COLUMBIA — Elaine Johnson was 19 when she bought her first piece of art for $50 and a bicycle.
She still owns the piece, an acrylic self-portrait of the artist, Johnson’s friend Suzanne Steffens. Sepia, purple, yellow, browns and blues fill the 4-by-3-foot canvas and are echoed in the zigzags of the artist’s dress, speaking of the colors and details of New Mexico.
These days, it is propped on an easel in the corner of Johnson’s studio on Orr Street in Columbia. When she unbolts the padlock and slides open her door, the painting is the first thing she sees. Its vibrant coloring stands out against the gray concrete floor and off-white walls and draws her into the space.
The untitled work has been with Johnson, 39, through several moves, marriage and the births of two children. When she had no room for it on a wall, she kept it rolled up in the back of her car.
“I’ve had her in my life longer than I’ve been married,” she said, smiling.
Now, as Johnson settles into her role as director of Orr Street Studios, the portrait serves as a reminder of her lifetime dedication to the arts and her desire to foster a community for artists throughout Columbia.
A job 'too good to be true'
Johnson grew up in New Iberia, La., in an extended family of amateur artists and community activists. She was in boarding school at the Louisiana School for Math, Sciences and the Arts when she met a classmate named David Kurtz. The two went their separate ways after high school, and Johnson studied at several universities across the country, including in California, where she reconnected with Kurtz. They married and returned to Louisiana to graduate from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. With a degree in sociology, Johnson worked in the city of Lafayette’s community development department.
In 1998, the couple moved to Columbia, where Kurtz attended law school at MU and Johnson worked as a victim’s advocate in Columbia’s juvenile office. Johnson quit outside work to raise her children until, in October 2007, she took a job as the director of arts education at the Missouri Theatre. Johnson’s experiences in the arts and the community have come together in her new position at Orr Street Studios, a job she says is “too good to be true.”
Orr Street Studios, off Walnut Street and one block east of Tenth Street, was the brainchild of Columbia architect Mark Timberlake and artist Chris Teeter, who also served as its first director. The former Watkins Roofing building provided the framework for 21 studios and gallery space, which, since opening in January 2007, has become home to 27 artists.
Teeter is responsible for the one-of-a-kind, oversized sliding warehouse doors that open into each studio. But he never planned to stay as director for long; as he helped artists settle into the space, he was eager to leave the administrative side of Orr Street and get back to his art.
Johnson first came to Orr Street to attend "Hearing Voices," a reading and literature series held there. She had a way of asking provocative questions, sparking conversation between the audience and readers, remembered poet and graphic designer Allison Smythe: “Elaine is not afraid to be vulnerable, and she does whatever it takes to convince others to open up and respond.”
“Elaine is not intimidated by art, and she embraces it in a way that most people can’t,” Kurtz said. “With her, there’s no intimidation of being part of a canon or obeying the rules of the road, which is refreshing and makes things more accessible."
Johnson’s enthusiasm and the ability to promote dialogue is what made Teeter and others think she would be perfect as the director of Orr Street.
“Elaine loves people and is in love with idea of taking Orr Street to what it can be,” Teeter said. “She understands it’s not only a place for artists to work but also a place for people with ideas to come.”
More than a workspace
As director of Orr Street, Johnson is focused on extending Teeter’s vision to make it a place for the community to gather.
“Orr Street is urban and witty. It is a place to talk out loud and think out loud,” she said. “There’s a real openness to the space that is enormously powerful.”
With programs such as "Hearing Voices" and a weekly film series called "Seeing Visions," Orr Street is establishing itself as more than a workspace for artists. The gallery is a part of Artrageous Fridays — a gallery crawl through Columbia — and every Saturday artists open their studios to the public. Beginning Jan. 20, instead of showing films, "Seeing Visions" will expand to weekly discussions with guest artists about their relationships with art.
Johnson’s other focus is confirming Orr Street’s status as a nonprofit organization. That designation, which she hopes to receive by the end of this year, would make it easier for the studio to secure tax-deductible donations, host more guest speakers and get grants for school visits and other educational programs.
By fueling the spiritual investment of art lovers and learners, Johnson hopes to fuel the community’s financial investment in art.
In early December, the gallery held an open house to encourage buying art as holiday gifts. Johnson and volunteers served wine and hors-d’oeuvres. Jazz pianist Pack Matthews played keyboard. Mike Sleadd’s graphic pen illustrations lined the walls of his studio; a few doors down, Bob Hartzell’s colorful screen prints and whimsical light fixtures lit up his space. In a small, nearly pitch-black room in the back of the building, Valerie Wedel prepared a multimedia installation of lights and words that scrolled over a gauzy material that seemed to grow off of the wall.
“Isn’t this just amazing?” Johnson asked.
An extra room was converted into a sale space where artists displayed original work priced to sell as gifts. Artist Lisa Bartlett created a wire tree that held square, collaged canvases of birds. By the end of the night, all sold.
“A little boy just bought two for his mom for Christmas,” Bartlett said.
This was music to Johnson’s ears.
For years, galleries have struggled to make it in Columbia. Now the recession is hurting even the world’s greatest art auction houses, leaving local artists more vulnerable. But Johnson is optimistic. She wants people to “boycott Disney World and start buying art.” She hopes that Orr Street’s eclectic collection will inspire people to find what they like and buy something there or at one of Columbia’s other galleries.
“What we need is healthy variety. It’s like cuisine,” Johnson said. “That’s why I love Orr Street. Here you can absorb not just the paintings but also the ambiance of the buildings and the walls and the people around them.”
No wrong answer
Johnson believes the general public’s lackluster commitment to art is a result of fear as much as money.
“What if you put something on the wall and your friends don’t like it?” she asked. “It’s easier to go to Pier 1 and buy a print that matches the couch. I bought mine in college, at the campus poster sale.”
It was Picasso’s “The Blue Nude.” She threw it away years ago.
Now Johnson fills her house with original works of art that don’t match the furniture. Over the years, she and her husband have accumulated a small but treasured collection. A pen-and-ink drawing of an oak tree hangs in the living room, a gift from Johnson to her husband. It is nestled among a series of watercolor fish painted by Johnson’s sister and the 100-year-old upright piano that Johnson painted red.
Living with art is like having “a varied and abundant group of friends,” Johnson said. “It means I get to live amidst reminders of what matters to me.”
Johnson and Kurtz mark special occasions by buying art, including original works to mark the births of their children, Rebecca and Sam, who attend Lee Expressive Arts Elementary School.
Not surprisingly, what Johnson hopes her children discover at school is the same thing she hopes Columbians discover:
In art, there is no wrong answer.
It is what she discovered as a teenager at the National Gallery, up high in a tower with Henri Matisse.
Johnson climbed five flights of stairs to the trapezoidal room that houses Matisse’s cutouts. The works were done at the end of the French artist’s life when, bedridden and nearly blind, he began to create "cutouts," by cutting larger-than-life subjects from paper. Johnson had no idea how to interpret the work but couldn’t look away.
“I knew nothing about Matisse at all, but that was the moment I fell in love with art,” she said.
She wants others to have the same experience, and they shouldn’t have to climb the tower at the National Gallery, she said. They should be able to find it in Columbia, at Orr Street.