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In Memoriam: Elena Johnston

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The past few years have seen a lot of growth and change in my artistic practice and my personal life... Sometimes this experience can be murky and uncomfortable. This process isn’t always pretty but that’s ok. I think the paintings are beautiful, but beauty can be rife with pain and the substance of transformation. I sometimes think they are ugly because I put so much emotion into them. Like looking at my high school diary.
Elena Johnston

Eschewing the predictability of a paintbrush in favor of the elemental vitality of painting with gravity and chance, Baltimore artist Elena Johnston explored “potential and possibility” through her signature pour paintings, dynamic and often sculptural acrylic pieces she described as “meditations on color and the human experience.” Sometimes floor-to-ceiling in size, these mesmerizing works could energize a space with their stateliness and intensity, bursting with infectious swirls of verve and vivaciousness that could simultaneously invite attention and command participation—much as the artist herself did. 

Elena Johnston (1985-2023) transferred from Havertown, Pennsylvania to Baltimore in 2002 to pursue her BFA in illustration from Maryland Institute College of Art and, later, a BA in art education from Towson University and MA in art education at MICA—all while earning broad recognition for her industrious artistic process, near-continuous exhibiting and collaborating with fellow artists, the publication of her 2008 volume Paper Kingdom: A Collection of Baltimore Music Posters, and her work as a teacher in Baltimore City Public Schools (2014-2018). 

In the days after her devastating and untimely passing in early December 2023, friends, peers, and artistic partners shared anecdotes reflecting on the breadth and versatility of Elena Johnston the person, the artist, and her body of work spanning multiple genres—from painting, ceramics, collage, and fashion illustration to music, performance, curation, and sharing her gift with others. 

A memorial event will be hosted on Sunday, January 14, 2024, at Current Space (421 N. Howard Street). Members of the public are welcome. Details to follow at currentspace.com.

A public farewell is scheduled for January 15th (MLK Day) at Saint Colman Church in Lower Merion, Pennsylvania. Visitation 10am, Mass of Christian Burial 11am, immediately followed by interment of her ashes at Ss Peter & Paul Cemetery, Springfield, Pennsylvania.

Contributions to the Elena Johnston Memorial Scholarship Fund can be made here.

 

"TItle Unknown 2," MICA thesis exhibition
"Garbo Roche," Watercolor on paper
"Marc Jacobs II," Gouache on paper
Victoria Legrand, Elena Johnston, and Monique Crabb, photo by Natasha Tylea
Elena Johnston was the kind of person that makes an arts and music scene gel and propels it forward.
Beach House

Beach House (Victoria Legrand & Alex Scally)

Aside from being a great visual artist, Elena Johnston was the kind of person that makes an arts and music scene gel and propels it forward. Her excitement, talent and energy brought out the best from people around her and she herself was the force behind many projects, shows, parties, and gatherings. She was the kind of person who wasn’t looking for something already happening to be a part of, but instead, made her own reality. 

She toured with us a handful of times and contributed art for some of our projects, but more than anything, she was our dear friend. She helped us believe in ourselves, and we had an infinity of great times together. We will love her forever.

 

Habitat Skateboards-Winter 2023 Pro Skater collection
Michael Benevento, Elena Johnston, and Julianne Hamilton. Photo by Elena Volkova
Elena was so prolific—she made paintings, fashion illustrations, music, poetry, ceramics, neons, designed skateboards and wine labels, and experimented with the overlap in between all these practices. All of her works had a rawness in her marks, countered by a sense of playfulness.
Michael Benevento

Michael Benevento (Current Space)

It’s hard going through old photos, I’ve known Elena in so many different capacities. I first met her in college when she was studying illustration and we later became roommates. It was the mid-2000s, and we would hop around warehouses and DIY art spaces. The art and music scene was new to us and felt inspiring—that collaborative and supportive community remained important to her throughout her life.
Current Space had just started around this time. Elena would draw different signs for opening receptions that included a sassy fashionable figure with a speech bubble about donations for box wine and cheap beer—I wish I still had them.

