The Sunflower

Kirsten Johnson, Jill of all trades

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Kirsten Johnson, Jill of all trades

Kirsten Johnson shows a book she has put together. Johnson teaches a book making class at Wichita State.

Kirsten Johnson shows a book she has put together. Johnson teaches a book making class at Wichita State.

Selena Favela

Kirsten Johnson shows a book she has put together. Johnson teaches a book making class at Wichita State.

Selena Favela

Selena Favela

Kirsten Johnson shows a book she has put together. Johnson teaches a book making class at Wichita State.

Kirsten Johnson doesn’t want to fit in only one box. She doesn’t feel she should have to be just a designer or illustrator, teacher or working artist. Her work reflects her broad range of skills and interests.

Bookmaking is one of her specialties. Though it’s a practical skill, she does it because she loves it.

“I consider myself an artist. I’m a jack-of-all-trades.”

Now in her 35th year of teaching at WSU, Johnson has taught just about everything. Still teaching illustration, she also leads a class on book making this spring. She enjoys sharing her skills and knowledge with the next generation of designers.

Johnson wanted to learn more about design and other visual processes as a young woman. A recent M.F.A. graduate from Indiana University, her background is mostly in illustration.

“When I was a kid, I remember taking all these sheets of Manila paper, and my parents had gotten a catalogs for buying art books in a series, and I cut out all the pictures and put them in there, and wrote who the artist was and ran it through my sewing machine. So that was my first book,” Johnson said.

She feels like bookmaking gives her students an edge later on.

“They’re learning the craft, learning the skill. They can always repair books.”

The starving artist

Both of Johnson’s parents are from Kansas. She used to make trips here a couple times a year from Minnesota to visit her grandparents. So Johnson applied at WSU.

“The reason I got into illustration really is my brother would read all of these comic books, Conan the Barbarian, and the illustrator for those books is the guy named Frank Frazetta. Back in that day, anything unusual you had to imagine. So an illustrator could bring this stuff to life.”

Johnson said fine art in general has a reputation of being a poorly paying field. She said it’s important to show students some of her successes and talk about what didn’t work as well. She wants students to realize they do have options.

“I show students what I’m working on and tell them about the things that get discussed. — you know, this didn’t go right, or this client didn’t like this. And that’s a way for them to learn.”

“Finding work is always about the same process,” Johnson said. “You get your name out there or you get associated with an agency or studio.

“Consistency and hard work — that’s what gets people places.”

She said it’s important to show her students the options for work that are out there. But it’s not just about getting hired. Johnson hopes to teach her students how to grow into their full potential.

“We try to make them think on their own, to be creative problem solvers.”

They don’t come out looking like little Kirsten Johnson’s, she said.

People also have the wrong idea about art school, she said.

“Most people think you’re going to go to art school and starve.”

But that hasn’t been her experience.

She said when she was a student they thought she was too design oriented in her art classes, and too art oriented in her design classes.

“I consider myself an artist rather than just a drawer or just a graphic designer I’m interested in everything. When I initially went into illustration I got a job at a studio drawing ads for a newspaper — that was pretty exciting. They didn’t use photographs as much as they used illustrations back then.”

Johnson said she gravitated towards English, music, and the arts in high school, but art was her favorite. When she told her parents that she wanted to go to college to study art, they questioned it, she said. But they ended up allowing her to go.

“I went to college with people whose families disowned them for wanting to go study art. I felt lucky in that sense.”

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