Black Arts at Oxy

Marie Johnson, "Woman with Flowers," 1968

In 1968, Marie Johnson created Woman with Flowers, a mixed media assemblage featuring a young black girl grasping two flowers against an urban backdrop.Woman with Flowers exemplifies Johnson’s typical subject matter: the black community.   Drawing inspiration from her family and her life in San Jose, Johnson encapsulates a quotidian moment of the black, female experience in Woman with Flowers. Woman with Flowers is a three-dimensional construction, the central figure is a young woman cut out of wood and her skin is then painted a deep brown hue. Johnson dresses this wooden figure in a “real” blue dress with white embroidered sleeves and collar. The juxtaposition between the wooden figure and the fabric gives the work “a surreal feeling”. The female figure’s brows are furrowed, her eyes are heavy and her lips are pursed, evoking a sense of quiet sadness that contrasts the brightly hued flowers in her hand. Using more wood, Johnson constructs a white picket fence that bisects the foreground of the work. The materiality of the wood fence and “real” clothing, creates a rather approachable three dimensional assemblage. The rural connotations associated with a white picket fence contrasts the urban backdrop. The background of the assemblage is an urban environment composed of three distinct buildings made of visibly differing materials. She stands in front of a multi-level house, perhaps an apartment complex. In each visible window of this building, other various subjects carry out the regular routines of daily life. The figure stands behind the fence and in front of the multistory buildings, quite literally caught in between urban and rural spheres. The tension between these two distinct ways of life speaks to the struggle that many black families experienced during the move from the rural south to the major cities of the north and West in search of employment. For Johnson, black art deals with the common experience of black humanity in this country; Woman with Flowers so aptly engages with black mobility.

During the 1960’s, Johnson became increasingly active in the San Jose chapter of the NAACP. Johnson was particularly dedicated to establishing access to equal job opportunities for minority students. Johnson’s artistic practice was particularly influenced by her participation in the March on Selma in 1965. Johnson explains, “When I came back I felt as though abstract work had to go on hold. So I started painting my world around me.” This momentous shift in Johnson's practice is evident in Woman with Flowers, as her commonplace depiction of a girl in her garden favors realism rather than abstraction. While the Civil Rights Movement inspired a technical innovation in Johnson's oeuvre, one might consider how the legal strides and personal struggles centered around the movement also effected the content of the work. The urban backdrop could be a direct reference to the Fair Housing Act of 1968. The Fair Housing Act of 1968 prohibited the discrimination in the sale, rental and financing of housing. The struggle for blacks to find adequate, affordable housing was a harsh reality improved by the Fair Housing Act. In contrast to the legislative success of the anti-discriminatory housing policy, the black community during the same year suffered a deep loss with the murder of Civil Rights activist, Martin Luther King Jr in 1968. As vigilant activist creating art, this tumultuous period of Civil Rights victories and losses surely had an impact on Johnson's work.

Page created by Emily Dwyer, Jennifer Keane, and Kailee Stovall in December 2016.


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