In 2009, the last exhibition at our old space on Calvert, people installed works to be demolished with the building. Elena collaged all of her old figure studies to the wall as a way of saying goodbye to that era of her work. Elena was so prolific—she made paintings, fashion illustrations, music, poetry, ceramics, neons, designed skateboards and wine labels, and experimented with the overlap in between all these practices. All of her works had a rawness in her marks, countered by a sense of playfulness.

We had several exhibitions with Elena over the past 19 years. In 2016 she started experimenting with the pour paintings, embracing intentional chance in her work. She was so open and caring. She had many different circles of friends, doing studio visits, collaborating with friends, trading works, pursuing whatever she wanted.  

 

Jordan Bernier

We are working together, waiting tables. Late into our shift, Elena walks up to me: “We should start a band.” Neither of us know how to play an instrument, but Elena sounds confident. I trust her and offer my downtown studio for practices, every week on Wednesdays.

We quickly find a routine. Meeting downtown is an accomplishment, and we congratulate ourselves with a walk around the neighborhood for Italian cookies.

Returning to the studio, we begin to test our instruments. Our space is under a lofted storage space, an 8’x8’ box with a low ceiling. The walls are covered with old blankets. Cables are all over the floor.

We pause again to spend some time catching up. We talk about work, art, friends. As usual, the process of beginning seems to take most of our time. I am unsure how to move forward, to start making music, but Elena shows no sign of concern. She doesn’t seem worried and I follow her lead.

Eventually we spend a little while playing our instruments. We record the effort and make a plan for our next practice.

 

John Bohl 

Elena Johnston was an amazing artist and a caring friend, it’s very hard to put into words how much she will be missed. Over the years since I’ve known Elena, she has been involved in the Baltimore arts community in countless ways and always left such a special mark. She had a unique vision and was an incredibly prolific artist—it was always so inspiring to see all the projects she was working on simultaneously in the studio.

I have been thinking about this memory a lot from when we were working on a drawing together years ago and remembering how amazing it was getting to watch her draw—I was just in awe of how she worked so confidently and intuitively. Elena was such an incredibly creative, enthusiastic and talented human being. I am so glad to have gotten to have known Elena and I am really going to miss her.

 

She whispered all the secrets of the Baltimore art scene in my ear...
Monique Crabb

Monique Crabb

My introduction to Baltimore was through Elena. She whispered all the secrets of the Baltimore art scene in my ear, as we went from art openings, music shows, and warehouse parties. We were inseparable.

The first time I saw her she was curled up on a couch at a small gathering drawing in her sketchbook. I remember thinking how grotesque and distorted her drawings were.

I learned over time that Elena had a magic gift of capturing the essence of any one person or thing in a few sweeping marks. It wasn’t sugar coated, it was all there. She pulled from the unseen center of what she was looking at and was able to show you the truth of its existence from all sides. Elena’s artwork is a reflection of her playfulness swirling amongst the darker realms of living; often bright and dazzling colors fighting space with a deep, tar-like black. A reminder that everything is in constant motion, that the end is only the beginning of something new. 

 

"Title Unknown 1" MICA thesis exhibition
"Twin, Fountain," House paint, acrylic on raw canvas
There are also a lot of failed experiments. Canvases unstretched in my studio waiting to become more. They represent infinite possibilities and tangents to explore. They are all moving towards something bigger... To me, they are unresolved, much like life itself. In motion, never static. Always changing, working towards or grasping towards something greater.
Elena Johnston

Alex Ebstein

Elena was one of the first artists outside of my school cohort and Holy Frijoles colleagues that I met in Baltimore. When collective effort was needed to accomplish a big goal, like an unruly group exhibition or series of public sculptures for Artscape, Elena was a reliable, enthusiastic co-conspirator.  Seth and I started Nudashank in the anxiety-riddled time of late 2008 to 2009, when reliable jobs turned into endless strings of gigs and part time work, underscoring the DIY energy and collective lift that was so special about the Baltimore art community. 

