+ By Julie Gibb + Photos by Casey Johnson
In the gallery at Creative Paradox in Annapolis, Casey Reed Johnson settles into a sofa. His sculpture Oculus hangs in one corner of the room, wood tones glowing in the spotlight, its mass casting shadows on the walls. It resembles a giant geometrically constructed eyeball with a walnut wood disk for an iris and a periwinkle pupil lit from within. Viewers are invited to step into the shadows behind the large sculpture and peer through a lens on the dark side of the sphere into a depiction of a starry sky surrounded by a violet corona. A plaque on the wall featuring text written by the artist speaks of mystery, human curiosity, the search for knowledge, and connection with the divine.
Johnson grew up in Westminster, Maryland, where he attended church regularly with his parents. His spiritual practices have evolved over the years, but Christianity remains central to his life and work. He began making art when he was ten years old; school diorama assignments sparked his enthusiasm for three-dimensional art. While other children used shoeboxes to create their projects, Johnson sought large television boxes to showcase his ambitious compositions. He earned a bachelor of fine arts degree from Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore in 2009. Since then he has pursued a career in fine art, participating in many exhibitions. Johnson recently exhibited work at a biennial conference held by Christians In the Visual Arts in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and was accepted into a show at Washington Project for the Arts in Washington, DC, curated by artist Jeffry Cudlin.
For the past three years, Johnson has worked as Lead Catalyst and Curator at Creative Paradox. Now located off of Generals Highway, the nonprofit organization provides an environment for artists to explore their Christian faith through art and biweekly discussions. He’s been involved with the group since 2009, when it was still known as Studio of the Arts, and helped to build out its former location in downtown Annapolis. In addition to his work with Creative Paradox, Johnson and his wife, Amy, run Foxwood Co., a custom home goods company that the couple named after their son, Fox; she handles the organizational and social media aspects of the business, while he works in his home woodshop in Annapolis, designing and crafting cutting boards, spoons, planters, and other vessels. Johnson hopes to eventually merge his fine art aesthetic with functional pieces to bring objects of beauty, value, and utility into people’s everyday lives. “Beauty is function because of what it does for us, for our souls, for our wellbeing,” he says.
Johnson regards craftsmanship as an essential part of art. “When I look at a work of art, I really want to see time,” he says. “[It] shows care and thoughtfulness.” The intensive labor he dedicates to his work is an act of humility—a way of connecting to the divine force that he refers to as Creator. Soft-spoken and modest, he doesn’t shy away from discussing his faith’s influence on his art. To generate ideas for his sculptures, he sits with pen and paper, making lists and spending time in meditation. Through this process of word study and patient waiting, he receives visual concepts.
Some works serve as experiential vehicles for his spiritual practice. While creating his sculpture Obstacles, Johnson hewed chunks of wood into gem-like shapes, named them, burned them, and prayerfully removed them from his path. The blackened shapes are displayed on a shelf, like onyx trophies transformed from obstacles into achievements.
Meticulously constructed shapes serve as containers in which Johnson stages interplay between the physical and the transcendent. Blood and Bone, a sculpture that Johnson describes as a living vessel, is a striking example of the love and toil he channels into his art. It resembles a life-size canoe frame cradling an intricate network of hand-twisted copper wire shaped to look like tributaries of blood vessels feeding into a central vein. Crafting the piece became somewhat challenging. “I was in pain and in tears,” he recalls. He questioned whether he would be able to finish the piece after months of working alone in his studio while concerned friends asked, “Where’s Casey?”
Halfway through the project, the canoe frame broke and had to be rebuilt. Johnson ultimately takes such challenges in stride and interprets them as humbling reminders that making art comes from love. His calling, he explains, is to share that same love and dedication with other artists as well as communities outside the art world.
Transparency about his spiritual focus is important to Johnson, and he welcomes viewers into a fuller experience of his sculptures by talking and writing about them in easy-to-understand terms. Wall-mounted plaques explaining the concepts behind the art often accompany his pieces. “You are asking [people] to spend time with your piece,” he says. “If you are putting all of these walls up, they’re not going to spend time with it.” He believes that contemporary art often leaves people feeling excluded, and is frustrated by the use of bewildering “artspeak,” saying, “We’ve let it get to a point where we’ve killed art, let it die, dragged it across the floor, and beat it. And then we’re like, ‘Now what?’” █
For more information about the artist and his work, visit caseyreedjohnson.com.