 1 bathroom, 7 people; and then for the next 7 years always having 2-4 roommates; then suddenly alone. It wasn’t the alone time, it was the quiet. It was the reason I got a cat and the reason I picked up a bunch of yarn-related hobbies; I chose the medium since it was so malleable and doing finite things with my hands was meditative. I would intentionally choose projects that took a while to complete.
One of the first things I made was an area rug made entirely of poms of different textures, sizes and neutral colors. I draped that over her shoulders for the photo, it’s actually a REALLY large piece that holds a few hundred poms. There was one other piece I made recently with long tails that I also used for the shoot. It was a wall hanging that I used as a collared torso piece. None of the pieces I made were intentioned for this project. I just used what I had.
Ashley openly shares the deepness of her dropbox files with me. I feel like I have fallen into another world as I scroll and scroll through the countless beautiful, flowered figures. Ashley has only begun. These are her firsts. And I am drowning.
Woven is not her only series. Presently she is forming a few more based on masks made of flowers: Magnolias, Tulips, Cherry Blossoms.
I’ve been working on a floral mask series that you’re welcome to see! I’m lately really into female bodies and the concept of the acceptable female form; I’m drawn to flaws. Flowers are attractive, and reproductive; Feminine. I placed flowers inside of masks so that women would not have to feel the need to be traditionally beautiful (makeup, hair and all that), and let the flowers do that work for them. But wearing a mask forces the models to access all the self consciousness they have about their bodies. There’s this juxtaposition between flowers, which, all people can agree are beautiful despite shape, size, creation, and bodies, where that level of universal acceptance doesn’t exist; the experience for the models is to truly feel their own form.
Some women are limited, by no real fault of their own, in their connection with the world and that comes through in their bodies. Pop culture uses the term “basic”, I’ll use the term nearsighted. Nearsightedness makes it incredibly difficult to challenge models to do things with their bodies or conceptualize poses that, for them, have never existed. In that, there’s a very real relationship between your body, your energy and my projects. They all have to be successful to make a successful image. The most provoking portraits in Woven are as such because all three of those elements blend seamlessly.
I’ve been shooting nudes a lot, and it’s really challenged my perception on the concept of photogenic bodies. I’m undoing years of construction myself--knowing that I have this vast appreciation for female forms of every kind--but also reconfiguring what I believe to be beautiful and what I’m told is beautiful. There’s also unignorable realities. The chief reality being that smaller bodies translate the shapes and angles I see much clearer. So I don’t prefer thin frames because they’re thin, but I will choose the body I like for the project it suits. Lately I’ve been using Kristi Sims a lot. She was the first portrait I posted on Woven and the first for the floral portrait series. I want to build a way to work around this. Because the bulk of art audiences are nearsighted. How do I develop my points without distracting them? This new work also makes me appreciate my own form in ways that hadn’t imagined. Its a free flowing love for my flaws that’s generated by the women I shoot and protected by me. And most importantly, this love did not need to be validated by a man.
As we talked I realized she was me, she was many of my friends. Young, creative people trying to make it work. Stumbling, hitting the walls of the system, slowly finding their way to themselves and to others through their own creative process.
I do not have a full picture of who I am, I just know I can’t afford to stop moving. Quick backstory: I’m pretty sure I spent 2011 sleeping. I hated college, home life would not stay home life, and I got so down that I just responded by sleeping. Somehow, one day, I just told myself that every day I will do something. It didn't matter what it was. If you go through a depression sometimes just making a sandwich is a job; I started making lists of things. Lists on lists on lists. Make this, fold that, print that one thing, join this project, say yes to social stuff, and cross them off one at a time. And that’s where the bulk of my drive came from. Not the work, but the willingness to just do the work. That wasn’t where I began my work, but it was a definite turning point that got me to the level of productivity I’m on today.
