NewsNov 16, 2017

Artist brings work into 'Laser Focus'

Kiel Johnson brings collaboration, cardboard sculptures to the College of Art and Design

A sculpture of a laser cutter emits fire.
A robot drawing by Kiel Johnson that is on display in the "Laser Focus" exhibit.

From the medium to the finished product, Kiel Johnson’s artwork has an accessibility and ease that gives even the least artsy among us an immediate entry point to his point of view.

The Los Angeles-based artist, transforms inexpensive materials, such as cardboard, wood, ink and paper, into humorous, unexpected and elaborate sculptures and drawings, often of subjects as mundane as traffic and the weather.

“I’m really into art being accessible. Get some number twos and you’re an artist,” he said.

Compulsively creative, Johnson recently spent a week on campus in conjunction with the opening of his exhibit, “Laser Focus,” on display in the Lunder Art Center’s Roberts Gallery through Dec. 3. The visit was also an opportunity to collaborate with students on a stop-motion video.

For the project, Johnson tasked students with creating dozens of cardboard vehicles that will be used to film a traffic jam in the Raizes Gallery. Students from graphic design, animation, film and fine arts concentrations are working together on the project, which is still being developed.

A student works on a farm-themed truck with cows in the back.
A student works on a farm-themed truck for the collaborative project.

“I just wanted to see what would come out of it,” Johnson said. “I’m all about getting as many people involved.”

Keith MacLelland, associate professor and chair of the Illustration Department, was instrumental in bringing Johnson to campus. After hearing him speak several years ago, “I was blown away with what he was doing,” said MacLelland.

Board in California

Johnson began working in cardboard after graduating with an MFA from California State University Long Beach.

A piece from Kiel Johnson's Everything Series featuring different figures doing different yoga poses.
A piece from the Everything Series.

It didn’t hurt that he could create large-scale projects with the inexpensive, often recycled material. “Accessible materials enable ideas,” said Johnson, and it seems that he’s rarely short of either.

A timeline of the artist’s work shows a clear flow of concepts that define his style.

Several years ago, Johnson created a large-scale printing press for an exhibit, but the sculpture needed to print something. Stumped, Johnson began drawing what he saw until he had a visual inventory of everything he owned. People loved the idea and wanted more, so he drew the contents of his own closet and then his girlfriend’s wardrobe. He crowdsourced imagery of people’s favorite chairs, the trophies they won when they were kids and more. The result is his popular Everything Series, one print of which is featured in “Laser Focus.”

Just say yes

Johnson abides by the mantra that “a good idea only comes when you’re working on a bad idea,” and during his campus visit, he encouraged students to say yes to any project that comes their way.

That practice has served Johnson well. In the early aughts, a friend asked him to create a camera for her project. He didn’t want to do it, but agreed if her boyfriend, a filmmaker, would shoot the process of making the larger-than-life camera.

Kiel Johnson's Cardboard Twin Lens Reflex Camera Time Lapse from Theo Jemison on Vimeo.

That project birthed a collection of vintage camera sculptures, and the video led to commercial projects. He has since created sculptures for Uber, Disney XD, TedX, the History Channel, Toshiba and Bud Light.

“My work is just this evolution. One project feeds another project,” said Johnson, who continues to collaborate with the creatives who helped him with the initial film.

There’s no ‘I’ in artwork

For a self-proclaimed introvert, Johnson is all about collaboration. He has done projects with corporate groups, primary and secondary schools, and even astronauts. But art schools are always a highlight because they’re an opportunity to bring departments together and to encourage students to build a creative network.

Kiel Johnson works on a vehicle for the collaobrative project.
Kiel Johnson works on a vehicle for the collaborative project.

In creating the pieces for the traffic jam, students dropped in over the course of three days and interacted with Johnson as they crafted their vehicles — from a Scooby-Doo van (The Mystery Machine) to a Batmobile.

“I’m all about getting as many people involved as possible,” Johnson said. “Engaging with it, drawing it, making it and doing it fast. We’re making something cool.”

A Batmobile made by a student complete with Batman at the wheel.

He helped set up and shoot the beginning of the video, which MacLelland and students will complete in coming weeks.

Students are excited to see their work come fruition and enjoyed interacting with a nationally known artist, said Hannah Wendroff, a junior in the graphic design program.

“A lot of students want that feeling that they created work and that people are seeing something you did,” she said.