Meet Artist Marta Elise Johansen

The architect turned artist, Marta Elise Johansen, creates stunning ethereal works full of movement and detail all focused on the language of the line. She shares with us her artistic process and inspiration.

Tell us about yourself; how did you first get immersed into your artistic endeavors? My mother had a textile and modern dance background and was associated with artists from the American Crafts Movement, mostly people from Black Mountain College. Potters, sculptors, poets, and dancers. I grew up in a very artistic environment, as friends of hers often spent time with us at our Vermont farmhouse.​

I was surrounded by creativity, both of my parents were involved in development work. My Norwegian father, an engineer who worked in Southeast and Middle Eastern Asia designing railway systems, and my American mother, a consultant for UNIDO and for the Pakistani government, met in Pakistan where they both lived and worked at the time. After I was born there, my parents moved back to the United States when I was about 5, to be closer to my aging grandparents who lived in New York City.

I traveled immensely throughout my childhood and early adulthood, to almost 30 countries and was exposed to art and architecture worldwide which became by passion. Seeing how space defines us, defines how we feel, and how we express ourselves as humans is a universal trait. We all see and feel space, and my drawings are an effort to create these moods and sensory experiences.

Describe your process when it comes to your artwork: M​y process stems from my education and early architecture career. I drew by hand, with mechanical pens and pencils. The architectural language is conveyed through line: line weights, density, and the way they come together – ​this became my artistic language. After I completed architecture school, I would often come home from working and do daily meditative drawings. ​The repetition of lines was a way for me to express my feelings, and it quickly became my own language.

What makes a piece feel “complete” to you, what does it hold for you when it’s finished? I have a relatively strict practice. Typically, I work alone in my studio, in the daylight, one piece at a time. I work on one drawing a time, like a meditation and go from left to right. I don’t cross over and go backwards over my lines. It’s a very “linear process” with a clear beginning and end. I will lay out, in my mind, what a drawing will look like, what it will be about, and then I go forth with that intention. There is always room for change, but typically the paper size dictates the drawing size.

What is your typical medium (pencil, charcoal, etc.), and why? Always ink on paper. My tool of choice is a Micron .005 nib black ink pen and I draw on hotpress paper. Smooth cotton paper.

I have experimented with watercolor wash and colored pencils, but it always feels additive to me. The simplicity of ink on paper is what is special. The detail and obsessive nature of my process is all that matters to me.

I have been working larger scale with graphite sticks and charcoal on walls. It’s a very similar process, but enlarged.

Your pieces are all unique while all holding a cohesiveness. What is it that inspires you; be it a particular mood, a color palette, a certain artist? The environment, nature, and science mostly influence me – music, too. I let myself go in my work and I don’t think about other artists, just layers and shadows I have found walking near the sea or in the forest. Drawing becomes a dance. Quiet and slow, but a movement and connection with the paper, each new line a subtle reaction to the last drawn line.

Of course there are artists that I am excited about. I see the late Agnes Martin as the ​godmother of the line, and the moody sensual qualities of Marlene Dumas’ works stun me. Mark Bradford’s immense collages of found and simple materials, the tedious details of Bruce Conners ink drawings, and I could go on. Rothko, Hundertwasser, Basquiat, Egon Schieles erotics, early Dutch and Flemish engravings, Motherwell…

Where do you believe your particular strength lies as an artist? My strength lies in my ability to convey space.

What other creative fields are you involved in? Architecture and interior design, as well as graphic/branding.

Do you have any upcoming showings? I have two pieces in a group show called Burning Brite, at Dzine in San Francisco, until October. I have an installation project at Ramon’s Tailor, in San Francisco, in July.

Do you take artwork commissions? How can one learn more? Yes, I love commissions. I am ​just starting a commission for a couple that’s almost six feet long, about a boundary line that’s important to them. The boundary will be the void cut through a solid field of lines. I can’t wait to begin.

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