Kiel Johnson


Entering the art studio of Kiel Johnson is like entering a warphole of abstract creativity. Drawings of cars, satellites, and chairs cover the walls. Cardboard masks and even a model city decorate the workspace of an artist who prides himself in creating things inspired by daily life. “My artwork is influenced by what’s around me all the time,” Johnson said. “No matter what I’m doing, I am always looking around thinking about shapes, colors and patterns.”

Originally from Kansas, Johnson was always motivated by his parents to advance in his creative potential. His high school art teacher Paul Wright pushed him to take risks in the name of art.

“I was definitely a trouble maker without direction when I was younger, but there's something creative inside of everyone at a certain age,” he said. “Paul Wright showed us that it was possible to make art for a living.”

Johnson moved to California to attend grad school at Cal State Long Beach and was immediately inspired by the lights and density of the surrounding cities. His art went through transitions of its own as he moved around. While living near the ports of Los Angeles, his art became very industrial, focusing on cranes, scaffolds and boats. When he moved to East Los Angeles, he concentrated on the hills and the shanty architecture of his surroundings.

“In Kansas, you get a little bit of everything, whereas here you can get a lot of everything,” Johnson said in regards to his cultural inspirations.

He graduated from CSULB, but continued working there for several years teaching a drawing class and working at the art galleries.

“I found it to be an amazing experience, and a good center of my work reflects the time I spent at Cal State Long Beach,” Johnson said.

His creativity with cardboard was what really got him noticed. Johnson began constructing elaborate sculptures of printing presses, cameras, musical instruments, and giant telescopes from simple material. He said that he began using cardboard because it was cheap and fast.

“I like to see things happen quickly, and cardboard basically allowed me to build as fast as I draw,” Johnson said. “I'm a big believer that you're never going to have any idea if you don't get busy, and a good idea never really comes to me unless I'm working on a bad idea.”

From these projects, he built on a new concept that was originally meant for film. He built a model city from paper and cardboard with hundreds of buildings, houses and cars. It was displayed at an art show at the Staples Center and caught the attention of many, including people from the infamous TED organization.

Through TED, Johnson was able to host “Everybody’s an Architect” workshops around the world with his miniature city, and a “salad bar” setup that would allow participants to essentially create their own cities based on their own cultures. In the United Arab Emirates, the men build rugby fields and the women build schools. While in the green country of New Zealand, cars completely vanished from the city, and paperclip bike racks replaced them.

“I would show up in a community with the same materials, but they always built a different city,” Johnson said. “It was just a beautiful thing seeing everyone come together and bring what they had to make a miniature city the best it could be, which is a perfect metaphor of what we need to do in real life.”

Although from this he may be known as “the cardboard guy,” Johnson said he’s a drawer at heart.

“I love that there are no rules in drawing,” he said. “It’s not like when you're building and have to obey the laws of gravity and physics.”

His new series of giant drawings comes from things that one may come across every day. The pieces feature sketches of multiple forms of the same object, whether it be chairs, ships, cars, clothing, or suns. Each sketch is the same thing but different in its design.

“I'm not striving for social or political change through my art,” Johnson said. “I'm really just kind of a selfish artist because I'm interpreting my daily life.”

It is a constant cycle for Johnson. He said he does grow tired of drawing after a while and goes back to building things.

“I'm always drawing and building, and drawing and building, but I always draw something in hopes that it will inspire a sculpture,” he said. “I believe in a certain level of craft, and sometimes you can make a piece in three minutes that can change the world.”

When asked to pick his favorite project, Johnson describes it “like asking a mom who their favorite kid is” because the project he’s working on at the moment tends to be his favorite, but that always changes. When parting with them, he said it feels “like they've left [him] or moved out of the house.”

Aside from creating art of his own, he loves to host workshops to motivate others to do the same. Johnson likes working with people who do not believe they are artists, because he is inspired by what they come up with.

“I love finding those people and letting them discover that they are so much more creative than they thought they were,” he said.

His advice for fellow artists is to “get busy, keep making stuff, and experiment.”

“Start and end each day with your art, and make it your life,” Johnson said. “If you keep making stuff, somebody is definitely going to notice.”

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