Talking Shop with Doug Johnston

Using a process of coiling and stitching he first learned on YouTube, Doug Johnston channels early forms of masonry and a childhood among the Oklahoma plains, surrounded by his parents’ treasure-trove of Native American weavings. When he later came upon the process of 3D printing, Johnston was forever influenced by the infinite capabilities of the machine. “I started seeing my sewing machine as an analog 3D printer,” he told Artsy. “It really opened up the kinds of shapes I would produce.” Lately, that means coiled lighting sculptures we were dying to learn more about.

Artsy: Can you tell us about your recent transition from baskets, bags, and seating into lighting sculptures?

Doug Johnston: I actually made my first lighting piece several years ago after noticing that the stitching in the seams will glow near light when using certain threads, and that synthetic cords are somewhat translucent.... It’s exciting for me because the shapes and forms can be quite sculptural and free, yet still retain the function of lighting. It also gives them a presence in a space that I really love. It has made me see the technique in a new way, which is great and moving me forward.

Artsy: What kind of sewing machine do you work with?

DJ: I have four industrial zig-zag machines: two Singer 20u machines, both made in Japan in the 1960s, and two Pfaff machines made in West Germany, I believe also in the 1960s. The Pfaffs are amazing machines and make beautiful stitches. The Singers are very solid and versatile. All four are incredibly well made, but can be quite temperamental and have their own personalities. They need lots of attention and I’ve become somewhat of a sewing machine repairman as a result.

Artsy: Is there a reason you prefer to work mechanically rather than by hand stitching?

DJ: One of the reasons I became so enamored with the coiled pieces is because I found machine sewing to be very satisfying. I have really fallen in love with sewing machines—they are endlessly fascinating to me and I am mesmerized by their operation. The industrial machines sew very quickly and I have a deep appreciation for them as labor-saving devices that literally changed the world in the Industrial Era. As such, I have lost my patience for hand stitching and avoid it as much as possible.

Artsy: Can you talk a little bit about the process and material-based nature of your work?

DJ: Moving more into material and process-based work has really changed how I think about details and enhanced my daily sense of aesthetics.... I had been researching American utopian communities of the 19th century (The Shakers, Perfectionists, Fourierists, Owenites, Harmonists, etc.) and was really drawn to their lifestyle based in making and creating useful objects, sometimes as a policy or even as a form of prayer. I was initially interested in how they created the communities, their typically socialist structures, and their self-sufficiency, but learned that so much of their success or failure depended on how much they incorporated the physical production of functional goods into their existence. This mirrored my own love of making things and I got in touch with how much I enjoyed sewing, knitting, welding, woodworking, or making the coiled pieces. In a way, I am now creating my own personal utopian community and my life has fully incorporated a similar type of production.

Doug Johnston: Light Sculptures is on view at Mondo Cane from May 17th - 31st, 2013.

Additional photographs courtesy of Michael Popp.