Written by Andi Agnew | Photographed by Paul Wolf
A rusty old refrigerator is at least partially responsible for the trajectory of artist daniel johnson’s career.
Having grown up immersed in various artistic endeavors – from dance to visual art and music — johnson found himself naturally drawn to other artists. He began organizing what he calls “multidisciplinary creative conversations” with groups like the Arts Collective and the Mississippi Improv Alliance. These conversations mostly revolved around creating markets to sell art, artist advocacy and other collaborative projects.
The refrigerator came into play once johnson decided to return to art school.
“I was working at Wolfe Studio, and my schedule was flexible, so I was able to go back to Millsaps (College) to finish my Studio Art degree.”
During this time, johnson began to shift his thinking about how art can have an impact on society.
“You may be using traditional art techniques, but your end goal is practical considerations in society.”
Johnson created his senior project around a 1949 Westinghouse refrigerator he had found on the banks of the Pearl River.
“I started a Facebook page for it… people would go find it and add whatever they wanted to it and take pictures. People would leave things in the fridge. It created this kind of shadowbox of debris, bones, turtle shells, leaves,” he said. “I had been advocating for land use at the Pearl River for a while, but only once I put the refrigerator down there did people really start to take notice. It went from creating content to creating a framework for others to create content.”
After receiving his degree, johnson then went on to work for the Mississippi Museum of Art — initially as an artist-in-residence and then as Director of Engagement and Learning. He also started his own company, Significant Developments.
johnson spearheaded a participatory art project called Core Sample, which brought together over 1,000 people from the community to create unique symbols on over 2,000 clay bells. He noticed that many people were hesitant to participate, especially if they did not feel they had any artistic talent. “Ultimately, I wanted people to relax and get comfortable working with me. Making the person feel more like a customer — and the customer is always right — makes them more comfortable collaborating,” he says.
Through Significant Developments, johnson has collaborated on projects with the Jackson Medical Mall Foundation, the Mississippi Department of Transportation and Hinds County School District. Most recently, he has joined the team of interdisciplinary professionals tapped to implement the Fertile Ground project, a $1 million public art project funded by Bloomberg Philanthropies. The project is using art to address issues surrounding food access in the capital city. johnson is working with Galloway Elementary to create relationship building, community advocacy art, and to use art as a teaching tool.
“We are working with the teachers to do some continuing education workshops where they will create a curriculum that will connect students to the things that are happening with the Fertile Ground project.”
The project will culminate in April 2020 with a public exhibition of artwork and activities. “We’re trying to support this idea that every day is Fertile Ground… when a kid goes home and tries to decide on a snack, that’s part of Fertile Ground. Public artwork will be happening in conjunction with the conversations.”