TAYLORSVILLE – Lenoir-Rhyne University art student Sarah Johnson celebrated a bit of a homecoming this month when the Alexander County Library invited her to exhibit her art at the main branch in Taylorsville.
Johnson is a 2015 graduate of Alexander Central High and spent a lot of time at the library when she was younger.
She introduced selected pieces from her series of African-American portraits entitled, “Our Lives…Our Stories.” The complete series will be exhibited, along with additional works by Johnson, in her first solo exhibition at the Library in 2018, according to a library press release.
She also has a piece in the library’s feature exhibit, “I Am…Building a Better World,” a multimedia experience filled with work from regional artists visually interpreting the words and life of Nobel Peace Prize winner and Pakistani advocate for women’s rights to education, Malala Yousafzai.
The “I Am…Building a Better World,” exhibit also was an opportunity for Johnson to share space with her LRU visual art professor Andrew Atkin.
He was excited to see Johnson get the chance to display work in her hometown.
“She approaches art with what I’m going to call a focused, innocent mind,” Atkin said. “She’s young enough not to be so influenced and jaded and her work reflects that because it’s fresh, bold and exciting.”
He said she does a good job of taking the time to get to know her subjects before painting them, and can’t wait to see her start an art career. She took a first step in that direction with exhibition at the library.
“Any time a student, majoring in visual arts, has an opportunity to display their craft, by all means jump into it with two feet, go for it,” Atkin said. “It’s a fantastic learning experience for their future.”
Miranda Burgin, the chair of the Alexander County Public Library Board of Trustees encouraged Johnson to participate specifically in the Malala exhibit after talking about some of the LRU student’s other art work.
“I used the picture off the front of her book, ‘I am Malala,’ as the reference for my portrait,” Johnson said. “She represents a powerful story of surviving and overcoming barriers.”
Her African-American series was inspired by some of her friends and their hopes and dreams.
The piece “Soul Bound” is of her best friend Kenny.
“He is one of the reasons I really don’t give up on stuff because any time I feel down, he tells me to keep going, to keep doing what I’m doing because I’m doing a good job,” Johnson said.
“I’ve seen him from his really low points to now where he’s got a really good job and is doing really well.”
Burgin appreciated Johnson’s use of dynamic backgrounds in several pieces to help tell the story of her subjects.
“I think it’s a really strong visual choice, choosing something that plays an active role in that person’s life and creating that as part of the background of the portrait,” Burgin said.
“Soul Bound” has several swirls of color, and Johnson said “He wanted something soulful, and the first thing I thought of was the television show, ‘Soul Train.’”
She looked at the show’s logo and noticed the swirls it used. Johnson said her friend is a “very, old-school type person,” and has him wearing a seventy’s style outfit in the portrait along with a lava lamp in the background.
Knowing details about her subjects’ lives was part of the creative process for Johnson.
“The key is just listening to their story,” she said. “That is the whole point of the series, to tell their story. Sitting and listening is all I had to do.”
She hopes when visitors see her work – whether the Malala portrait or the ones in her African-American series – they come away with a deeper understanding and appreciation of the differences in people.
Alexander County Public Library Director Laura Crooks said the public support for all the current art exhibits has been overwhelming.
“It’s always one of my favorite things to have our kids who’ve grown up in the library and see someone like (Sarah) coming back, and she’s bringing something back with her,” Crooks said.
Johnson is also part of the color guard for the “Spirit of LR” marching band, LRU percussion ensemble, and LRU steel drums ensemble. The “I Am… Building a Better World” exhibit will be open through Aug. 31, during library hours. For more information, visit alexanderlibrary.org.
For more information about upcoming events and programs, call 828-632-4058.
“I Am…Building a Better World”
Yousafzai had a passion for education and, in spite of threats from the Taliban, fearlessly advocated for her own rights and those of others in Pakistan.
Malala Yousafzai and her father received death threats but continued to speak out for the right to education.
In 2012, Malala Yousafzai survived being shot in the head by a masked gunman on her school bus.
Despite the attack, she continued to advocate for the right of girls to pursue an education, and in 2014 she accepted the Nobel Peace Prize, using the money to fund a secondary school for girls in Pakistan.