We felt the immediate enthusiasm of our peers. Elena was a consistent presence, participating in group shows like Paper Chasers and showcasing her book Paper Kingdom during an event with Blonde Art Books at the gallery. We attended graduate school at the same time—she in teaching art, me in studio—and I admired her bravery when she told me she was giving up her day job to invest fully in her studio practice. It was a leap I have never felt secure enough to take and she was notably the first artist I knew who did and who was successful in that goal.

The time and care she put into her work was evident as she developed a more mature aesthetic and confident, bold paintings. Her most recent show at Current displayed the evolution of her work: improvisational, open-ended pieces that held the maturity and complexity in unique balance with effervescence and optimism. Her care for and commitment to her community was how I first met her, but it was the dedication and professionalism she placed on her own work that most stays with me, she knew what she wanted and she worked hard to maintain a life of creative growth. 

“Mood Ring” at Current Space

Julianne Hamilton (Current Space)

In 2022, Current Space showed a solo exhibition of Elena’s works Mood Ring. During the artist talk, she spoke about her work: 

“The past few years have seen a lot of growth and change in my artistic practice and my personal life. These paintings are relics of a time when I lived in a liminal space. These types of spaces which bring us out of the past and into an uncertain future are an invitation to give ourselves over to something larger than ourselves. Sometimes this experience can be murky and uncomfortable. This process isn’t always pretty but that’s ok. I think the paintings are beautiful, but beauty can be rife with pain and the substance of transformation. I sometimes think they are ugly because I put so much emotion into them. Like looking at my high school diary.”

Elena had a studio at Current Space and we used to see her working there almost every day. Watching the video of the artist talk over and over to transcribe her words, she feels so present. Elena worked quickly—repeatedly expanding and fine tuning her work. It’s unbelievable to think she won’t be at the space next week—laughing with friends in her studio. 

“There are also a lot of failed experiments. Canvases unstretched in my studio waiting to become more. They represent infinite possibilities and tangents to explore. They are all moving towards something bigger. In that way, I see a lot of these paintings as just studies or sketches. As small, yet bright intimate moments that are reaching forward in time. To me, they are unresolved, much like life itself. In motion, never static. Always changing, working towards or grasping towards something greater.”

 

I am grateful to Elena for inviting me to show with her, and grateful for just about all the times she encouraged me to see myself as a creative person. Walking aside Elena gave me such confidence and strength. 
Russel Hite

Russell Hite

Look Book was a joint exhibit between Elena and me in 2011. The title was Elena’s idea, and I remember I was not really into it at first. But that was before I saw her beautiful, rapid-fire illustration of the title card. Classic Elena—she could make magic in seconds.

Most of the illustrations and collages for the exhibit we made while sprawled out on our living room floor in “The English Muffin,” a small apartment we shared on Roland Avenue. Some of the work likely contained surprise bits of Utz party mix crumbs and cat hair from our pet, Murray! At the time, Elena and I would spend hours together at The Book Thing, hoarding National Geographic magazines and other little snips of print that could be mined for collage inspiration before being realized as something powerful and new. Cut, placed, and configured just so—Elena was extraordinarily good at that. 

The exhibit included one painting of Elena’s that, in particular, seemed to resonate with people—and it went on to become the cover art for Future Islands’ album, On the Water. There was something really charged about this painting, and I loved it, but my favorite piece in the show was a collage with a gold surface bursting with colorful little sprouts of cut paper. The color combinations were stunning, and another thing Elena had an innate sense of. Her palette was inspired!

