Friday Faculty Focus: Jeremy Johnson


October 7th, 2016

Jeremy Johnson is the Professor of Art Education and Director of the UNO Center for Innovation in Arts Education at UNO. (Photo by Brandon McDermott)

Jeremy Johnson is the Professor of Art Education and Director of the UNO Center for Innovation in Arts Education at UNO. (Photo by Brandon McDermott)

When you enter an art exhibit you may read a sign that says ‘Please don’t touch the artwork.’ Well that is a bit different from an art exhibit open on the campus of the University of Nebraska at Omaha. In this week’s Friday Faculty focus, KVNO’s Brandon McDermott speaks with Dr. Jeremy Johnson, director of the Center for Innovation in Arts Education at UNO.

Brandon: Dr. Johnson, thank you for joining me this week.

Dr. Johnson: Thank you for having me.

Brandon: Before we get into details about specific exhibits – I’d like to focus on the senses. How does each sense play to the experience of a piece of art?

Dr. Johnson: Well that is a very interesting question. Oftentimes when we’re looking at a piece of art we tend to rely on just our visual sense. Mainly because when we go to a museum we are asked to stand certain number of feet away and observe. We’re not allowed to touch an object. Occasionally we will get into some other pieces, some mediums that the artists are experimenting with touch. They will allow you to interact with an exhibit. For example, Jamie Burmeister has a piece done at the Children’s Museum that you’re allowed to touch – but it also plays a sound. So it depends on the intent of the artist and unfortunately a lot of the stuff in the gallery is meant to just be looked at and not touched.

Brandon: Now we have the visual arts, music, drama, literature, sculpture, dance and film. Are they limited by the senses involved?
Dr. Johnson: I don’t believe that they are necessarily limited, that would say that there’s something missing from them, and that it’s a negative. There’s nothing wrong with the current way in which art is being displayed or created. There are other ways to explore it, as well though, that will make it accessible for all populations. That really is what the focus is of our exhibition here at UNO. We really got to think about how we can make the arts, the visual art specifically, accessible to people with visual impairments. That’s not to say that they were being taught incorrectly before, there’s nothing wrong with having a gallery or exhibition where people are not allowed to touch the our work. But we wanted to just see what would happen if we started including some of those other senses into this.

Brandon: Going in to my next question here. The exhibit on display this month is ‘Sensory: Please Touch The Art’ – touch is a very intimate sense – what limits and what opportunities does that offer the artist?

Dr. Johnson: Well, it offered a lot of opportunities for example we taught four classes this summer to visually impaired artists. I would say those participants didn’t use the term artist when they first came in. They had to experience working with say floral foam or clay, even drawing materials using just their hands. Occasionally, they would smell something like the clay and it was a really neat experience. These experiences help them to interact with creating a piece; they had to rely on their other senses, more than just a visual. Now limits – that was a little challenging. Occasionally we’d hear from the participants ‘well is this going to look right for a person that is sighted?’ and we tried to convince the participants that: ‘It doesn’t really matter what a sighted person thinks – what do you think? You’re the artist in this particular case. When you you’re satisfied with it that’s all that matters.’

Brandon: Marshall McLuhan spoke of the medium is the message. How might this apply to the exhibit?

Dr. Johnson: Well in our exhibition the participants that we worked with over the summer, the visually impaired participants, we had set aside each week as a different medium and we asked the participants to convey how they might be feeling. For example, during our first week we worked with floral foam, which is very easy been it to manipulate, a simple plastic butter knife will easily sculpt this. We asked them to put themselves into it. It was about expressing emotions and so we had some participants that created very organic shapes and then in conversation with them, they talked about you know how their family is very supportive and the love that they receive and so it has a very circular feel to it. We have others that wanted to work with wire. We have one participant that has a piece in there and it’s how life is kind of always bending and changing it takes you off in a direction that you really don’t expect. So, I think the medium is definitely very important to the message. These participants have either not had any experience with art or of so been so far removed from their art making experience that sometimes it’s a matter of getting reacquainted with some of these mediums before they can start to really fully exploring what these messages are.

Brandon:  How does this art help improve the quality of lives for those who are say visually impaired?

Dr. Johnson: I would say that this a lot of the participants already have a high quality of life. What we’re trying to do here is not necessarily improve their quality of life. Rather, we are trying to make the content of art accessible to everybody. What we strove to do was how can we teach the stuff that we teach our current students here at UNO in a more accessible way. How can we differentiate our instruction? We’re trying to open up doors that will allow them to interact with art just like any sighted person.

Brandon: Dr. Jeremy Johnson thanks again for joining me on the show.

Dr. Johnson: Thank you very much.

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