When Stacey Johnson was a child, she could often be found forming balls of clay she found outside into small figurines and other imaginative pieces. With art curriculum not readily available within her school, she found peace among the dirt and clay on her own. And as she grew older and attended courses outside of her native Yazoo City, the artist inside of her was officially born.
“I grew up in the Delta of Mississippi, the daughter of a cotton farmer,” Johnson said. “Art was not an option offered to me at school, but it was my first love; the path I always knew I’d take.”
The Manchester Academy graduate was recently among the 2020 award winners for excellence in the arts from the Mississippi Institute of Arts and Letters. Through her piece “Storytellers,” she is the Visual Arts winner for the year.
A Yazoo City native, Johnson grew up playing in cotton trailers, making mud forts and riding horses, which were important influences on her storytelling in clay. The clay figures, all female because women are “keepers of wisdom,” push against stereotypes and portray bold, complex figures with vivid personalities.
“The need to create has always existed in me, even as a child,” Johnson said. “It seems like I was always digging up clay and making little creatures.”
Johnson took painting lessons outside of school. She became interested in photography at Belhaven University. But it was at Loyola University that she discovered clay.
“Deep red, gritty, forgiving terra cotta is the clay body that feels like home to me, familiar and ancient all at once,” Johnson said. “As a sculptor, I am aware that my role is that of storyteller. It is impossible to grow up in the Deep South without embracing the vernacular of that region, and my work is influenced by its rich history and landscape.”
Johnson sets her contemporary figures against ancient cultures, such as pre-Columbian and Mexican feminine and animal forms. She treats each piece as if it’s a map.
“I enjoy working with animal forms because they are so important and lasting beings in my life,” she said. “Butterflies serve as representations of perseverance and strength. This language is marked throughout my work, and each piece can be read, much like pages in a book.”
Johnson admits she enjoys the solitude of being in the studio, creating and watching the clay transform. But there are some challenges.
“Sometimes I work months on a piece, only to have it break in the kiln or during shipping,” she said. “I’ve learned to accept losses and be content with the process. My greatest reward is making the connection with viewers who appreciate the odd things I can create.”
Her work is available at Fischer Galleries in Jackson, Treehouse Gallery in Oxford, The Attic Gallery in Vicksburg, Negrottos Gallery in Gulfport, The Hillyer House in Ocean Springs, Levee Contemporary in Princeton, WI and online at Megamegamega.com.
Johnson hopes that aspiring artists, particularly in Yazoo City, take in the rich history, music, culture and arts of the area.
“Breathe it all in and let that influence your work,” she said. “Be proud of growing up in a small town and know that you can take that upbringing with you when moving through life.”