Looking back, I feel honored to have had such access to Elena’s creative space during that time—a period when she was experimenting with shape and play, using sacred-yet-disposal bits of found paper alongside paints and ink, instinctively blending elements/processes of collage, illustration, and sculpture. A turning point in her practice that she built upon by continuing to explore, discover, and level up. I am grateful to Elena for inviting me to show with her, and grateful for just about all the times she encouraged me to see myself as a creative person. Walking aside Elena gave me such confidence and strength. 

Cover art by Elena for Future Islands’ “On the Water”

 

Andrew Liang

You are always influenced by the people around you. How do you find out who you are if it isn’t from other people?” – Lois Dodd

I officially met Elena at an exquisite corpse drawing party in a house on Morling Avenue in Hampden. From that point forward, Elena and I would greet each other at art openings, warehouse shows, house parties, and even weddings. She was a constant presence, whether in the background or foreground, always ready to share a cigarette, hook me up with a drink, giggle at my jokes, and genuinely ask, “How are you doing?”

At some point she became my roommate at Floristree and even served as a matchmaker for my then-girlfriend, now wife. She included me in the celebration of her life, offering words of encouragement and unapologetically staying true to her personality with a swagger of confidence and assurance. I loved seeing her, because she was loved and I appreciated being loved. Everything was going to be just fine.

I witnessed her prolific artistic growth and through our interactions, I learned more about myself. One night during my art opening at Current Galley, Elena congratulated me with a firm hug followed by a sincere stare, thanking me for the art show and a good turnout. I was overcome by a sense of honor, humility and most importantly, pride in our friendship. I am privileged to have been included in her life, to be bathed in her kindness and relentless support. Elena will always be the definition of a good friend.

 

Elena Johnston, "Untitled (2 musicians)," 2006, watercolor, graphite, inks on paper, 11” x 17”, image courtesy of Warren Linn
What a lovely person and serious painter whose wide explorations of media and possibility seemed to always brighten the world while taking us to realms of real substance and humanistic recognition.
Warren Linn

Warren Linn

How can this be? Such a wonderful person and painter in her prime creating work infused with painterly wisdom, and Elena was so young! 

Elena Johnston—already having lived up to, and beyond, her exceptional promise and productivity at MICA where I was privileged to be her teacher in Foundation and Senior Thesis—accomplished so much and touched so many of us with her genuine joyfulness in being an artist. She inspired fellow students and friends. She inspired her teachers.

But it did happen and this one hits like a terrible blow, and a reminder. Elena would be the first to remind us, and does remind us through her exceptional body of work, if it’s in you and might possibly be realized, dedicate yourself to it, if at all possible. Elena did just that.

What a lovely person and serious painter whose wide explorations of media and possibility seemed to always brighten the world while taking us to realms of real substance and humanistic recognition.

It was my great pleasure to have worked with Elena at MICA and an honor and inspiration to have known her.

 

Malcolm Lomax (Wickerham & Lomax)

Elena Johnston had a wonderful propensity to bring both love and joy to anything. This is made evident in her work and friendships; to lose her from the Baltimore arts community is to leave a hole in the stories of so many scenes and persons. She lived many lives, ones that allowed her to take on different roles—nurturer, defender, confidante, traveler, and artist.

As a friend, she stood in the muck with me after ending an engagement. She turned my focus on my relationship into conversations on Bacon, Krasner, Kahlo and many other artists who had loved, which in turn allowed us both to contemplate love for those who create. She loved unconditionally, full of forgiveness. At times I often wished she would forgive herself. That was one of her challenges, but for Elena, making things was a way to crystallize that joy she exuded—even chased—into paintings that examined the materiality of color. In her care, we all would become pulsating vibrant color, matching the beauty of our auras with the joy, laughter, and freedom that she sought out. 

 

Lexie Mountain

Dear Elena! How lucky am I to know you, to share gallery space, friend groups, experiences, creative pursuits, and this life. You are permanent to me, to all of us, in so many ways. When I traded a chain of large handmade vintage yarn pompoms in duckfeather colors for your drawing of a horse and horse-headed rider I felt like I got away with something. This piece remains a very favorite thing: an ink black horse in okapi stripes dips its toes along the edge of the paper, and an ornate radiating pink peony of horse head blooms upward from a small rider who floats peacefully without a saddle. The vaporous upper horse dream cloud figure quivers, creating a blanket for the tender figure.

