Nostalgia is a deeply human and visceral experience that almost everyone has felt at one point or another. Using old photographs and organic objects, Hawai‘i-based artist Taylor Johnson transforms nostalgia into a tangible, visual feast for the eyes. Such a feast is now on view in her exhibition Formations: Renee Iijima and Taylor Johnson, on display at First Hawaiian Center until Jan. 18.

I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t absorbed in art,” Johnson recalled. Enraptured by children’s books illustrations and medical drawings as a child, she intended on becoming an illustrator. In high school, she stumbled upon printmaking, Even though she considered herself primarily a painter, she found herself constantly drawn back to printmaking when at UH Mānoa. In 2017, she received her BFA in printmaking and since then, has been a teacher at the Art School, a board member of the Honolulu Printmakers and held her first solo show at Brúe Bar called The Memory Of. This coming summer, she’ll jet off to Vermont for a month-long artist residency at the Vermont Studio Center and will hopefully attend an MFA program soon. 

The HoMA blog caught up with Johnson to learn more about how her anxiety and depression inspires her work and her process as an artist.

What inspired the prints you have on display at FHC? How do you explore family and nostalgia through houses and forests?

For the past few years, memory has been a recurring concept in my work. As someone who has dealt with depression and anxiety disorders, nostalgia can be a comfortable feeling to settle into. In this way, it can often be more about forgetting than it is about remembering. Like returning to a childhood home after growing up, it may difficult to return to certain memories in the condition they were once in.

My dad’s side of the family lives in Wisconsin, and although I grew up in Hawai‘i, I’ve always been drawn to these Northern forested landscapes. All of the forest and stick dwelling images come from photos I took at Olinda Forest in upcountry Maui. Growing up, that was the closest I could get to the forests—so I would go on night walks with my camera.

"Grotto" by Johnson

“Grotto” by Johnson

Tell me more about the process you have in making them? Where do you find the images for your prints?

Originally I was working with a lot of found family photographs from estate sales, antique stores and so on. I’m interested in reclaiming images that someone had chosen to discard at some point—perhaps someone’s face is blurred in the photo, or the people are long forgotten. I find that these castoffs tend to disrupt the narratives that we form about the past. I still use these a lot in my collage and mixed media pieces.

However, as my work has become more focused and personal, I’ve found it important to reference photos from my own family history. Recently my grandmother, who is affected by Parkinson’s and dementia, has become a key figure in my work. I’ve been trying to reconcile her current state with these images of her as a child, a young woman, a mother.

The prints (lithographs) were all pulled from drawings on limestone, with layers of thin Japanese papers collaged together to add the varying tones. The entire process is fairly time-consuming, so I am very deliberate with the images I choose for my prints. My collages, on the other hand, are an opportunity to work in a more fluid manner and make use of the objects and materials I collect.

Which artists inspire you?

Mark Dion’s process of collecting and recontextualizing objects is something I find very relatable to my own practice. With the recent developments in my work, I’ve been looking back at Gerhard Richter’s portraits and altered photographs. I also find myself returning time after time to Andrei Tarkovsky’s film Mirror—I can’t think of a better representation of the feeling of nostalgia.

Featured image: Johnson is located on the far right