Feast Your Eyes on This

Lauren E Johnson explores art’s relationship to food

Painter Lauren E. Johnson should charge more for her work.

Yes, we’re mainly talking about still life pieces of fruit and vegetables, but in terms of representation and color study and realism, the $350 highest price point on her website seems more than fair. Too fair, even. Still, from her cozy live/work space in a renovated Eldorado garage where the vistas loom large and the landscape seems to go on forever, we could have been saddled with endless boring pieces featuring mesas and clouds and all the other exhausting tropes you’ll find in most galleries around here—and Johnson doesn’t even have representation.

Johnson hails from Lawrence, Kansas, but has called Santa Fe home since her folks moved here in 2009. At the time, Johnson had been studying French at the University of Kansas but, by 2011, she was deeply ensconced in the studio art program at the Institute of American Indian Art.

“I was a language nerd,” she explains. “But I ultimately decided art was more important.”

While at IAIA, Johnson dove deep into photography (which she still practices, but more on that later), printmaking and 3D arts.

“I took all the painting classes, too,” she tells SFR. “but I got to a point where I couldn’t figure out what to paint, and that was also true of my photos.”

Cut to a five-year stint working at Railyard gallery Blue Rain (home of Erin Currier, no less!), where Johnson found inspiration again. By March 2020, the pandemic found her temporarily furloughed, however, which led to an important decision.

“I decided I wanted to be a full-time painter,” she recalls. “I just wanted to take that leap of faith, so I painted the whole time.”

Johnson also took up gardening during that period, which would ultimately feed into her practice as well. Fascinated by the shapes and colors of grown food—as well as the concept of our relationship to it—pieces began to emerge in acrylic: glass gem corn and habanero peppers; carrots and watermelons and oranges, among others. With a dash of realism and a bit of idealism, Johnson had found her thing. This particularly works for citrus (Johnson’s “Blood Oranges” looks delicious, for example) and with richer colors found in pieces like “Tomatoes in a Bowl.” Newer pieces in the works include gourds and white pumpkins; all of which Johnson first photographs and edits before bringing over into the painted world. As such, pieces look familiar but beautiful in an impossibly perfect way. Perhaps that’s something to do with wishful thinking, but it’s also part of Johnson’s life.

“I kind of put a lot of my energy into developing this relationship with food and cooking,” she says. “The beauty of it all just came together.”

It’s a far cry from earlier works, she says, like geometric pieces (think mandalas) and more fluid abstract works. Either way, Johnson notes: “It’s light. It’s joy. And I think most of us have relationships with these ingredients, so they’ll evoke stories and emotions. Food is relatable.”

Indeed, though she still represents herself through an online storefront and isn’t actively seeking a gallery. Johnson describes herself as a bit of a control freak, saying she doesn’t know who would work as hard for her as herself.

“Plus,” she says, “when I think about the artists who make the most money, I mostly think of men, and I know if I’m going to be successful, I’m going to have to put everything I have into it, and while I don’t want to sound basic, I want my paintings to make people happy. Clinical depression is just...everywhere—and I’ve had it a long time—so I’m trying to make myself happier, too.”

Besides, without getting too precious about it, do we really need to keep having “what is art?” conversations at this point in human history? There’s much to unpack about who or what is deemed valuable or “fine” art. Johnson doesn’t want to be bogged down by those details. That’s why she doesn’t charge insane amounts or lose sleep over finding a gallery. She has numerous collectors, anyway, she points out, and completes commissioned work regularly.

“Part of why I’m doing it is because I know it’s going to help me,” she concludes.

You’ll find Johnson live painting at the Santa Fe Botanical Garden this Sunday afternoon.

“It makes me a little nervous, but, I like to perform,” she says. “I was going to have to be some kind of artist, I guess.”

Community Day at the Santa Fe Botanical Garden: 9 am-5 pm Sunday, October 31. Free for NM residents. Santa Fe Botanical Garden, 715 Camino Lejo, (505) 471-9103

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