Everyone in the image, the whole dark horse, the waiting person, and the horse’s ghost seem to be faintly smiling, floating, in movement. I am describing it now without turning around to look at the drawing, which has been on the same wall for more than a decade.

I can sense where rusted staples embrace cardboard at the back of the frame, where your light, ribbony orange script says “Happy Birthday, 2009”—both of our names together in one sentence. I know it is there and I want to describe it with my heart, the way I will always describe you: smiling, expanding, a light, here.

 

"Tori Amos"

Jesse Salazar & Tom Williams

We first met Elena when she was standing next to shelves of erotic pulp novels in John Waters’s attic. At a party filled with interesting people, Elena captured our attention with her passion for music, art, and Baltimore. 

At the time, we were commissioning local artists to create a series of portraits of Baltimore icons. We struggled to find the right artist to capture the complexities and power of one of our favorite singers and a Baltimore legend—Tori Amos. 

Elena’s art uses dynamic color combinations and dreamlike evocation to trigger introspection. Her paintings have layers of feeling and emotional depth that capture joy and anxiety in equal measure. Elena’s artistic vision and lifelong love of Tori Amos made her a perfect person to create a remarkable portrait of an artist that defined the early lives of millions of angsty millennials. 

When she debuted the painting, the audience was blown away. Her portrait provocatively captures Tori’s strength, confidence, and delicate humanity. 

We loved tracking Elena’s artistic progression at Current Space where she helped other artists find their voice. We mourn her loss and celebrate her life, which she spent inspiring others and making the city a more beautiful place to live.

 

Photo courtesy of Natasha Tyle
The cover of "Paper Kingdom"
She could also be equally as gentle yet unafraid to toss out some chuckle worthy sass...
Ed Schrader

Ed Schrader

My earliest memory of Elena is from around 2008. I was a writer for the City Paper doing a piece about a book she had just compiled called Paper Kingdom.

The book showcased myriad impressive posters from many sweaty Baltimore shows, some of which I had attended or taken part in myself. We met up outside Carma’s Cafe in Charles Village at a picnic table one rather warm afternoon. I was awkward and new at interviewing folks but Elena was very patient and generous and a bit nervous herself.

She emanated a sense of wonder, coupled with a deep respect for what was happening here at that rather electric time. Little did I know that we’d be housemates, van mates, play gigs together, sell art together, and share many a meal on the road traversing many states in the whirlwind of numerous tours and happenings.

Once, at a bar, a friend of ours was getting harassed and Elena immediately sprung into action defending him, scaring off the other guy enough that he left the bar. She could also be equally as gentle yet unafraid to toss out some chuckle worthy sass at the tv when we all watched Bridezillas in our big messy living room on Preston Street.

Like Elena, her art had a poignant subtleness that simultaneously conveyed vivid intensity. Watching her work evolve over the years has truly been a joy.

We both loved 80’s goth duo Strawberry Switchblade. Gotta say it’s gonna be hard hearing those songs without thinking of “Yesterday.” Goodbye friend, I hope we cross paths somewhere in this crazy universe again.  Love you.

 

Whitney Sherman

To write this memorial of Elena Johnston is to consider the passing of anyone younger than you or me. It is wrong in the order of the universe, and yet it has happened. Elena was one of my students yet she was not an ordinary one, far from it. She popped and fizzed, she sparkled, was light as air and yet serious as stone. Elena appeared free and unencumbered by rules, those things she laughed at.

She was a walking contradiction some days, some hours, some minutes. She cared about people, not about what others said, except if it was about someone she loved. Elena loved a lot. I’ve missed her since the last day I saw her. I’ll keep missing her.

