Our Art Editor, Katie Schumaker talked to Maxwell Johnson about the upcoming publication of his pieces “Odin” and “Valkyrie” in issue 40 of earthwords over ZOOM (can you believe this is the world we’re living in right now?). Read the interview, where they talk about Maxwell’s fascination with Norse mythology, duct tape, and the challenges of creating art in the middle of a pandemic, or watch the Zoom recording at the end of this page!
Katie Schumaker: So, I’m Katie Schumaker. I’m one of the Art editors with earthwords, and I’m here with—do you go by Max or Maxwell?
Maxwell Johnson: I go by both, honestly.
KS: Alright. With Maxwell Johnson. He submitted two pieces for our magazine that we are launching soon, we’re very excited about it. So, his two pieces are “Odin” and “Valkyrie,” and so we’re just here to talk with him about the pieces he created, about him as an artist, about his process, kinda stuff like that. So Max, to start off, just tell us about your pieces “Valkyrie” and “Odin,” about your process, your inspiration, any special or particular meaning behind it.
MJ: Yeah, I’d say in terms of inspiration I draw pretty heavily on—and I think it’s kind of obvious—from Norse Mythology. I’d say in terms of process […] it comes up [when] I have an idea, and then I just kind of go about it. It’s hard to explain because I don’t usually plan out my drawings. I just go with it, essentially. Well like for these ones, when I was approached about doing these by Alex Chasteen I was like “Okay, I’ll figure something out.” And it just kinda popped into my head to do that essentially. But yeah, I draw a lot of inspiration for a lot of my works from Mythology and from horror, which I enjoy a lot. So, I’d say that’s where a good chunk of my influence has come from in terms of my drawings.
KS: Okay, awesome. So how long have you been creating in general? Obviously, all throughout college, but how long before then?
MJ: I’ve been pretty much drawing or doodling—when I wasn’t supposed to, especially—since I can remember. All of elementary school, junior high, high school, I was probably drawing more than I was taking notes. And I’ve been in art classes and doing art stuff like that as long as I can remember, so a long time, I guess.
KS: Gotcha. So, you said it’s mostly drawing and doodling: is that your preferred medium then?
MJ: Originally, I’d say. If you were to ask me that question about—I wanna say my sophomore year—I would probably say yes, it was my preferred [medium]. Currently I am in a bit of a personal debate between drawing as well as performance art, which is another thing I do, but again, when I was approached to do this, I didn’t exactly have enough time to put anything like that together. I can draw something, I can get that done relatively, you know, before the deadline. So, I’d say it’s a split for preferred, although I would say I probably prefer drawing a teensy bit more, though.
KS: Gotcha. So, drawing and performances are pretty different, you know, it’s not like drawing and painting which kind of go together a little bit. So, how did you get started on performance art?
MJ: It came mostly from one of my courses. My instructor—who eventually became my BFA advisor—primarily does painting, but they’ve also done a lot of performance work and I became very inspired by it. And after they gave a lot of examples of other performance artists that they know […] and that they think are very useful, that again also do performances, I became very enamored with the idea. Although, I think the original kickoff was for a prompt. We had to do a project and I really couldn’t think of anything, so I went, “You know what, I’m gonna make a crappy mask out of duct tape, wear a bathrobe, pretend to drink mustard out of a coffee cup and do this bunch of stuff because I have nothing else I can think of doing in terms of drawing for this prompt. I might as well try it.” And […] my instructor at the time and my other classmates and peers thought it was a rather successful attempt, and then after that I just kind of kept going. And we’re at a point now [where] I actually did have my BFA show not too long ago and it was a predominantly performance-based BFA show despite it being technically a drawing BFA. We don’t really have a non-theatre performance art / performing arts department at the University so I’ve kind of had to essentially stick close to that instructor because they’re kind of the only one that sort of pushes that kind of thing at the Art College.
KS: Gotcha, that makes sense. I’m really glad you got to actually have your BFA show, show it off to people before—
MJ: Well “have it,” it was technically over Instagram.
KS: Oh, okay.
MJ: The show itself was supposed to take place about three days after the initial extension for quarantine, but then after they extended it for the rest of the semester, I had to make some changes after consulting with my advisor and all that junk.
KS: Well, I’m still glad you found a way around it and got to share it with the world, and show these works that you’ve put so much into.
MJ: It was a very nerve-wracking experience.
KS: I bet.
MJ: Of course, I was disappointed, but at least I wasn’t someone whose show was outright canceled or anything like that. I was pretty fortunate in that regard that I was still given some time to figure out what I could do to fix it, so.
KS: That’s good. I’m glad you got to work around that.
MJ: Thank you.
KS: So, what’s something you want everybody to know—either about your art in general or about a specific work that you’ve done?
