Tim Johnson

Tim Johnson Pupils lifting Willow Dome, St.Mary's RC Primary School Ryde Willow Curls by Tim Johnson
Plan of Action by Tim Johnson
Hazel Dome Aura at St.Mary's RC Primary School Ryde

Isle of Wight-based artist Tim Johnson is a man of many parts. As well as specialising in the low-tech field of basketwork and making sculptures out of natural, traditional materials, he also works in the high-tech field of photography and is interested in performance art, costume and teaching. What connects these diverse strands are his love of nature, experiment and intuition, and above all a joy in the process of making: ‘I’m really interested in getting stuck in and getting my hands dirty’, he says.


Do you consider yourself a photographer or a sculptor?

It’s a tricky question, but I prefer to call myself a maker. As I’ve got older, I’ve become happier and happier being a creative person and doing everything I’m interested in which can broadly described as making. If I stuck to just photography or just sculpture, I would be denying the other parts of myself. I try not to build barriers between the different areas and just make whatever I want to make. I have a foot in both the fine arts and the crafts camp, although I don’t really think that’s a useful division. I’m interested in making and learning through doing.

Your interests seem very wide-ranging including costume, basket making, photography, performance art and teaching. Does anything link them all?

I think they’re all linked by my interest in nature and natural materials. I’ve always been interested in natural history and looking at the environment. My father passed on an appreciation for nature and wildlife, as well as an interest in photography.

What came first, the photography or the sculpture?

I did A level art at school as well as geography and biology, so I could have taken the natural sciences route, but instead I did a degree in fine art at Reading University. The photography started as a fun thing I did on the side, but then became an important way of documenting my work. When I left university I spent a couple of years working as a dark room technician for a photographer in Donegal so learnt a lot about the field then. I don’t see that there’s any conflict between working in 3D or working in 2D – it’s all creative – although photography is a very different process from sculpture as it’s a very immediate way of producing images. I think the reason I enjoy photography is because it’s another way of showing and sharing things I find beautiful or striking which is something I love doing (especially when I’m teaching).

How does your teaching fit into your practice?

I do a lot of teaching right through from reception level in primary schools to college level.  It’s something I really enjoy as I think that part of my job as an artist is to teach people creatively. I find it very satisfying to share my appreciation for natural history with others.  My knowledge and enjoyment of the natural world is an important part of my life, and if I can share a little of it, that’s all to the good.
I also enjoy teaching traditional basketwork skills to people as I think it’s part of my responsibility to the tradition; it’s a way of honouring it and preserving it. I think it increases our connection with the land and brings people closer to nature. But there’s a flip side to teaching basketwork, as I also enjoy showing people how they can experiment with the traditional materials and have a fresh look at the field – it’s a way of giving people confidence to be creative and setting them free from the constraints of the tradition.

What made you decide to specialise in basketwork?

I fell into it by accident. When I was living in Ireland the local arts officer asked me if I wanted to lead an arts project with a group of school children in the grounds of an old convent. I saw that there was lots of bamboo growing there and it was obvious that we should use it so we ended up making a series of domes and tunnels out of the bamboo. It was a pragmatic decision that led on to more similar work. My next project was an installation made out of driftwood for the Donegal Arts Festival which eventually toured round Ireland. I realised that as well as installing the artwork at the individual galleries, I could also offer related workshops and so my professional practice developed out of that teaching and making combination.

How would you describe your working methods?

Pretty intuitive and opportunistic! I like working in lots of different situations, doing lots of different residencies, going somewhere with no plan and just having to rely on my initiative. It forces me to really dig deep, which can be terrifying, but that’s when the really good stuff comes out as I’m forced to be creative and take risks which I might not otherwise do. Working like this has given me more confidence and the freedom to improvise so I’m not bound by tradition, although I still honour it.

Do you design your work before you start?

I try and avoid the pre-designed approach at all costs! I find the idea of just manufacturing what you’ve already thought out uninteresting – if I know what I’m going to make before I start, there’s no excitement for me. If I become bored by the process there seems little chance the viewer will be enthralled. Having said all this, inevitably some work does follow a known path and there is fulfilment in that also.

Do you enjoy collaborative work with other makers?

Yes, I do. For me, it’s another important way of letting go of the pre-planning element and opening yourself up to spontaneity. Working with someone else forces you to throw out your own ego as the work you make as a partnership is very different to what you make on your own.

I’ve worked a lot with the basketmaker Mary Butcher for whom I have great respect. She and I come from different ends of the basketwork spectrum as she is more craft oriented and I’m from more of a fine arts background but we have a special relationship which I think is quite rare. I also do a lot with Chris Jenkins, for example making willow and hazel structures for schools, which are very different from the projects that I do with Mary but which I also get a lot out of.

What are your current interests?

Brahan Man, 2006I’m fascinated by costume at the moment and the way it disguises the wearer. In 2006 I developed a rush costume for a character I called the Brahan Man and I recently wore it for an event at the Cecil Sharp House (home of the English Folk Dance and Song Society). Wearing it made me understand how costume turns you into something else – it’s a weird, magical transformation which gives you a moment of freedom and a new identity.

My most recent project at Quay Arts (where Johnson is part of the education team) with Chris Jenkins was called Kingdom of Old and involved working with over 250 pupils from local schools creating a complex gallery installation and costumed orchestra with handmade instruments.
My ongoing current diverse areas of research include the human skull, mapping and early human explorations into flight.

Interview by Diana Woolf