Multimedia artist Sarah Johnson is Winona’s new creative laureate. “Creativity can make a stronger, healthier community,” she said.
by CHRIS ROGERS
Everything Sarah Johnson touches turns colors: scarlet, turquoise, electric blue, banana yellow. The full spectrum appears — like opening a new box of crayons — in stripes, in polka dots, in her artwork, in her clothes, in her hair.
Recently while out in public, a stranger asked Johnson, “Oh, are you dressed up for Halloween?”
“No,” Johnson politely explained. “This is just how I dress.”
“I love to dress in ways that reflect my mood,” Johnson said. “I do that because I love it, and I forget all the time that people can see me. And I know that’s completely ridiculous and irrational,” she stated. But, Johnson explained, “I wear blue so much because when I brush my teeth it makes my day better because I can see my blue hair … It cracks me up and makes me happy.”
Winonans might know Sarah Johnson for her murals, her collages, her mindfulness workshops, or mental health videos. They might know her as the front woman of The Old Fashioneds swing band, or just as that woman biking around with blue hair. She is a multimedia artist who takes an expansive view of what art and creativity can mean. Now she is Winona’s first-ever creative laureate.
The new position replaces the city’s poet laureate, and it is open to artists and creative-types of all kinds. The city of Winona Fine Arts Commission announced earlier this month that, after an application and review process, it had chosen Johnson to be the new ambassador for creativity in Winona.
“I think she’s a great choice for a lot of reasons,” Winona Arts and Culture Coordinator Lee Gundersheimer said. “One, that she covers so many different constituents both within the arts community and social services. She’s multi-disciplined, which is nice, and she’s an enthusiastic cheerleader for the arts and the community already.”
This new position could be whatever the creative laureate decides to make it, Gundersheimer said, “but similar to the poet laureate position, it’s a creator of stature who uses their creative energy to champion other creators in the city and is called on to do some sort of creative work that celebrates the city.” The laureateship includes a few hard-and-fast requirements: serving one three-year term, producing one creative work related to Winona, helping organize one event per year, and possibly being called upon to commemorate community milestones. Poet Laureate Ken McCullough composed a poem dedicating the opening of the new interstate bridge, for example. Beyond that, the position gives the laureate a platform to engage the community and do whatever they can dream up. Johnson joked about how to use her new “powers.”
“What I love about this position is it’s ‘creative laureate,’ which can be defined in so many different ways — beyond the checkbox of ‘artist’ even,” Johnson stated. “I’d love to use it as an opportunity for relationship building and increasing innovation in our community — thinking about creativity can make a stronger, healthier community,” she said.
By “innovation,” Johnson doesn’t mean technological innovation, but any new way of thinking or doing.
As a elementary school student, Johnson participated in the Future Problem Solving Program International — an organization that hands young students real-world problems, gives them training on how to brainstorm and problem solve, and then has them compete to produce the best ideas. “That’s a life skill I still use every day, and I’m not sure everyone gets the opportunity to get coaching on addressing the challenges we face just by being alive.”
Using creativity and a sense of play can help people tackle all kinds of issues and problems, she stated.
“I think we as humans make the mistake of trying to solve xyz problems we have by doing the thing we think we’re supposed to be doing, but then procrastinating by painting the flower pots,” Johnson said, referring to how she procrastinated earlier in the day. Rather than slogging away, people could make more progress on tough challenges if they can find a way to approach it that’s enjoyable, that’s fun and creative, she stated. She added, “Play is such a powerful force in problem solving.”
Like therapy, creativity does not always give people a direct solution to their problems, but helps people see problems from another angle, Johnson said. “That, to me, is what creativity is about,” Johnson stated. “And that, to me, is what’s exciting about this position. Let’s play. Let’s see where it goes.”
Johnson still has plenty of time to decide how to use her new powers, but she threw out ideas like hosting a pop-up create-your-own-artwork station at a grocery store. Poet laureates write poems, she noted. “What does a creative laureate do?” she asked. “Do I do a painting and stand there? I think more so, doing some creative activity with people … I’m really interested in engaging people who don’t think of themselves as creative.”
Many of Johnson’s works involve inviting people to participate. Her “Full Blooms” mural on Lafayette and Third streets in downtown Winona invited people to take midday selfies with the mural. The Old Fashioneds’ concerts often include prizes for the best-dressed audience members. Johnson’s “Art of Living/Riding the Wave” series at the Minnesota Marine Art Museum discussed mindful living while inviting people — even those who don’t think of themselves as artists — to play with art materials. The point was not to create a masterpiece. “Creativity — it’s really not about the end product; it’s about the practice of it,” Johnson explained.
Johnson’s visual art exhibit “Soul Food” is on display at the Red Horse Gallery in Fountain City until December 1.
There will be a reception on December 9 at 6 p.m. at the Blue Heron Coffeehouse in Winona to celebrate Johnson’s appointment, this year’s Fine Arts Commission award winners, and the winners of new artistic grants from the city.