Tsehai Johnson is a sculptor and installation artist who is working out of her studio in Denver Colorado. She balances her family life and her studio practice with amazing support around her, and continues to produce interesting ideas, and beautiful objects. Tsehai is currently working on a solo exhibition in Denver at the Plus Gallery.
What advice would you give to a young artist pertaining to the dream of just being able to make, but the reality of having a job that pays the bills?
Being an artist means finding a place that validates who you are. You have to ask yourself, who do you really want to be? When I first graduated I had a teaching job, a huge studio and I worked really hard. At the time I was single, and even then it was a challenge to balance work and life. More recently I’ve had to balance the demands of teaching, family, and my studio work. When I was younger I worked more steadily. Now I work in my studio in episodes of intensity where my studio work consumes most of my energy and other responsibilities take a secondary role. This intensity lasts for several months and then I regroup; find balance, until the next big show.
Can you talk about having a family and maintaining a studio practice?
When I first became a mom I resented this intrusion into my self-absorbed life as an artist. Over time I’ve been able to embrace all my roles without finding conflict between them. I don’t try to do everything for my kids and owe a huge debt to our nanny without whom I would never have been able to maintain a creative life. She gives me a support system. I also find it enormously helpful to have a studio at home so I feel connected to my kids even while I work.
Which do you find exerts a stronger influence on your work, success or failure?
I’m not sure if I know what success or failure is. I remember when I had friends who went to Harvard Law School, and they used to take the rejection letters from future employers and plaster their walls with them. As artists, we are constantly being rejected, and we have to reject things because not every opportunity is appropriate for our professional goals. You have to pick things that seem good for your career while not agreeing to every demand of a gallery or museum. When you make work for shows, and are building your career it sometimes seems like there is precious little time for experimentation with the potential of failure. However I find experimentation essential to my creative process and I am constantly editing my work. Big changes come more slowly now but they still occur.
How do you find where you and your work fits in the world?
I was slow getting started because I had kids, and I did have panic moments like, “what if opportunities don’t come my way?” I wanted national recognition and my stakes were high. You have to find a way to make work based on what facilities you have and it is important to keep working steadily. Be realistic about what you make. Apply for everything that seems appropriate for your work. Don’t hesitate to share your work with curators whom you respect. When applying for galleries, be realistic when it comes to whether or not your work will fit in that particular place. This requires a fair amount of research. There is a huge range in the quality of exhibition venues and some may not serve your larger career goals.