Amy Johnson on Art, Home, and Migration

By Amy Rogers  

Picture a map of the United States. Draw a line from the Carolinas to Colorado, up to Montana, then west to Washington. Continue north and stop only when the line reaches Alaska. That’s where native Charlottean Amy Johnson now lives and works, with views of the massive Chugach mountains where it’s almost always winter. 

Johnson recently returned to her hometown in late summer as a McColl Center for Art + Innovation artist-in-residence

“Home is a difficult thing for me to define. Alaska feels like home. When I come to Charlotte, I always say, ‘I'm going home,’” she explains. Responding to the contrast and connections between these locales, she began to focus her current work on the theme of migration, both personal and global. 

In September, Alaskan birds gather. “They group and they talk about when they’ll leave, and then they start to leave. That’s sign winter is coming. I did the same thing. I started drawing migratory birds and making prints.”

As she contemplated those avian journeys that encompass thousands of miles, Johnson imagined the views people would see from airplanes in flight, “how the landscape is changing and the contrast of north to south. I started making topo maps, adding the colors of lakes, fields, sun and reflection.” 

After carving the designs into linoleum for printing, she checked the embossing by running the prints through the press without ink. 

“I ran a few more and was going to ink it up and I stopped myself.” She discovered the images with their grooved shadows were strong enough to tell most of the story, so she added color only sparingly to the white texture to evoke a “stark, mass landscape and this little blip of unbelievable life.”

She believes, “The more you edit, the better it is and the richer it is.” 

Johnson is grateful for the opportunity to return to the Queen City. “The experience of working at McColl Center is an honor. I am proud to be here as a Charlotte native, but I am equally proud to be here representing the Rasmuson Foundation and Alaska.”

The prints represent Johnson’s most abstract work to date. Her work in watercolor painting, fabric construction, ceramics, and film investigates more literally themes such as isolation, solitude, fairy tales, and the seduction of advertising. 

“I’m going gingerly because I’m still wrapping my head around how I want to visually translate this,” the artist says. “I’m not afraid to try to teach myself how to do something. I had formal training in clay but nothing else. I took a printmaking class and had a phenomenal teacher so I feel comfortable enough doing what I do.” 

Amy Johnson continues to explore the battle between trying to be perfect and the beauty of imperfection, the difficulty of defining where we belong, and the journeys we undertake in search of home. 

She’s optimistic that when she travels back to Alaska, it will be “with a body of work that reflects these ideas.”

Amy Rogers is a Charlotte-based journalist who writes about arts, culture, and history for many media outlets.