How To Be An Artist: Meet Ashley Johnson

Current City & Hometown: Buffalo, NY

“I think sharing a studio is more intimate than living with someone. The energy that’s there for people to create is intense, and you have to feel really comfortable with the people you surround yourself with so you can get into vulnerable places and produce your best work.”

I absolutely love your amazing work and everything that you do! Tell me about your life as an artist, and what motivated you to start.

So, I’m not the type of artist who has been painting all their life. I’ve always been a creative person, and expressed that so many different ways from dancing, to gymnastics, to sports, to writing, to computer coding, and eventually to art. As a kid, I wrote poetry and doodled. I started college at UB as a computer science major and pulled a 180 when my dad died. I took a semester off, then transferred to ECC to get a portfolio together so I could apply to Daemen. Even as an art major, I never saw myself doing this full time. I thought I’d have a full or part time job and would make art on the side, and if people were into it, I’d sell some. The thought of laying out my soul on paper was and still is a little terrifying, but now I can’t see it any other way. I set my own (crazy AF) schedule and deadlines, my own goals, and I get to bring my son along for the ride. He loves being in the studio and is a huge part of the creative process. We’re in the middle of finding a good balance between working out of Exchange Studios and working from home. Artist life is a mix of craziness, spontaneity, meticulous planning, paint everywhere, can’t find my f*ucking pencil, omg people like my work, I can’t believe I’m living the life I want kind of feeling. It’s amazing.

I read on one of your Instagram posts that it can be challenging to balance being a single mom and a full time artist. What challenges have you faced as you work hard to meet your needs and the needs of your son? What advice would you give to single moms who are also trying to pursue their passion?

It’s a HUGE challenge. I don’t have the same resources most single moms have in terms of family support. I don’t have my parents I can ask for help or advice, which makes it that much harder to figure things out. My son is with me 24/7, and his needs always come first. I realize how lucky I am to be able to spend this time with him and bring him with me to work, but it’s also a constant distraction. I’ve learned what my general creative flow is like, and make pieces based off of that. I have a really good understanding of the actual process and how long it takes to do something, which helps me move back and forth from painting to taking care of Chasyn. There have been plenty of times I’ve been breastfeeding with him on my lap while I’m sketching something or painting. It’s getting harder as he’s growing older, because he’s coming into his own personality. He’s determined and if he’s feeling independent I have more time to get into my work, but I have to keep an eye on him because he’s usually trying to explore the studio. And if he really wants to be with me I can usually get him to “help” with my paintings (he actually took crayon to one once and I had a hell of a time trying to get rid of it), or we have a little snuggle session at the studio. When I’m at home working from my computer Chasyn will come sit on my lap or the keyboard and I’ll have to come back to whatever I’m doing. If I really need to sketch a design or give something my undivided attention I just do it when he’s sleeping. Early in the morning, late at night, or at 3am when I can’t sleep. Our life is super unconventional, but we do what works for us. And that would be my advice for other single moms following their aspirations. F*ck what other people think about your parenting style, you do what you feel is best for you and your little one(s). If you’re able to bring them along with you, do it. Give them and extra notebook or toy version of what you use so they feel like they’re a part of it and can pretend to be your assistant. Just make sure they know they’re more important than a phone or computer screen.  

Today’s age is all about ‘The Digital Age.’ With a powerful advertising platform such as Instagram, small businesses and brands can reach a wider audience. In what ways do you think Instagram helps you build your brand? 

IG is my only real web presence and has been a driving force in helping me establish my brand. It’s a visual representation of only a fraction of my life, but it gives people a look into how much and how hard I work, and helps me connect to a really awesome community of creatives. It’s a safe place for an artist to gain a following, feel inspired, and even make friends. I treat IG as my professional web presence but make sure my personality comes through. The stories are a lot more personal. I totally get roped into sharing what I cooked for dinner, or a new book I’m reading, or baby snuggles, or my outfit, but I do my best to keep my feed curated and geared towards working in the studio and my work. The only downfall is there’s no way anyone can get a true feel for what I do. I don’t post the twenty-some 5 foot paintings I make because it’s hard to see the actual scale, and there’s no way to see all the iridescent details in my work. It sparks enough interest for studio visits and commissions, so I guess I’m doing something right.

Besides Instagram, what other social media platforms do you use? Which platform do you find the most appealing for your brand?

I just set up my FB page in May, but the only reason I did was so I could switch my IG over to a business account. I ended up going back to a personal account within 2 months. Visually, I like IG. It’s so simple and clean and is meant to showcase photos. It’s easy to curate and have an instant feel for someone, to find something right away, and to get in touch with someone. FB is too cluttered for what I want to portray. I don’t even have the app installed on my phone, I just have the pages manager. I definitely don’t treat it with the same care as I do with IG. The funny thing about it is I have more people reaching out for commissions through FB than IG, so I gotta keep it, and should probably give it more love.

Tell me about the most recent collaboration you’ve done. And are there any creatives in Buffalo (or outside of the city) that you’d like to work with?

