On The Verge: Iskra Johnson, Mixed Media Artist

In partnership with Sarah Hurt of Seattle Art Source, we are excited to spotlight artists #ontheverge. We are especially delighted that for this blog the artist, Iskra Johnson, was kind enough to allow us into her home and studio to photograph. We were able to see the 'happiness chair' in her front garden where she sits as part of her morning ritual, often sharing the space with the neighborhood cat as she meditates or journals. To be in the sacred space an artist has crafted for their work allows us a more holistic glimpse into their world, in this case, revealing what contributes to making Iskra's work at once edgy and yet also sentimental. A special thank you to photographer Ben Calhoun for capturing this talented artist in her realm. 


I met Iskra several years ago and the images of her industrial work immediately found a permanent place in my memory. It wasn't until months after our initial meeting did we finally get the chance to sit down and swap stories. Her wealth of experience and deep knowledge of her craft has elevated my business acumen tremendously and I always leave our interactions more informed. Iskra generously shares her knowledge with me and approaches our community of artists with a supportive open-handedness. Iskra brings a unique and refreshing paradigm to the industrial landscape of Seattle and it is with such pleasure that I count her as part of Seattle Art Source. 

ARTIST NAME Iskra Johnson


My style does not fit a particular genre. I use photography and computer technology to blend many different media into a new form of collage. A lot of my work has a dream quality, merging photographic reality with the unreal world of paint to blur the line between waking and sleeping. You could call that “surreal” but it’s a modern form of surreal that doesn’t necessarily rely on transgressive juxtapositions or virtuoso rendering. I am more interested in the extraordinary magic of ordinary things, which is ideally suited to photographic media transformed through paint.

Favorite Medium: 

Although I adore all water media, my very favorite is watercolor, using Daniel Smith’s PrimaTek line. Not only are the names of the paints intoxicating and poetic (who can resist Burnt Tiger’s Eye, Jadelite or Hematite Violet??), but they are uniquely gorgeous on the page.

 Photography By: Ben Calhoun

Photography By: Ben Calhoun

Favorite Subject Matter: 

I love almost any subject that I can see the bones of. That could be the garden in autumn when the flowers are faded and the branches are exposed, or buildings as they are being constructed, or walls of graffiti where language and surface take turns being revealed. I like subjects where I can see the interaction of structure and surface with the atmosphere. Give me a construction site with wind and clouds and I’m ecstatic.

Where did you study or train? Did you apprentice under anyone? 

I have a BFA in painting from the University of Washington. But most of my fine art skills are self-taught or learned from the study of Asian ink painting and calligraphy. I studied with Sensei Ishii to learn the looser styles of Japanese haiga painting on rice paper, and with Lucy Liu to learn the formal brushwork used in Chinese bird and flower painting.

Are you an artist full time? If so, how long have you been an artist full time:  

I have been a full-time calligraphic designer for most of my life. I am making a transition to full-time painting and printmaking, and this year marks the transition to full-time art.

 Photography By: Ben Calhoun

Photography By: Ben Calhoun

Tell us about your studio or the space you work from?

I used to divide my work life between a cottage in the backyard where I did design and a small loft in my house with a micro-sink for painting. Two years ago I completed my dream studio and put everything together in an upper story addition to my house. Now I have the computer office, the drafting table, the work sink and the painting room all within a few steps of each other.

Although I love the main room with the bay of Eastern windows, in some ways my favorite new space is the tiny “dust room” I had built for working with charcoal and plaster. It has one very tall wall and one tiny window, and it is a funnel of complete focus, where I can throw materials around to my heart’s content. For anyone thinking of building their own studio: windows are a joy, but the more uninterrupted wall space the better. And design at least one wall with a high ceiling to inspire you and give you the courage to work at a large scale. You don’t need a huge vaulted ceiling, even a backyard shed roof that is tall at one end will have this effect.

Tell me about the series (whichever paintings the artist would like to showcase on the blog):

Right now I am very focused on the theme of “industrial strength,” which is the title of my upcoming 3-woman show in September. Every week I make expeditions into the industrial landscape to gather material. I love the working waterfront or concrete plants on a Sunday when the generators are humming but only the birds are there. There is such a haunting beauty to industrial architecture. Much of it comes from another age when every detail was done with care and craftsmanship and a vocabulary of form that had a thoughtful coherence. Lately, my favorite muse is the Elliott Bay grain elevator. I keep going back to capture it in different weather and light. The way the heroic scale of the building comes up against the northwest landscape is breathtaking.

Where do you look to for resources and inspiration? 

My artistic inspiration comes from classic painters and draftsmen like Ben Nicholson, Charles Sheeler, Jim Dine or Charles Demuth. Add to that Instagram, and the daily amazement I find there from a global community of artists pushing the boundaries of art and graphic language. 

Any upcoming exhibitions or installations? 

I will be having a pop-up shop at Seattle Art Source (666 S King St) July 14-15 where I will be bringing in a wide variety of prints is various sizes and subject matter. It will be a studio sale of sorts with first come first serve on the art. Industrial Strength opens at SAM Gallery in the second week of September this fall. I will also be in a group show in August about the Ballard Locks. It will open August 17 at the beautiful Beaux Arts style administration building by the gardens.

 Morning Ritual in the garden

Morning Ritual in the garden

Do you have a favorite ritual before starting creative work?

When my art form was primarily calligraphy I did a very concentrated form of Zen meditation each day before I sat down at my desk. With my new work, I need a more fluid practice, where I may have my journal at hand for writing, and a cup of tea and the time spent in silence watching my breath can be pretty short. Mixed media art is about managing and being comfortable with chaos –– the possibilities in this work (and the number of decisions one must make!) are infinite. So although I need the ability to focus it is more important for me to set my emotional compass towards generosity of spirit, openness, and ease with “not knowing.” When I shut my eyes and get quiet in that state of mind I can begin to “see” compositions in advance and have more trust in the process.

Any activities that you do as an artist for fun, that you would suggest other creative people do? 

Walking and looking is my greatest pure pleasure, and it never fails to shake up my state of mind and open the doors to creativity.

Photography: Ben Calhoun