As siblings, it’s no surprise that Anna and Matthew Johnson have a lot in common. Anyone who has interacted with the pair knows they both have strong family values, a deep appreciation for their Native American heritage, friendly personalities and a similar infectious laugh.
But one of the major commonalities between the siblings that has shaped their paths individually and brought them closer in their adult years is their artistry. Anna Johnson, who is five years older than her brother, is becoming well-known in the region for her colorful prints that tell stories of her heritage.
Her current exhibit at Plains Art Museum, “Layer by Layer,” displays 18 pieces that combine traditional printmaking techniques with watercolor, ink and collage materials, particularly birch bark she harvests from her mother’s home on the Turtle Mountain reservation.
“I bring the stories and images brewing in my mind to life by carving prints at my kitchen table,” Johnson says. “I’m also inspired by the passions of others to create one-of-a-kind T-shirts and prints for gifts, musical groups or just for fun.”
The printmaker will dig deeper into her creative process with an artist talk at 6 p.m. Thursday, March 7, at the museum.
Matthew Johnson is the guitarist and lead vocalist in The Human Element, a local rock and funk band that released its second album, “Reflections in the Dark,” in January. His current bandmates include Seth Holden (drums), Brant Niemi (bass) and Kari Steen (keyboards), and every song the band creates is a “collaborative effort,” Johnson says.
“Everyone (in our band) brings music to the table, so we’re not limited to one single writer or voice,” he adds. “A majority of the songs are written by me, but we are finding that bringing songs written by every member strengthens us as individual artists and as a group.”
The group performs the new album, which was funded with a Jade Presents Arts Partnership grant, at a free concert at 10 p.m. Friday, March 8, at Dempsey’s Public House in downtown Fargo.
Even though the Johnsons have always been close, the process of choosing cover art for The Human Element’s first album, “Forward Motion,” in 2017 marked the beginning of a more intentional artistic partnership between the talented siblings. For the second album, the band worked with Anna Johnson from the beginning to create cover art specifically for the project.
She also prints custom T-shirts by hand for The Human Element’s merchandise table — an endeavor that transpired after she received a grant from The Arts Partnership for new printmaking equipment.
“(Our collaboration) is starting to take a life of its own,” Anna Johnson says. “A lot of my ideas happen organically as I listen to their music, especially when making T-shirts.”
Matthew Johnson says collaborating with his sister made business sense for both artists, and his band is trying to “develop a fan club” around her artwork at their concerts. Growing up in Bismarck, the Johnsons were raised in a family that has celebrated and encouraged creativity for generations.
“All of our aunts, uncles and grandparents were musicians of various degrees,” Matthew Johnson says. “Our grandfather, Eddie ‘King’ Johnson, was the main musician of the family. He was a fiddle player.”
Their grandfather won a Governor’s Award for the Arts for his unique type of music he called “Chippewa Cajun” in 2013 and created visual artwork like paintings, drawings and leatherwork until his death in 2015.
“We had the type of family who told us to do what makes us happy, and (the arts) were the kinds of things we did,” Matthew Johnson adds.
The Johnsons look forward to collaborating as artists even more in the future and passing down their creative customs to the next generation, especially to Matthew Johnson’s two young daughters.
“I think as our careers advance, we are finding we want to say a lot of the same things (through our art),” Anna Johnson says. “That’s why things blend together so much.”
“It all comes back to our culture,” her brother adds. “Most Native Americans don’t have much, but you have each other. (Anna) supports me in the grand theme of things and it goes back and forth.”
What: “Layer by Layer” artist talk with printmaker Anna Johnson
When: 6 p.m. Thursday, March 7
Where: Plains Art Museum, 704 First Ave. N., Fargo
What: The Human Element concert
When: 10 p.m. Friday, March 8
Where: Dempsey’s Public House, 226 Broadway N., Fargo
This article is part of a content partnership with the Fargo Forum and originally appeared in print on Monday, March 4, 2019.