The most recent and probably biggest collab I’ve done was with the Affirmative Project in October. We had around 50 creatives come together to design an interactive experience that revolved around healing through art and music. Galia Binder was the mastermind and director of the project. My part involved painting a 10’x10’ circle and installing it in the “afterlife/veil” portion of the show. It was meant to have a calming and meditative effect after the audience went through and extremely intense performance based around the trauma and abuse the creators had endured. It was an amazing experience and I’ve been referring to that painting as my “mic drop of 2017” because it was the largest and most intense work I’ve done to date. I had a friend of mine, Eric Jahn, at Exchange Studios documenting the process for me. He gifted me this gorgeous book filled with the photos after. I’ve been working with a lot of photographers coming onto the studio lately, and having a shoot while I’m working. That’s always a lot of fun because of the variations in photo composition, what their drawn to most, how they see me, how they set up, and how they edit their work. I know what my image of myself is in the studio, but seeing how others view me and what they want to capture is amazing. As far as getting to collab with other artists, my friends Alyssa Norman and Tom Webb are at the top of my list. I’ve played around with both of them before, and we all use the same medium, so it’s natural to do. Alyssa has colorful figurative work and is super talented. We connect with our struggles – we’re both single moms, we don’t have a family to fall back on, we’re both artists – and use a lot of color even though we’re depicting things that aren’t so “pretty”. And Tom is like my dark AF counterpart. He also has figurative work and creates these abstract circles. He mostly uses black ink. It’s super fun to share techniques with each other and he’s a lot of fun to be around. I’m hoping to have a full series and show with each of them afterwards.

Who are your favorite Artists/Influencers that inspire your work? 

My all time favorite artist since I was about 7 is Georgia O’Keeffe. I’m so drawn to the colors she chose, her ability to break down the form, making something small seem monumental and her life’s story. I always feel such a sense of calm when I look at her work. I have so many books on her. I love her. I could go on and on and on about it. I admire other hard hitters like Marina Abramovic, Janine Antoni and the Guerrilla Girls, because they are unapologetically feminist, badass, and they remind me of the strength I possess. They challenge the patriarchy and I love it. And, of course, my studio mates Christina Laing, Rich Tomasello, and Chuck Tingley. They really inspire my work, Chuck in particular. I enjoy watching them work and we all vibe off each other well. I think sharing a studio is more intimate than living with someone. The energy that’s there for people to create is intense, and you have to feel really comfortable with the people you surround yourself with so you can get into vulnerable places and produce your best work. We’re all open with each other (there’s definitely been some crying going on up there) and can talk openly about our work and not feel judged. The energy they possess and how hard they’re all working to crush their goals inspires me. They keep me motivated, grounded and smiling. 

Tell me one thing that most people may not know about you. It’s ok to share a little!

From the time I was 10 until the summer before my senior year of HS I was planning on being a marine biologist. I’m totally fascinated by the ocean. Needless to say, that’s not what I ended up doing.

Are there any projects you are working on, and/or upcoming events that we should know about?

I’ll be showing work from the IN FLUX series at East Meets West yoga studio in Buffalo starting January 1st, and Exchange Studios is hosting an Instameet in our space on January 14th. People can come see what we’re working on, chat with us a bit, and snap some pics of our studio. It’s such an inspiring and creative space and we’re really excited to open it up to the public for a day. I’ll be on my grind most of 2018. There will definitely be a few shows I’ll be in throughout the year.

What is your most proud moment you have achieved as an Artist? 

This entire year has been filled with proud moments! This was my first year as a full time artist, so there have been a lot of amazing first experiences. I’d have to say my first solo show is my current top achievement. It was such a huge success. The amount of people that came through filled my heart and all the support I had from my friends and family was really unbelievable. I even sold five original pieces which was super exciting, especially for my first show.

Now let’s get a little more personal! Tell me your favorite:

  • Color (trick question!): Fav to wear- black, fav to paint- teal
  • Restaurant in your neighborhood: My fav neighborhood cafe is Tipico 
  • Lipstick: I’m a chapstick gal- EOS vanilla or sweet mint
  • Netflix show or movie: Donnie Darko <3 4E

And let’s get a little more personal, shall we:

  • If you won $20 million dollars in the lottery, what would you do with that money? Put aside enough for my son to go to college, if he chose to. Buy a building to turn into affordable artist studios and gallery for emerging artists to show their work, and offer art classes for free as an after school program for Buffalo Public Schools. Then recreate it in other cities. And travel with my son with whatever is left over 🙂
  • How would you describe your best friend in 3 words? Inspiring, funny, non-judgmental
  • What is the last good book that you’ve read? Witches, Sluts, Feminists
  • What’s your favorite song on your current dance playlist? Odesza – My Friends Never Die
  • New York City or LA?  LA
  • 3 songs on your current playlist? Jhene Aiko’s Trip album has been on repeat for the last month
  • Who is your male celebrity crush? Jake Gyllenhaal

Thanks so much Ashley for being a part of my diary. Ladies, you can find more of Ashley linked below.