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Doug Johnston is a fine artist living and working in Brooklyn, New York. He is best known for his three-dimensional rope basket weavings, which can be found here. We met Doug at his stimulating workspace, where we found an assortment of sewing machines, yards upon yards of unused rope, backets nesting within baskets, and more. We are very lucky to have a collection of his pieces in store and online!
Tell us a little bit about yourself.
DJ: I currently live in Brooklyn, NY but I grew up in Tulsa, Oklahoma. I studied architecture and art in undergrad at a small university in Springfield, MO, and later went to graduate school at Cranbrook Academy of Art near Detroit, MI. The coiled rope pieces grew out of a combination of things that started at Cranbrook, but primarily from a series of pavilion spaces I created with my classmate Yu-Chih Hsiao, which were made by wrapping and weaving plastic irrigation tubing into 3-d dimensional spaces. I fell in love with the process of taking a linear, flexible material and transforming it into spaces and objects by simply connecting it to itself. The process was highly improvisational for design-type work and was more akin to 3-dimensional drawing. After graduate school, I moved to NYC and didn't have the space or resources to work on that larger scale so I focused on things like knitting and sewing my own bags. I had started making my own bags at Cranbrook and knew that I loved working with sewing machines. After seeing some cotton rope in a hardware store I thought it would be great to make a bag out of it. I was really attracted to the texture, color, feel, ubiquity and construction of the natural cotton rope, as well as its utilitarian and cultural history. My parents had some native american and african coiled baskets back in Oklahoma and those inspired me to look into coiled construction with the cordage. On youtube I found videos showing coiled construction with a sewing machine, where people were wrapping the cord with fabric scraps and making simple bowls to use up their leftover bits of fabric. They would use matching or clear sewing thread, but I wanted to show both the cotton cord and the thread so I used contrasting thread colors. Once I started I immediately realized there were infinite possibilities and it seemed to capture many of my interests all in a single process. I was completely hooked! That was in early 2010, and after almost two years of working with the process I decided to try to sell a few of the pieces I had made online. In late 2011 I launched my webshop, hoping I would sell a few pieces so that I could buy more materials (I had quite my day job at a metalshop a few months before and was quite broke). Things took off much faster than I anticipated and by Feb 2012 it had become my full time job!
How has your process changed since you first began working with this material?
DJ: It has been a constant evolution. I started with very simple baskets, then made a few baskets that doubled as wearables or headpieces, then I made a few bags for my wife and friends. Then I jumped to a large full-body wearable piece, which was an attempt to combine the baskets with architecture and clothing. In 2011 at my metalshop job, we had been doing some work with 3D printing and I learned how those machines built forms by depositing layer upon layer and realized I could use my sewing machine in a similar manner. I started making the more sculptural pieces then - multi-hump and free-form shapes. Just by doing so much of this, I had improved my skills quite a bit and learned the limits of the machines, the materials, and my own interests. For the first few years I kept my work with the process limited to a range of techniques in order to explore them more in-depth. At some point I decided to open up slowly to other variations on the technique. We make all the baskets, sculptural vessels and bags for our retail collection with a very refined version of the original techniques, while my pieces and work for gallery presentation use a much more labor-intensive approach and allow for greater exploration of form with less constraints of function or utility.
You've exhibited your experimental work many times over the years, do you have a favorite project that you've worked on so far?
DJ: I wouldn't say I have a favorite, but my most recent exhibition, what it is at Patrick Parrish Gallery here in NYC was really gratifying because I was able to work through some ideas that I had been sitting on for several years and show more of how this process and work exists in my mind. In 2014, I presented an exhibition of mostly wall-hanging sculptural works in my hometown at a beautiful gallery there. That show was a lot of fun and surrounded by good vibes from family and long-time friends.
What do you listen to while you are working?
DJ: I am a total podcast and audiobook junkie. I subscribe to dozens of podcasts that produce weekly episodes so that provides a lot listening material. I prefer nonfiction audiobooks and listen to a lot of science, history, and memoir-type books. If I get sick of listening to people talking I'll put on some music, but that is pretty rare actually. If I listen to music I enjoy non-vocal oriented stuff like jazz, classical, or anything that is compositionally exploratory.
Do your products represent something more about you as an individual or your interests?
DJ: Though this is the first time I've been asked that question, I think my answer to it has been evolving with my work. Somewhat recently I realized that all of my work in some way or another has been a series of attempts to answer abstract questions about a whole range of things. I suppose all art and design does that, but I never really thought of it that way, or I didn't think I was really working that way until the last year or two. Lately I have really embraced the ambiguous search, where art and design, and making in general, can be a way of exploring ideas that are difficult or maybe even impossible to verbalize. The more I work the more I get comfortable with that ambiguity and learn how to listen to what's happening. Not that I'm good at it yet, or ever will be, but I am much more aware of that skill as once that is a crucial part of my life. In that way I think my work represents my interests and my individual characteristics.
How has sharing a studio space with your wife, artist Tomoe Matsuoka, influenced your work?
DJ: While our sensibilities overlap quite a bit, Tomoe has different tendencies in her work and especially in the way she views the world. We have collaborated on the retail collection since 2014 and she has a few pieces of her own design entirely in the collection including a few pouches and bags. She tends to be more playful and she isn't afraid of complex, technical work, which is exciting and encouraging to me. She also works in the studio on the production end, making most of the bags and Big Baskets. She is very meticulous and has helped to raise the quality standards of the collection and the output of the studio in general. We have collaborated on some large pieces, such as a two-person wearable, that are a nice way to explore our overlapping interests. You can check out her work at http://www.tomoematsuoka.com.
What in your neighborhood inspires you and your work?
DJ: We live and work in Kensington, Brooklyn. It is an area known for its diverse demographics, both in terms of income and ethnicity, which is one of the main things that attracted us. We love that there isn't a single dominant demographic here, though there are really interesting concentrated pockets such as a few blocks known as "little Bangladesh". There are no galleries, no well-designed shops, and practically no trend-based restaurants or coffeehouses. It seems to exist aside from the design and art scene, which is the world in which my work enters as soon as it leaves the studio via UPS or jpeg. The neighborhood feels like a physical buffer zone between myself/my work, and the concerns of the art and design world. It helps keep me grounded and reminded of the bigger picture of life on earth.
You have traveled quite a bit. What places have you found most inspiring?
DJ: The American Southwest is by far the most inspiring, with my favorite being the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. The canyons and incredible rock formations really blow my mind and get me thinking about things like deep time, and human evolution and technology. I also really love everywhere I've been and everything I've seen in Japan and Taiwan, both for their natural beauty and because the cultures are so different from where I came from.
If you could close your eyes right now and open them to find yourself in a different place, where would you be and what would you be doing?
DJ: Probably in some rural area, maybe in upstate NY or maybe in the Southwestern US near the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. I'd be working in some sort of studio there, and maybe take a break and go for a walk to take in the landscape, then come back and build a fire and read or draw.
What is the best advice you could give in five words?
DJ: Work very hard, very often.
Are you currently working on any projects?
DJ: Tomoe and I are preparing some pieces that we've been talking about making for over a year. Some of them will be presented in Kobe, Japan this Spring at a beautiful little boutique called Bota. I'm also planning to make some larger pieces this year, and accompanying photoshoots with them. The best place to look for updates is my instagram feed!