From Zimbabwe to Detroit, An Artist Explores His Heritage in Carved Stone
“Improvisation” may not be a word that springs to mind when you imagine the artistic process behind carving stone sculptures. But it’s key to the work of M. Scott Johnson, an American sculptor whose pieces are currently on display at Detroit’s Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History.
“I achieve the most visceral and focused statements through improvisation,” Johnson has said. “Improvisation allows me to snatch an image at birth, creating a balance between imposing and communicating with the natural life force resonating from within my materials.” The materials in question are most often marble and slate, and occasionally organic pigment, as in Totem for Edwina Ross (2007), a piece dedicated to the artist’s great-grandmother. Though the works are largely abstract, there are recognizable shapes and figures here—totems, and the human face, as in High John the Conqueror (2009), as well as rocks and other natural objects. It’s what Johnson’s work is all about: reworking organic forms in an ancient medium.
Johnson’s style was shaped by a career-changing stint in Zimbabwe. After studying both contemporary and traditional sculpture in Bulawayo in the mid-1990s, the artist took on a three-year apprenticeship with the great Zimbabwean sculptor Nicholas Mukomberanwa. It was an experience that made a profound impact on the young artist. “His movement showed me how to become a conduit—rhythmic with my tools and creative intuition,” says the artist, who was inspired to start exploring the connections between line and rhythm in the African Diaspora in his work.
It’s only fitting that Johnson would be chosen as the focus of a special solo show at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History in Detroit, a museum that is thought to showcase the largest permanent exhibit of African American culture in the world. Though Johnson’s works are usually accessible at Baltimore’s Galerie Myrtis, they’re available to a larger audience for the majority of this year as part of the exhibition at The Wright.
“Shadow Matter: The Rhythm of Structure—Afro Futurism to Afro Surrealism” is on view at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History, Detroit, Jan. 19–Aug. 30, 2015.