 

Elena and Kohl at G-Spot, photo courtesy of Natasha Tylea

Natasha Tylea

Over the years, people have often remarked about how well-adjusted, chill, and receptive my children, Kohl and Piper, are. They say how awesome it is that they’ve been able to grow up directly in my show life, or how I’ve been able to stay working day and night while I was raising kids mostly alone. I’ve said it many times before and still feel it now: none of this would have been possible without Elena’s friendship.

Elena came into my life at the beginning of my motherhood. She was Kohl and Piper’s first nanny, and their first friend. Elena was there to support my interest in their artistic and intellectual enrichment, and to uphold their regular bedtime stories and quietude. When I was working a show that I wanted the kids to see, she wouldn’t hesitate to come along, wearing Piper in a sling and showing Kohl the instruments and artwork while I sound checked the performers. She would keep them engaged in the music, and drawing in response to the music on stage.

I was so lucky to find a person who shared in my approach to raising children who are open to receiving the world with strength and positive coping skills, who was such a good example of how to find fascinating people to surround yourself with, to find art everywhere and delve in without inhibition.

I deeply loved working with Elena. The times I curated shows with her were some of the best, most inspiring times of my life. She had me seeing my life as a work of art and I will forever feel grateful that she gave me these Elena-colored lenses to use when I need a new perspective or burst of inspiration. I don’t think I ever thanked her as much as I fully wanted to. I can’t believe it’s too late.

We love you Elena.

 

Selected ceramics on view at Hunting Ground
Elena and Piper at Look Book, photo courtesy of Natasha Tylea

Gerrit Welmers (Future Islands)

I met Elena in the fall of 2008, a few months after I had moved to Baltimore. Though I was new to Baltimore, I had quite a few friends here, but Elena quickly introduced me to an even broader social circle. She moved through the world with charisma and sass, and she connected people.

She worked tirelessly to produce art in so many mediums: she painted, made ceramic sculpture, played music, created album artwork for bands, designed merchandise, published a book, and the list goes on. She had an infectious laugh and mischievous smile that made everyone feel included.

I was happy to support her endeavors, because the work she made was deserving, just as she always supported my work and made me feel like it was important. I will be forever grateful for the light, connection, and encouragement she gave to me and many other Baltimore artists in those early days.

 

Photo courtesy of Natasha Tylea
"Helen Frankenthaler," Gouache on paper
She understood the human soul like no one I’ve met, which made every conversation feel intimate and significant. She had this rare ability to go right to your heart and stay there. Being in her confidence made me feel fantastic.
Daniel Wickerham

Daniel Wickerham (Wickerham & Lomax)

“Hi Baabyy” is how she would always greet you in a pinched and high tone with these innocent and mischievous blinking eyes. It was more than knowing; she had this lightning wit. If you were seeing Elena you wanted to get stuck with her anywhere: in the car, in a booth at a bar, in her studio. She understood the human soul like no one I’ve met, which made every conversation feel intimate and significant. She had this rare ability to go right to your heart and stay there. Being in her confidence made me feel fantastic. Her soul was that of an artist and you wanted to tell her everything, and I did, because your details always related to hers. She was very encouraging.

We would try to make each other feel beautiful and exquisitely seen. We had this connection over the misunderstood. There was a sense we could reorganize the world when we were together. 

I think what I loved most was her gutsiness at being a friend. A dauntless, unwavering friend that set her apart. Her convictions, unbeatable. I liked watching her love other people too. If she adored you, you knew it, and that allegiance was a steadfast rock for many many people. She gave way more than she ever got back and it should have bothered her but it didn’t.

She even invented her own nickname, Step Doll, and it stuck. A testament to her selfless spirit. I reckon I’ll spend an eternity trying to emulate what came so effortlessly to her. Elena, you are a wellspring of inspiration, a force to reckon with, and I adore you beyond measure. I’ll keep these two Warhol butterflies you gave me next to my pillow. I love you I love you I love you.

 

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