“Drawing the negative space, the space around the objects, is as important as drawing the positive space.”
Such simple words of advice, given by Houghton College Professor of Art Ted Murphy, have long stayed with Anna Maria Johnson '01.
For the lifelong artist and former Houghton student, the idea has transferred to numerous fields: in literature, the concept of reading between the lines; in history, the importance of things unwritten; in theology, the wondrous gaps in human understanding.
Steven Johnson '95 began his Houghton journey six years prior to Anna Maria. Also a former art student, Steven learned while on art department excursions to Washington D.C., N.Y.C and even Paris, that the most invaluable times were often outside of galleries and classrooms, “between the lines,” during periods of travel and intermission.
“I have vivid memories of van rides with Houghton art faculty and students, where discussion surrounded contemporary novels, arguments on current issues, and the invention of fantastic scenarios.”
Steven and Anna Maria’s common interests and creative pursuits would lead them to one another, with a little push from mutual friends. The two were set to meet at a place they both knew well, Houghton College. Anna Maria, a student, and Steven, a graduate, took a few steps of faith and began a long-distance relationship that consisted of many letters and drawings exchanged through mail. A year and a half after meeting, the two were married. Now they have two daughters, Eliza and Magdalena.
At Houghton, Anna Maria learned to pursue a wide variety of interests rather than becoming narrowly focused on one thing. “The range of skills, craft and critique that I learned in my undergraduate study of the visual arts proved immensely relevant to my graduate study in creative writing,” shares Anna Maria, now a Master of Fine Arts graduate in Creative Non-fiction and Fiction.
Steven echoes in saying, “Houghton taught me to see connections between disciplines, to look for beauty and wonder in all manner of places, and to pay careful attention.” Also a student of Ted Murphy’s, Steven remembers drawing every bone in the body from four different angles, engraving in him the kind of disciplined observation he has carried into his vocation as a college professor and freelance photographer/web designer. Steven received his Master of Fine Arts in the field of digital media and now teaches photography and digital media courses at Eastern Mennonite University.
Anna Maria encourages aspiring artists to pursue their passion. “If you want to live an interesting and poetic life, to keep learning new things every day, and to encounter a wide variety of experiences and people across classes, the arts is a wonderful field where that can happen.”
Similarly, Steven asserts that one of life’s most important skills is “learning how to learn.” At times, this may mean embracing inevitable gaps in understanding as opportunities for growth. In a constantly changing world, the ability to adapt one’s thinking is essential to finding one’s creative calling.
Steven and Anna Maria’s mutual loves for visual arts, literature, science and nature has led them to their latest project, a collaborative work in Lincoln, Oregon. Living within the boundary of the Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument, Steven and Anna Maria are employing their artistic skills as photographer and writer, to observe and illustrate the vast features of the ecosystem.
“We don’t intend to compile a comprehensive species list, or to write technical articles as biologists and geologists know how to do. Instead, we approach from a personal perspective, as a couple of artists who are curious, eager to learn, enjoy, and respond to this special, highly diverse convergence of eco-regions,” writes Anna Maria on their website. “With our images and text, we compose our new song.”
To view pieces of their works in progress, including scraps of essays, photos, scanned illustrations and more, visit their website at cascade-siskiyou.org. For more information about the artists’ individual works, their websites can be found at stevendavidjohnson.com and annamariajohnson.com.