No paintbrush or chisel will be found in Alec Johnson’s studio. He works with pixels microprocessors and flat screens. During a recent show that brought life back into the space Artlink used to inhabit, now the Cinema Center Spectator Lounge, patrons enjoyed watching the displays that brought ordinary flat screens to life. Along with artist Carey Shafer, Johnson, guided by Jennifer Ford Art, filled the space with sculpture caught in perpetual change. Shafer, a world class stone carver and sculptor, collaborated with Johnson, and together they created a room filled with cutting edge pieces displayed on screens married with heavy steel chain and limestone.
The pairing of these two artists happened as a result of a slowly developed friendship and working relationship that began when Johnson, also a city landscape architect, started to render a plan for a sculpture park in Fort Wayne. When Shafer pitched his sculpture ideas to the parks department, Johnson quickly shut him down, stating that there would soon be a call for artists and that Shafer should wait to move through the established process. Johnson looked the artist up online and discovered Shafer is a classically trained stone carver with a curriculum vitae that includes restoration work at the White House.
Johnson and Shafer started working together on other public art pieces across the country. A lot of the projects involved landscape architecture, as thought had to be given how to place certain sculptural pieces within the landscape.
“His work started to become more abstract by adding steel,” says Johnson of Shafer’s work. “We started to work together, even if it wasn’t for a competition project. We just started working on projects together and that sort of ‘metamorphed’ into the work for the Bytes and Pieces show.”
Johnson’s digital artwork sprung from his interest in computers, but that’s only part of it. An explosion of ideas came to him after attending the opening of the black box theater on Main Street.
“The first time I was in there I was looking around at these 30-foot walls and imagining what kind of performances you could do in there.” He started to think about doing surround animation that could wrap around the audience.
“I walked out of there thinking that would be really cool but how do I do that?”
For most people that is where an idea ends – but not for Johnson. His curiosity drives him to act.
“I just started researching digital technology and wondered how do you do that. How do you create the technology to do that?” he said.
Johnson learned about different ways to create digital animation and that led him to the new art form of generative digital art where the computer is used as a tool like a digital paintbrush.
“I found that all of these things feed into each other. I learned a technique for projection mapping and found that the software I was using for landscaping architecture comes into play in many different ways. The work has mostly been a byproduct of me being super curious.”
Johnson isn’t afraid to just jump into a project. That attitude has been a guiding force that navigates him through life.
“I never set out to become a super successful artist. It’s always just been thinking how do I satisfy this curiosity.”
According to Johnson, he always needs a creative outlet just to stay sane.
“Landscape architecture is in some ways very technical but also very artistic because you have to sketch, draw and convey designs in a way to convince people it is a worthy thing to build,” he says.
The digital art form that Johnson has made the current focus of his creative outlet is in its infancy.
“Ever since there have been computers, there have been people who have tried to use computers to produce art, but because the technology hasn’t always been so successful, it didn’t always work out,” he says.
Today the technology allows for the artistic freedom that so many have been waiting for. Johnson is one of those artists and he is excited about what the future holds.
“Technology is going to make it possible for new forms of art that we can’t even imagine,” says Johnson.
He is quick to note that just because the computer is the platform for creating digital art, it is still a skill that must be learned and mastered. Just as a painter must master the use of paint and brushes, a digital artist must learn the material to execute an idea properly. By learning the material, an artist also learns its inherent boundaries. Rules and parameters are important to Johnson. Without limiting himself, the options offered by digital creation can be overwhelming.
“I still have to create a framework for my work. I still have to make rules for my work. I have to limit the possibilities some way otherwise the options are just way too vast. I have to say I’m only going to use this color palette or I‘m going to use these shapes. You are still limiting yourself to a small parameter. Otherwise there are too many things to think about and it won’t be effective. I don’t think digital art replaces traditional art. We just have a new tool now. ”
To Johnson, it is important for all art, traditional and digital, to evoke emotion. He doesn’t care if the emotion is adverse or joyful; he simply needs to ignite something in people with his work.
Johnson’s current work has been described as feeling alive. With pulsating lights and shapes, he can transform a common screen into something that appears as though it is breathing. Undulating shapes seem to grow organically. An interactive piece encourages people to swipe a touchpad that changes the colors and patterns of the work. There is a sense of playfulness that immediately overtakes the viewer. There is actual dialogue happening between the computer and the viewer as the shapes change and take on a life of their own.
“Technology is changing so rapidly it is impossible to even know what the vast options are,” says Johnson who will keep bringing this cutting edge art form to our area.
Art lovers and collectors are the ones who will benefit from the curious spirit that drives him forward.