Deborah Johnson

by Dana Kester-McCabe

Deborah Johnson is a fiber and glass artist from Magnolia, Delaware.

When Deborah Johnson first studied weaving she says she hated it. It seemed too mathematical. So she chose to concentrate her studies on clay at the University of North Carolina. After serving in the Army, and going to grad school, she worked as muralist with the artist Carlos Gallejo in El Passo. Later she moved to Seattle where she continued painting and working in clay until she and her husband moved to Delaware.

As her children started to grow up she rediscovered weaving and fiber art and fell in love with it.

Deborah Johnson:
I went to New York City a lot. And, I joined the New York Textile Study Group, which was really interesting. They have a speaker once a month from September until Spring. So you can go up and listen to wonderful artists from all over the world. So, that was very motivating: to really explore fibers.

And, I learned how to weave as a child. My aunt was a weaver. But tapestry, is not the weaving I took in college. So, I discovered I really like tapestry. I started exploring the layering which is similar to what I do in clay. I know that sounds weird but it's the same sort of color choices.

I do a lot of color overlay in my weavings so that I am weaving transparencies. So, I have a pattern on the piece. And then I have a story over the piece. Which I think for me, is very visually interesting to have more than one layer, which is the reason I also work in glass. It is a similar process. You are looking at the color and through the color.

But I think the thread that ties all my work together besides the layering is: it's all narrative. And, I usually use faces. I find faces fascinating. I think it's been a big benefit to me to have lived all over the country. One of my oldest and dearest friends is an Inuit. Her face appears a lot in my work. Now that we're older together, her children's faces appear in my work. And of course my family is just a wonderful tapestry of all different races, so all those face appear in my work, because it is much nicer to weave the faces that you love.

While Deborah was living in Seattle she also began working in glass. The potential for brilliant colors and transparencies made glass paintings and adding glass elements to her tapestries a natural development of her creative pursuits.

Deborah Johnson:
I love the softness of fiber and I love that glass has that hard edge but the color is very similar. The thing is, to me, I know people say you should specialize and you should have one medium, and that should be your focus. But, that would be like saying you should only eat one food. And that should be the only food you eat. It's all the same to me. It's just all color. It's all texture. It's just the same. It just depends on what you want to say.

This glass piece that I am working on right now is the story of Blue Willow. I just love stories about women. There are so many myths and legends. And, I just think they're wonderful. A lot of times I give them a happier ending. I am disappointed in the ending that they have so I give them an ending that I think they should have.

I think my work has a spiritual component, definitely. And, we are spiritual beings so, it's difficult to avoid that as an artist. But, I like storytelling. I like narrative. I also like to explore repetition. And so, fiber allows that. And it's very meditative. And I enjoy that aspect of working in fibers.

Both weaving and glass are ancient art forms with many techniques still employed by artists like Deborah today. The availability of materials through the internet has opened up the possibilities for Deborah and yet provides deep connections to time honored traditions. She showed me a piece she made with 24 karat gold thread that had been produced by a company in Japan that was destroyed in the terrible 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami. But just as one connection to the past is lost another is found.

Deborah Johnson:
It kind of gives me chills, but when I got this loom it was such a gift. I have a goal list every year. And, I had on my goal list that I wanted a large tapestry loom. But they are quite expensive so I thought that would be out of my reach for a long time. So I was fooling around on the computer, and I thought I'm just going to check Craig's List. There was a loom, on Craig's List! And I thought this has to be a misprint. This can't be a Swedish upright tapestry loom for this tiny price. So I called the woman. She lived in North Carolina. She basically interviewed me. She had woven all her life and she wanted the loom to go to someone who wanted to use the loom. And I was able to get the loom for just a few hundred dollars instead of the thousands that it would normally cost. It was such a gift! It was just like the universe, like God said: "Huh - here is your loom."

Like, when I was warping it up I was thinking, "Think about all the people that have woven on this loom." It was produced probably in the 50's. So it's not super old, but it is old. And, they're not making this particular style any more.

Weaving is a time consuming process. It's an inch an hour on the scale that I work. It takes a long time to see an image, sometimes months. But sometimes it goes too slowly so I'll start working in glass because it goes much faster. (Laughs)

I think it says something about the human spirit. Because, it takes such a long time to learn some of the techniques. And to keep on going when you just doing an inch; and you missed a warp; and you have to take it out. (Laughs) But, I like that. I like that the finished piece, when it comes into being, it represents hundreds of hours. And I think that in itself says something about being human: that willingness to work through something. And so that is one of the reasons for me that I like embroidery and fiber.

Deborah is a member of the prestigious Fiber Forum of The Embroiderers Guild of America. She has been a recipient of an Opportunity Grant from the Delaware Division of the Arts for her embroidered vessel work. Her work has been included in numerous juried shows. You can see her work at Gallery 37 in Milford or with the Delaware By Hand guild at the Biggs Museum in Dover.