It took me 7 years to get out of UNCG. I started in theater and realized I didn’t like theater people during a class called Voice of the Actor. I was rolling around on the ground screaming and making wolf noises and said, “this isn’t acting..this is stupid.” I remained undecided for a while then picked up screenwriting--mostly because a friend I really admired had gone into the entertainment industry. As I rounded out that major, I had so many English courses that I picked it up as a second major and then in 2012 I finally graduated.
As far as my “art” that has surprised me just as much as it has surprised everyone else. I’ve always been interested in exploring more complex themes and making more challenging images as a means of documenting my interests. I’ve never much cared for photography, but I’m obsessed by the way people react when they remember a thing they’ve forgotten--especially if I’m responsible for documenting that memory. I take pictures, record things and archive experiences throughout my life for other people. How that transitions into my work, I’m unsure, but my art is rarely ever for me.
As far as studies, I’ve never had any formal training artistically, but I digest the work of others relentlessly then practice my own. This is the first time in my life where I’m confident sharing what I’ve become out loud. What people see from me now is just me opening a tiny, tiny window after years of saying nothing as a creative.
In addition to creating these series’ of portraits, Ashley formed Fort Lily. an outerwear resell brand imagined for and strengthened by everyday women.
I just started doing EVERYTHING I could find to do to keep me busy. If I stop moving, I get down; Fort Lily came about because I was tired of myself. I was wearing so many hats that I just exhausted myself. So I basically sat down and said “what are my favorite hats, and how do I wear them every day, and make them profitable?” (Because I don’t want to work for anyone else). So I found my hats: femininity, collecting things (thrifting), curation, photography, design and business and put them all into this one thing. There was a growing network of online shops who were thrifting just about anything for nothing, fluffing the price and selling out FAST. So I took that model, chose a niche (outerwear), and branded it, which was something a majority of the shops weren’t doing.
I have commitment issues, so since I’m dabbling in clothing, I wanted something seasonal that I would only need to dedicate a certain number of months to each year. Reluctantly, I threw away all the other hats and focused just on the business. The response has been really surprising. I’m going to keep going with it until either I get bored with it or it takes off. So far so good.
This is Ashley. This is the creative. For most artists today, making a living off the work is laughable, likened to winning the lottery. So if we’re lucky, we pick up full-time jobs, and if we’re luckier, it’s something we can stand behind. Creativity becomes integrated into every part of life, out of necessity. You see magnolia blossoms blooming dead on the way to work. You are inspired. You schedule a photo shoot for after work. I have begun to notice that this way of life has somehow, perhaps, made us more creative in a more interesting way. There is immediacy and truth and strength because there is no time for anything less.
Ashley works for a non-profit in charge of overseeing the delivery of publicly-funded mental health, intellectual/developmental disabilities and substance abuse services. She explains that she’s in the middle of a transition as the organization is merging. In fact, there was once 11 non-profits devoted to mental health assistance in North Carolina. They’ve been cut to 4. A common scene in the once Democratic state.
In conversation, Ashley will say that she is lucky, but I see it as smart and hungry. “I just used what I had” translates as “I will find a good use for literally anything”. Ashley projects confidence, adventure, hilarity, love..so much love, and an everyday unsure nervousness that gives her reason to pursue, to search out.
Every part of her life is useful. And because of her love of others, others are giving back to her. She collaborates or finds people offering her their skills and knowledge at every level. This is not luck, but the love and support that exists within community; a concept that seems to be dying but is so precious.
Ashley preaches it when describing Fort Lily, “We’re not just producing a product, but cultivating the idea that competition is divisive and collaboration is progressive.”
She is power. In a moment of failure, Ashley crawls out of a sadness and makes her life. Brick by brick. She finds the opportunities that don’t exist by making them. And with the help of a community that she seeks out, brings light to others and to her city, hoping to inspire those that feel as hungry as she.
Ashley is currently taking a break from social media to focus on her creative projects but you can link up and anticipate her return.