MJ: I’m not really one to basically say “Hey everyone look at this and how great it is.” I kind of just, what I want to try to, what I’ve always wanted deep down to get with my art—even if I don’t think it has a meaning—is that everybody can essentially do it. I wouldn’t say I’m necessarily very extremely talented compared to some of my peers, but I think as long as you, as long as I think you like your work, it’s good. I’m a believer in that there’s no such thing as bad art. Because I think as long as at least one person likes it, it’s good. So that kind of what I always want to try to get out of my work, even if the meaning or theme could be completely different, or if there’s not even a theme.
KS: Yeah, it’s like not everyone has the same taste in food and music: why should everyone have the same taste in art?
MJ: That’s kind of my thing, and you know, I’ve seen people that are saying “Performance Art is dumb” or stuff like that, or “Modern Art itself is dumb.” And I just kind of just roll my eyes back on that one and think back on that idea. I don’t really think people can really judge what someone else creates because it’s not always meant for the person who’s judging it. But that’s kind of where I stand.
KS: Do you have a favorite place or mental headspace that you like to do a lot of your work in?
MJ: That’s a hard question. Because I’ve definitely had times where drawing especially can be hard because, as much as I love it and arguably it is my favorite thing to do because I can just really put myself in a position where I’m having fun, I’m getting something productive done, it’s just—especially recently with the whole pandemic and some other personal situations—it’s been hard to find a lot of, I wouldn’t even say time, just a lot of drive to do it. I guess put in terms, the best space I like to be in in terms of mental space is I wanna be definitely relaxed. I need to not be focused or upset or nervous about something. I really need to just be like, “You know what, I want to draw a cyclops today. I want to draw a weird snake worm thing.” It’s—I can’t really describe it because it’s like, I need to want to do it is the best way to describe it. And recently it’s been kind of difficult.
KS: Yeah, I feel that. I know it’s hard for a lot of creatives right now—in whatever medium—to kind of find that drive and the motivation to just get yourself out and create.
MJ: It’s hard especially since the VAB is completely locked. And my BFA studio space is in there and I have a lot of materials there that I realized a week ago that I forgot to grab, and I can’t get them right now. So, I mean, I have pencils and a few pens and some sharpies, but there’s a bunch of other materials I realized I could have been utilizing, especially ones I was fortunate enough to get for holidays and my birthday. I can’t use those right now because they’re locked away. So, I’m kind of making do with what I can right now.
KS: Kind of on your tools and your things you’ve been using, what are your three favorite tools you go back to or things you can’t live without when it comes to creating art.
MJ: Mechanical pencils are a big one. I love them because you don’t need to sharpen them. If you run out, you can buy more lead or just do what I do and have a literal coffee mug filled with mechanical pencils. Sharpies, or anything of the related kind, because I love the dark, very crisp lines that it can make, and I really like the dark color. And duct tape.
KS: Duct tape?
MJ: Mostly because for my performances I make a lot of masks.
Maxwell shows one of the masks he has created.
KS: Oh wow! That’s really cool. Is that kind of like holographic-y?
MJ: Yeah, it’s entirely made out of duct tape and a little bit of paper. A lot of my more intense masks I make out of duct tape. This one is flowers and stuff. These two were part of my BFA show actually. So, I’d say duct tape, sharpie markers, and mechanical pencils are sort of like my big three.
KS: Outside of those tools, have you been working with either new themes, challenges—obviously the pandemic—or mediums lately?
MJ: I’d say mediums haven’t really changed much. I still draw mostly on papers and sketchbooks and a howl bunch of other things. I’d say the biggest change mostly came when I started getting a little more serious about performance art and I shifted the narrative away from more personal stories […] A lot of my performance [touches] very heavily on the theme of toxic masculinity and my relation to it, the world’s relation to it, and a whole bunch of other stuff about it. I’d say that’s been the biggest shift in themes. My drawing really hasn’t changed much at all, if any. I’m very happy that that’s the case because I get so much joy out of what I do—out of my drawings.
KS: That’s awesome. Art and creation should be something that, like you said, you want to be in a relaxed space, you don’t want to be forced to do it. You don’t create anything good when it comes out of that, you know?
MJ: Although I will say I’ve been trying to some more digital drawing. I have this drawing pad. I’m not good at using it at all, but I’ve been trying.
KS: They’re a learning curve, that’s for sure.
MJ: My problem is it’s a huge disconnect. It’s a weird disconnect, it’s annoying and hard to get used to but you know, we’re getting there.
KS: Do you have any last kind of closing comments or anything in particular you want to talk about or mention?
MJ: No, I’m just happy I was able to contribute.
KS: Yeah, we’re really thankful that you contributed not one but two really great pieces and that I got the chance to talk to you and learn more about your creative process and the different themes you’ve been working with. Thanks for agreeing to interview with me and for submitting to earthwords; we really appreciate it.
MJ: No problem. Thank you for again giving me the opportunity.
The Zoom recording of the interview can be found below.