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The Echo
Taylor University, Upland, IN
Monday, May 20, 2024
The Echo

Personal story, universal message

By Julia Oller | Echo

Beneath her perfectly manicured nails, painted a glossy pink, Julienne Johnson's hands are alive with a fierce energy. Scorning paintbrushes, she hurls paint onto the canvas, along with screws, netting and pop tabs. Calling herself "god of the canvas," she feels a compulsion to create the work, even though she couldn't tell you exactly why.

Beneath her Southern California glamour-black leather boots with two-and-a-half inch heels, wavy blond hair and bright smile-Johnson is an internationally recognized artist who says God is using her diverse cultural background to break down cultural and religious walls.

Beneath her tranquility lies a zest for life that art critic Peter Frank describes as an "enthusiastic earnestness."

Johnson, a Taylor alumna who entered with the class of '64, does not look the part of the stereotypical artist, otherworldly and paint-stained.Her journey to the opening of "Structure and Passion," her first exhibition at Taylor, is no still life. Like Johnson's work, her story is marked by seismic changes that combine to create unexpected beauty.

As a child growing up in Michigan, Johnson's parents denounced art and refused to let her study it, even when a teacher recognized her talent and offered her free lessons.She decided to pursue writing instead, until a single typo on her first essay at Taylor landed her an "F."

"I was devastated," Johnson said. "Devastated."

Leaving Taylor after her freshman year, Johnson painted and sold landscapes and still lifes from age 20 to 30 to bring in extra money. She knew that this style wasn't her calling, so she resolved to continue her art education someday.

"I wanted to do something deeper," Johnson said. "I had a plan to go back to school, and I never gave up."

Johnson put her dream on hold after her marriage to musician and producer Keith Edwards pulled her into the music world. She went to music school and fronted "Sandusky," a country rock band named after her birthplace, for 10 years. A successful songwriter, Johnson was nominated for both a Grammy and a Dove Award.

But deep down, art was her first love.

"My life was music, but I knew that was a substitute. I knew I was going back to art school," Johnson said.

Before her plans were fulfilled, however, the control she thought she had over her future was yanked from her hands. In 2004, Johnson developed an infection that manifested itself in lumps all over her face, especially around her eyes. Her friends were afraid to hug her.

Terrified of living with a distorted appearance forever, Johnson began to pray.

"At first the prayers were 'just don't make me grotesque-looking,'" Johnson said. "After one surgery, it was 'don't let them cut into my eyes and make it worse.' By the fourth surgery it was 'Lord, I'm yours.' Just complete surrender."

A year later, Johnson regained her health and entered art school, finishing in 2009.She officially launched her career in 2010, becoming a member of the exclusive TAG fine arts gallery in Los Angeles, where she showed her work for three years.In 2012, Johnson held her first international exhibition in Doha, Qatar. Surrounded by the stark desert and the veiled faces of Muslim women, she felt God speak to her in a new way, since she realized it could be her face staring out from the black burqa.

Johnson was raised in a predominantly Muslim family, although she became a Christian at the age of nine when a friend invited her to Bible camp.One afternoon at the age of 15, she came home from school to find her mother sipping tea with two unknown Middle Eastern men.

"I asked my mom, 'Who are they? What do they want?" Johnson said. "And she replied, 'You.'"

Although she and her mother laughed about it at the time, it wasn't until her trip to Doha that she realized she was just a step away from those she passed on the streets. She believes that it is no coincidence her work has been displayed in two countries with primarily non-Christian populations: Qatar and Thailand.

"You see, it's the surprise," she said. "My last name is Johnson and then they find out I'm Arab. All of a sudden, I'm in because I'm family to them and that opens up doors."

The spiritual themes in her work-surrender, hope, loss, joy-spring from her connection with the Lord, but she said that nonbelievers are often the ones to catch her subtle hints of the divine.

"When art is uniquely personal, it is uniquely universal," Johnson said.

Beneath her personal story, from the whisper of a dream to a career doing what she loves, is an ever-expanding faith in an ever-expanding God.

"I'm a piece of work that God is molding and shaping, and I am where I am due to his grace and mercy," Johnson said said. "I know who I am. I know where I'd be without him. It's amazing what he can do with a life like mine."