The likes of cultural characters such as Chris McCandless and Jack Kerouac are admired and immortalized in our society for their bravery and romanticism. They fell off the grid of conventional living to pursue their dreams and explore the great North American expanse. Their adventures were already considered unorthodox in their respective times — and in 2014, they would be plain crazy.
Enter Heather Johnson: artist and adventurer.
What’s even wilder than journeying across the landscape by motorcycle in the 21st century searching for beauty in non-permanence? Using Indiegogo to achieve that goal.
Johnson’s works are featured in Cal Poly’s University Art Gallery through Dec. 5. The extent of her exhibit, In Search of the Frightening and Beautiful, includes photographs and water colors, but what really epitomizes her off-kilter lifestyle are the embroideries. According to gallery coordinator Jeff van Kleeck, these pieces are unique to the fine art world.
“Well, the other thing is that a lot of her work is embroidery,” he said. “When you think of that, you think of your grandma making pillows. These are far from that. It uses a technique that’s not associated with fine art most of the time. When you look at them, some are amazingly complicated. Some of it is mind-blowing.”
What’s even more mind-blowing is that the tiny, 100 lb. artist rode a motorcycle across the continent — often without much direction — to find inspiration for her work. As she passes through man’s impressions in the scape, she leaves gestures in the places that resonate most with her.
“I made art projects, many of them in the spirit of exchange, and left them all over the country,” Johnson said. “Pieces of myself that I left all over in places that range from strip mines to earthworks and sculptures — grand gestures in the landscape. Things that have been marked permanently in the landscape by humans. To mark those myself by leaving, making a gesture to leave behind, for anyone to take.”
Unusually, most of those gestures come in the form of embroideries that feature motorcycle parts. However, Johnson has her reasons. To her, there is symbolism in a correlation that bike parts have to the human anatomy.
“When you’re riding a bike, you’re one with the bike — moving through space,” Johnson said. “It becomes part of your own body, or at least that’s how I see it.”
Johnson perceives a unique tension between the act of embroidering and riding.
“The embroidering is methodical and slow,” she said. “The other is flying — it’s fast, and fluid.”
Johnson’s gestures are important, but to her, they aren’t what the project is really about. The real value is in the experiences she has, and in extension the act of leaving something of her own behind — and the experiences that object could have itself.
“It’s not just about moving through space and traveling, it’s about making these connections vicariously with strangers through these gestures, and that’s why it’s really important for me to continue outside of this country, in other contexts,” she said. “I like building these bridges in between. I don’t know if the focus is on the object; the object ends up in the landscape. The focus is on the relationship rather than the object itself.”
More and more, Johnson’s experiences have stemmed from the expected rather than the unexpected.
She recalled a time when she stumbled upon two donkeys tied up by a cave near Real de Catorce in the Mexican state of San Luis Potosí. Naturally curious, she went snooping around. On her way out, she was approached by a man.
“He started to speak to me, not in any kind of aggressive way, which frequently happens in the U.S. because of how we think about property here,” she said. “He was really nice to me; he asked me if I wanted a donkey ride.”
Naturally, Johnson left a gesture near the cave in hopes that he would find it.
Through experiences like that, Johnson realized that her project relies more on flexibility than on structure. For that reason, her third and upcoming trip to South America will be more a stream of consciousness than ever.
With that in mind, she hopes her free-form adventure will present more additions to her project, A Journey and Project in Progress.