Artists on Coping: Merritt Johnson

During the Coronavirus pandemic, Art Spiel is reaching out to artists to learn how they are coping.

Merritt Johnson was born in West Baltimore and spent her childhood navigating between trees, tarps and concrete. She earned her BFA from Carnegie Mellon University and her MFA from Massachusetts College of Art. Her work navigates the spaces between bodies and the body politic, land and cultures by making images and objects that connect, reflect and refract vision and experience. The multiplicity of materials and processes Johnson employs embody her multiplicity, exploring layering, allegiance and agency in the face of continued threats to land, water and bodies. Johnson’s works are containers for story, feeling and thought: images of what cannot be seen, exercises for existence, and political bodies. She lives and works with her family on Tlingit land in Sitka Alaska.

AS: How are you coping?

Mindset (sweetgrass), 2019, archival digital print, 29” x 24”, Edition of 10

MJ: I’m very grateful to have a very supportive partner and since we’re both artists we’re able to keep working pretty much as we usually do under the current circumstances. We aren’t traveling as much as we normally would so we’re getting to spend more time together as a family. We get outside into the forest or out on the water, and I’m grateful we’re able to do that here. I try to get some exercise each day even if it’s only 30 minutes, that and keeping work going in the studio are really important for me to feelbalanced.

Border Wampum. 2019bolt cutters, glass wampum, deer skin and synthetic sinew30 x 8 x 1.5 in.

AS: Have you had a show or other creative opportunities canceled?

MJ: Fortunately so far my commissions and exhibitions aren’t cancelled, but all my upcoming exhibitions have been postponed. I was supposed to perform at Anchorage Museum and that isn’t happening but may be rescheduled in the future.

AS: Has your routine changed?

MJ: My routine hasn’t really changed. We live in a very small island community that hasn’t had any confirmed cases of Covid19. The community is following safety protocols so we are having our groceries delivered as much as we can, and if we need to go to the store for supplies or materials we wear masks and gloves, and we aren’t really seeing people except at a distance. Deadlines have shifted, lots of things are on hold or pushed back, but otherwise my partner and I work in our studio and that hasn’t changed.

Portrait of a colonizer, declaration and constitution after weaponized feathers, 2019, paper, ink and turkey feathers

AS: Can you describe some of your feelings about all this?

MJ: I feel like consequences of how Covid19 has spread, the response and lack of response from government and corporations (because the US is a corporate state) is magnifying so many existing inequalities; in terms of access to food, clean water, healthcare, shelter, and community responsibility. Navajo Nation has been impacted disproportionately as have people of color, and recent immigrant communities, because the US is built on systemically disadvantaging these communities in order to benefit from their labor and continued genocidal policies in an attempt to erase Indigenous rights and sovereignty. The Seattle Indian Health Board requested Covid19 tests from the government and was sent body bags. So I feel like these realities need to be engaged with, these issues of what and who is deemed essential, it’s an opportunity to really address the Americas abusive and violent treatment of Indigenous people, people of color, and anyone at the bottom of this capitalist system; which is an economically precarious and very hard place to be, and also the foundation of what all this wealth and capital is built on. It’s an opportunity to really engage with the intersection of racism and sexism with political manipulation to prevent coalition building between economically disadvantaged communities. Because right now many of the people being deemed essential workers are among the lowest paid, with minimal or no benefits, and the importance of the work they do is being thrown into sharp relief against the compensation for that work.

I feel like it’s also an opportunity to really look at gender gaps in labor both paid and unpaid, and at the extent to which expectations for our behavior are prescribed based on gender. We know women are paid less than men for the same work, we know that women do a larger share of unpaid labor, and we know that for the most part this isn’t changing despite the shift to working from home for so many parents. I feel like it’s an opportunity to look at how a binary and prescriptive conception of gender is damaging to everyone all the time, how it’s a tool for oppression and control, and to start working to change that. Also it’s an opportunity to acknowledge and make space for the importance of children and families in building our communities. People can’t separate their work and home lives to the extent that has been previously expected and I think that’s a good thing.

When genetically modified corm migrated to the sky for help, and sky world sent good seeds to the land 2019, alkyd and oil on panel, 20”x24”

AS: What matters most right now?

MJ: The things that really mattered most before Covid19 still really matter most now: land and water, everyone that depends on them, and that people who have lost connection to (and respect for) land and water and other relatives work to reconnect and live in respectful ways.

New work in progress

AS: Any thoughts about the road ahead?

MJ: We’ve always been connected, everyone and everything here, all of us are interdependent. It’s taken centuries for some cultures to invent and enforce human-centric and white supremacist narratives that have been used to subjugate land, water, people and non-human relatives, so it’s going to take more than Covid19 to correct the thinking and the behaviors those narratives have taught. So when I think about possibilities I think maybe we can shift conversations about “charitable giving” to focus on why so few have been able to accumulate so much, and at whose expense, and to start moving toward a culture of rematriation, reparations, returning land, and to stop pretending that things taken and owed are not a gift but a responsibility. I think about the fact that no one’s success is dependent on anyone else’s failure, not really, and how the concept that it does is deeply violent and flawed. As long as any of us are not well cared for the need created by that lack will touch those who are comfortable; in the form of violence or other suffering. So we need to really embrace our connection, viruses don’t respect our imagined separations, so this virus is teaching something about our connection and our interdependence.

Simulation, 2018, beads and plastic bag

Melissa Stern is an artist and journalist living in NYC. She has written for Hyperallergic, The New York Press, CityArts and The Weeklings. Her work has been shown all over the US and can be seen here at here websites- and