All Creativelike: An Interview with Bri Johnson

photoI am positively giddy to unveil the All Creativelike interview series today, especially because we're kicking off our inaugural post with Bri Johnson, a wonderful artist who uses words and text in delightful combination. Bri is a writer, scribbler, former teen librarian and cancer survivor with a unique perspective on life and art.

Bri, what does "being creative" mean to you? To me, it means being open and amused. I like myself that way, so creativity is linked to me being at my best. But what if someday I’m kidnapped and held against my will? I dread that possibility. In that situation I’d be at my worst—closed and anguished. And I would need to be creative in that state, in order to escape. That’s a paradox I like to avoid.

photo(4)Where does your inspiration come from? Always from relationships. But it took me ages to figure that out. For a long time, I think I linked inspiration to problem solving, but for me that is a mistake. Difficulty and resolution don’t stimulate me at all. I like associations, of any kind, hostile or harmonious, between objects, people, images, sounds, etc. And how we respond to these also interests me.

What is it about the intersection, or confluence, of drawing and words that pulls you in? It just makes immediate sense. I like to think it has something to do with my early experiences with picture books. Who knows. It kills me now to see picture books underrated, not only by young readers determined to move on, but also by their parents, who believe their kids should read novels sooner than later.

I spent years hearing that as a young adult librarian. “My child reads at a high reading level.” I had kids as young as eight pining for young adult novels at the library. Few had read Edward Eager, or The Borrowers, or The Penderwicks, or anything by E. Nesbit. That never made sense to me.

photo(3)There’s a wild buzz around graphic novels, too, and I dutifully fostered it as a young adult librarian. But my heart was always with the picture books tucked away in the children's room. Is anyone reading them past the age of five? My hope was renewed the day I found The Arrival by Shaun Tan. I hope everyone reads that book. No one knows where to shelve Tan’s books, but they’re universally loved.

When do you feel at your creative peak? When I’m open, and when I notice inspiration. Some people might link that to a certain time of day, but I don’t. It can happen any time.

What are you working on now? It’s an exciting year for me! This summer I’m writing and drawing indiscriminately, to gain creative traction before I go to Maine in the fall, where I’ll study documentary storytelling at the Salt Institute. I’m hoping the constant practice combined with new documentary skills will prepare me to spend the winter working on an illustrated memoir. To stay loose - a constant battle for me - I use an iPhone drawing app now instead of a camera. Every day I try to post a drawing, a poem, or a photo on Facebook, something fast and playful. And I’m about to launch a blog about meeting people, called Hello?

How does your work as a teacher fuel your own creativity? Kids are so compelling. They’re easily amused and they make surprising connections, but photo(2)so often they don’t appreciate their own brains until they witness someone gaga for their work. I try to get out of their way, and, if necessary, I try to help them get out of their own way. That helps me. Blocking myself is my biggest hurdle as an artist. Time with kids is my reminder to remain free and to appreciate my own brain.

No, but seriously. Why are kids so darned creative? Lynda Barry might speak to this better than me, but I wonder if it’s their limited exposure to societal culture. We’re so shaped by culture. And American culture in particular features a dysfunctional relationship with creativity and freedom. But kids create so effortlessly, all they need is room. That’s what anyone needs, if you think about it. We all start with room, then everything shrinks. Our days give way to schedules, our schools support rubrics, minds close, our interactions become fractured. How can we be creative in spite of that?

Favorite artist or influence? I curbed my self-expression at a fairly young age, and I stopped reading for pleasure around 5th grade. I’m haunted by that huge span of lost time, all the books and ideas and creative growth that I missed. I vividly remember circling a large table in my school library, piled with new books. We were allowed to choose one to keep and I picked Harriet the Spy. But I didn’t open it for at least 15 years. I can’t believe I had in my hands a marvelous story about a young girl’s development as a writer—at the perfect time in my life—and I left it closed.

But certain authors from my early childhood continue to influence me: Shel Silverstein, Rosemary Wells, Richard Scarry, Dr. Seuss, and Charles Schulz the most. Later, I Picture 2discovered other favorites: Bemelmans, Sendak, Steig, Toon Tellegen, Crocket Johnson, Ruth Krauss, Quentin Blake, James Stevenson. And I have a long list of new favorites now, including Lynda Barry, Maira Kalman, Shaun Tan, Wendy MacNaughton, Nick Wadley,  Franciszka Themerson, Saul Steinberg, Tove Jansson, and Charlotte Salomon. Salomon’s visual memoir, Life? or Theatre?, is remarkable.

You’re a cancer survivor. Did going through that crisis and subsequent healing journey affect your creativity or how you view the importance or non-importance of making things? I was at a crossroads when I found out I had cancer. I graduated from RISD years earlier with no job, no place to live, no voice, no direction (that’s a lot of NOs), and thousands of dollars in debt. I had to support myself, and fast, so that’s what I focused on.

By the time I was 30-something, I was more or less estranged from my creative self. I had no idea what inspired me. A breakthrough came when I bought a small digital camera and began taking daily pictures for the sole purpose of noticing what I notice. For three years, I paired image with text, whatever came to mind. It was the most rudimentary thing, but Picture 2that’s how I learned about self-expression.

Near the end of that project, excited about my next creative step, I learned I had a sizable malignant tumor in my gut. I had talked so often about leaving my job (which I loved) to spend some lost time making things. The idea was even more appealing now that self-expression made sense to me. But the privilege felt squarely out of my league. Leaving to fight a life-threatening illness instead felt much more realistic.

Did it lead to my next creative breakthrough? Not directly. I spent many months sick and tired, watching TED talks on my couch. Then you and YES Gallery + Studio suddenly came along, and you encouraged me to make things for your Itty Bitty show. So I made some tiny things. And it felt good, like something I should build on.

Almost five years have passed since the Itty Bitty exhibit, and I might now be entering the luckiest time of my life. I have no evidence of disease, and I am suddenly no longer reporting to work as a librarian. My time is my own for a while. I can't wait to see where it leads.

You're always tapped into the most amazing books. Can you recommend your favorite books on writing, art making, and/or creativity to the All Creativelike readers? Yes! This looks like a mishmash to me, but all of these helped me, often more than once:

Louise Fitzhugh: Harriet the Spy Wassily Kandinsky: Concerning the Spiritual in Art Stephen Nachmanovitch: Free Play: Improvisation in Life and Art Doris Lessing: Prisons we Choose to Live Inside Eudora Welty: One Writer’s Beginnings Picture 3Tove Jansson: Moominpappa’s Memoirs Nicholson Baker: The Anthologist Maria Kalman: The Principles of Uncertainty Phillip Lopate: Being with Children Anne Truitt: Daybook: The Journey of an Artist Stephen King: On Writing John Steinbeck: Working Days Elif Batuman: The Possessed Louise Bourgeois: Drawings & Observations Lynda Barry: What It Is Patti Smith: Just Kids The Paris Review Interviews

On the web: Maria Popova: Brain Pickings Garrison Keillor: The Writer’s Almanac Sari Botton: Conversations With Writers Braver Than Me

photo(5)Bri Johnson hails from the Green Mountain State. She is the founder of Sheepish Duck Magazine, written by kids from the Ocean State. And she is heading next to the Pine Tree State, to learn documentary storytelling at the Salt Institute. Keep an eye out for her new blog coming soon to www.thisishello.com. She can be reached at brilarian@gmail.com.

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