Past the kiln room and down the hall, just off the small sitting room, several small, rotund clay sculptures with wires coming out of them had been placed on a long table. The artist was busy looking at some photographs and painting on them. She half looked up at me. It was open studios at The Banff Centre and people were coming and going all day.
These round clay sculptures and hand painted photographs would become the House on Fire series, an exhibition about Sarah Anne Johnson’s grandmother and her memories of her Nan. The first thing I recall about Sarah was her direct and confrontational stare. She didn’t say much—not then anyway. Her works were volumes of unspoken emotions, recollecting both good and bad times in her family, on trips, addressing familiarity, belonging, and intimacy.
During one of my subsequent trips to Winnipeg, Shawna and I were touring around the Exchange. It was either at Platform or at Plug In Institute of Contemporary Art, when they were still on McDermot Ave, where I met Sarah again. Up on the walls of Plug In was Pandora’s Box, Amanda Cachia’s exhibition featuring an international line up of artists including Laylah Ali, Ghada Amer, Shary Boyle, Amy Cutler, Chitra Ganesh, Wangechi Mutu, Annie Pootoogook, Leesa Streifler, Kara Walker, and Su-en Wong.
It would be several more years before I had a studio visit with Sarah, and I think she asked more questions than I did. Eventually, I learned there had been a dance version of House on Fire called Dancing with the Doctor (2010). Bringing her relationship with her Nan back into the body, igniting Sarah’s first artistic identity in theatre and dance, she was moving toward a more heightened sense of intimate knowledge—a way of knowing and re-knowing what I saw as expressed through her ongoing embodied painting interventions onto her photographic encounters with the world. There has always been an inherent intensity in her work, and it was this intensity that first drew me in, but also kept me away at first.
A year later, in a warehouse studio where coincidentally I once helped move in the dry wall, Sarah showed me some new works in progress for her latest series on intimacy. The couples entangled together were unravelling something more amorphous than skin and bodies. Unspoken gulfs existed between these bodies and the enclosed spaces they inhabited, and I momentarily wondered if I should have kept the exhibition’s title as Isolated.
These works were as dark as any work I had seen of hers, but off to the side of the studio I saw a few painted photographs of friends gathered in the grass. These images beamed out in contrast. Groups of friends lounging outside, their faces shining in the sun, bodies uninhibited and dressed in relaxed summer wear, each of them enjoying their company. These sun soaked portraits of Sarah’s past holidays were a relief exercise. She said she didn’t know what to do with them next.