Two Milwaukeeans met at a cafe this winter to discuss the elder's work as an artist. One is Mutope Johnson, a gifted painter and professional currently based in his hometown of Milwaukee, and the other is Jerrod Johnson, a recent graduate of UW-Milwaukee and the founder of The Milwaukee Art Shore.
These two young men emboldened each other throughout the interview, gleefully discussing the purpose and power of art in our community, and the importance of peers in the artistic process.
I wish I was there that afternoon to see their eyes light up. But I got the close second. Just listening to their voices on their interview tape discuss the Harlem Renaissance, representation of previously undiscovered art from African Americans at the height of the industrial revolution, and what inspires Mutope to make art: it gave me energy. And I can't wait to make my own art after listening. Now, let me tell you what I learned.
When does an artist know s/he is called to be an Artist? When did you know that you'd dedicate your life to making art?
As a kiddo, Mutope Johnson just made stuff. He spent his childhood just making what he wanted to make. He didn't look ahead of himself, much like any kid doesn’t look ahead. He enjoyed himself: discovering with his eyes, his hands, his mind as much as he could.
Then he got noticed by his teachers and this was when he discovered he became a Maker, truly. He was encouraged by his teachers and was awarded scholarships. He calls this the first time he felt "total encouragement."
Barely into junior high, Mutope was awarded the Milwaukee Art Museum scholarship through their community arts program where he would ride the bus every Saturday to attend specially curated classes. His mom took him on the bus with her, showed him the route once, and said, "then you're on your own."
For Mutope, it really was the beginning of his pattern of exploration and self sufficiency. He would ride alone as a young student to these classes, becoming exposed to so many artists. This solidified his desire to "be on those walls one day."
From here on everything he thought about turned into his art. He would put the work in and make as much art as he could.
How did you pursue higher education to develop yourself as an artist?
Mutope graduated from UW-Whitewater with a Bachelor's of Fine Art in graphic design and illustration. With no more than 15 people in his fine art studio classes, he was given the ability to be thoroughly critiqued by his fellow artists. He grew enormously this way and learned what his artistic voice was. The support of his peers, and his active participation in their development as well, along with sincere instruction and input from his professors, was invaluable to his artistic maturity.
He didn't want to be a street artist, like the ones that painted portraits for a few dollars in his childhood neighborhoods. He wanted to pursue a career in fine arts. Attending university solidified his confidence in chasing opportunities that would lead to a profession in the arts.
After graduation, he worked professionally as an advertising professional in multiple positions such as creative director and graphic designer. Here, he lived a truly dual life. During the day, Mutope created ad campaigns and commercially excellent designs. At night, he was a fine art painter. He had to brand himself in two distinct ways.
Mutope likened himself to Andy Warhol, another commercial artist who fought for the respect and acceptance of his fine art contemporaries. It took a lot of time and savvy for Warhol to gain this respect. And Mutope was concerned that his commercial appeal did not translate fully to the fine art world.
So, when he entered the graduate program at UW-Milwaukee, he kept his background private. He did not want his graduate peers to consider him a commercial artist. He wanted his current work to be judged cleanly.
And he was. In the graduate program, he experienced increased community and peer support. Through this program, he truly built his life as a community artist. He was appointed an Imagining America Fellow where he went to Syracuse, NY with a group of community engaged scholars-artists. This group was immersed into a program focused on developing other artists as activists and agents of social change.
And with this, it was easy for Mutope Johnson to pick up where he left off.
What does life after grad school look like for an artist?
He went back into the industry as a consultant for a firm, and also as a professional fine artist. He developed projects about the Bronzeville poets and African American makers of the early beginnings of African American furniture and ceramics. The beautiful materials made during the Industrial Revolution, recently researched and developed into a full exhibit at the Milwaukee Art Museum.
In 2010, Johnson was hired as the museum's community liaison where he worked to engage non-traditional audiences in art that they could relate to. He aimed to get this message across: the museum was for them, too.
And of course it was.
The new exhibit showed these African American makers who made beautiful, functional objects for generations to behold. Mutope Johnson wanted to show young students that inspiration comes from adversity and that they can become artists themselves. They can make beautiful objects, too.
His advice to young artists is simple. "Put into practice what you believe. Research. Apply your research to your ability and your practice. And make sure you brand yourself. If you don't brand yourself, the art world will label you itself."
And, boldly, "live your life out loud!"
Mutope Johnson doesn't plan his art; he fully experiences it and grows with it. He is more than okay with this. And I think those who view his artwork are too. He says, "I can think globally but I dream intergalactically."
Written by Kristin Peterson
Edited by Jerrod Johnson.
Photographs not taken by T.M.A.S. photographers.