By Kamrin Baker
Not only a pro assistant professor but a pro art advocate, Dr. Jeremy Johnson of the University of Nebraska at Omaha art department knows a thing or two about the fine arts climate in Omaha. After its debut year breaking ground at UNO, Sensory: Please Touch The Art— an exhibit dedicated to expanding art accessibility– Johnson has brought Sensory 2.0 to campus once again.
Johnson has used his personal experience and expertise in art education at UNO to make a tactile gallery for those who are visually-impaired, and just members of the public who want to further embrace the dimensions of creativity.
I asked Johnson more about this project, as well as what it means to be an art professor at the university.
Answers were edited for length and clarity.
KB: In line with the Sensory 2.0 opening, tell us a bit why you are dedicated to art that serves the visually-impaired. How did you reach this passion in your career?
JJ: I came to developing art teaching techniques and art workshops because of my wife. We have an interesting relationship. I rely on visuals quite a bit and love going to art galleries, museums and such. However, my wife, Lisa, is visually-impaired and these places are often unaccessible to her. Additionally, she is unable to get close enough to the work to observe it. After we moved to Nebraska, Lisa worked for a semester in the Weber Fine Arts Gallery before being hired by Nebraska Methodist College as their Director of Student Support Services. She talked to the Gallery Director, Denise Brady, about ways to make the gallery more accessible. In the evenings Lisa and I would talk about an accessible gallery experiences and we felt that if we were going to put together an accessible gallery, then it would be only logical to have the visually-impaired participate in the creation of artworks for the exhibition. That is the other piece of my inspiration for the workshops. My wife never had the opportunity to participate in meaningful art-making experiences and many of her visually-impaired acquaintances shared similar experiences. I wanted individuals to not only be able to experience the art but actually have the opportunity to learn how to do art in accessible and safe spaces.
KB: What is your favorite of the 5 senses and why? I know we as humans are pretty grateful for all of them, but as an artist, is there one that stands out to you?
JJ: I don’t know if I have a favorite sense per se, but the one I absorb most of my experiences and larger world through is vision.
KB: What is your favorite piece of artwork? In the world, ever. The one you always refer back to.
JJ: One of my favorite pieces of art is “The Scream” by the Norwegian artist Edvard Munch. I never get tired of looking at his work and I was fortunate enough to visit the Edvard Munch Museum in Oslo, Norway back in October.
KB: Tell us a bit more about your background. Why art?
JJ: I got into art like most students: because they were inspired by an amazing art teacher. I was fortunate that I went to a smaller school and my art teacher taught me 5th-12th grades. He fostered my love of art so I decided to pursue it in college. However, I didn’t start out wanting to be a teacher. I received my BFA and worked as a Graphic Designer for the home improvement retailer Menards. It is still pretty cool to walk through the store and show my kids packages that I designed over a decade ago. I worked for Menards for about a year, and during that time I met my future wife and saw all the amazing work she was doing in her middle school classroom. After watching her, I made the decision to go back to school to earn my K-12 teaching certificate. I taught in the public schools for five years, and during that time, I earned my Masters as a Reading Specialist and realized that I could do more. So then, I began to pursue my PhD in Art Education at the University of Minnesota. I graduated from the U of M in 2014 and have been here at UNO ever since.
KB: What about art at UNO is different than the programs and work at other universities?
JJ: One of the biggest differences that I notice between UNO and my experiences in undergraduate work in Wisconsin and my PhD work at the U of M is that the faculty here go out of their way to ensure that the students have the best learning experience possible.
KB: Do you have any other specific creative goals/aspirations? If so, what?
JJ: I have many creative goals. One goal that I have for myself this year is to make more of my own art. I have been so focused on other areas of my job that I have neglected the artist self for too long. Another aspiration of mine is to eventually travel to Norway to work on a project related to comics during the Nazi Occupation of Norway from 1940 to 1945. One final creative goal I have is to continue to challenge myself to find new and innovative ways of opening up the world of art to individuals with visual impairments.
KB: What is your favorite spot in Weber?
JJ: My favorite spot in Weber would have to be my classroom, room 128. This is where I get to see my students work come alive; whether it is curriculum units they are devising for the art room, new art projects, or comics that my students are drawing in the Survey of Comics class. I’m also blessed to share the room with some amazing instructors like Amy Haney and I get to see her students watercolor pieces. 128 keeps me energized even when the semester gets to feel chaotic or overwhelming.
KB: How do you feel everyday when you walk into work and sit at your desk or work station? What makes you feel that way?
JJ: I have the best job in the world. I come into work, and whether it is my office or my classroom, I feel like I am making a difference. I get to teach about what is current in Art Education, creative ways to engage students and ideas for developing new art projects. I’m grateful for the support of my Unit Coordinator, Adrian Duran, and Director of the School of the Arts, Jack Zerbe, as they both have been supportive of my research in creating accessible art learning opportunities for the blind and visually-impaired. At UNO, even though faculty are interested in different areas, we are a team and support each others’ teaching and creative and research outlets.
Sensory: Please Touch the Art 2.0 will be on display through Feb. 9, 2018 in the Criss Library Osborne Family Gallery.