Verlena Johnson

Smokestack Lightnin’
48 x 24 in.

I earned a Master’s Degree in Afro-American Studies (Art History, 1996) from the University of Wisconsin—Madison and a Master’s of Fine Arts Degree from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago (Sculpture, 2001). Over the past 15 years, I have sought to express my personal thoughts and feelings in my art, as well as explore larger societal phenomena, such as oppression, race, gender and sexual identity. The style, subject-matter, and medium have varied, but the common threads that run through my work are questions about what it means to be an African American (Biracial) lesbian woman, particularly in a society that does not honor or value blackness, womaness or queerness*. I define myself broadly as an artist and express myself in whichever media best lends itself to my ideas and mood. I have rejected many of the binary constructs that seem to permeate every aspect of the “art world,” such as “fine art” versus “craft;” painter versus sculptor; artist versus art historian.

In “Smokestack Lightenin,” I give homage to the classical Blues I grew up with, such as Howlin Wolf, BB King, Muddy Waters, Ko Ko Taylor and John Lee Hooker. But I am also giving homage to my father who is a Blues musician (singer, harp player and guitarist). “Blues are a feeling,” as my father sings. As my father quickly approaches 70 and his generation looks to mine to carry on various traditions such as the annual Johnson family reunion in Mississippi, I am saddened to think about all that we will lose if we do not embrace our rich heritage. If we don’t preserve the oral history, memories and material culture—it will be lost forever.

© Verlena Johnson