Ep 39 Featured Image Podcast

The Art of Collaboration – Kiel Johnson – Ep 39

July 20, 2022


What if instead of making your art by yourself, you made it with hundreds of people? What if you could invite anyone to participate? And most importantly, what if the outcome was deliciously uncertain? Meet Kiel Johnson. He is a California-based artist who, over the past 20 years, has taken his drawing and sculpture to an extraordinary level of collaboration. Using cardboard, glue guns, and a mash-up of materials, Kiel has led the creation of homemade rocket ships, airplanes, robots, and a whole host of imagined worlds for groups at schools, institutions, and creative symposiums. 

Whether his art is made in his studio (a converted church in central California), or taken on the road to collaborate with others, its ethos is simple: Kiel is here to make things. To live a creative life, or rather, to play a creative life. And if willing, you are invited. His enthusiasm and generosity of spirit are so big it seems to have overflowed into everything, especially his art. After listening today and seeing Kiel’s art, you will never see a piece of cardboard quite the same way.

Listen if you are interested in…

  • The role collaboration plays in Kiel’s art practice [2:30]
  • Facilitating collaboration and the logistics of corporate art-making [7:06]
  • Why Kiel works with cardboard [12:05]
  • Wayfinding in collaborative art-making [16:30]
  • Turning a small town 1800’s church into an art studio compound [21:53]
  • Kiel’s thought process behind his individual work and art business [32:12]
  • How living in the country has impacted Kiel’s art practice [38:44]

Creating synergy

Kiel Johnson is passionate about coming up with concepts that allow large groups of people to work together creatively. I resonate with that drive because it’s the same one behind my Art2Life workshops. There’s just something magical about people coming together to make things. Kiel first saw the value of collaboration when his mother and grandmother used to gather around a table and quilt with their friends. The conversations held in that kind of creative environment are just DIFFERENT. There is such a synergistic quality to relationships when everyone works together to make art.

And synergy is exactly what Kiel tries to cultivate with his collaborative art projects. He travels all over to bring various schools and organizations together in the name of art-making and teamwork. Every project Kiel does starts on the drawing board and then gets translated into a real-life object using mainly cardboard and other necessary materials. Because cardboard is a relatively universal material that is cheap and easy to use for all skill levels, anyone who shows up to create with Kiel will find the experience accessible. So far, Kiel and his collaborators have made everything from spaceships to robots to full-size airplanes.

Finding our way together

What I love about Kiel’s work is that it’s an invitation to make your own thing. Sure, it might be an airplane, but by the time the group is finished, it’s THEIR airplane. The best part about this process for Kiel is watching the moment where the switch in someone’s brain clicks. Helping collaborators go from “I can’t do this” to “I can’t believe I’m doing this” is an experience that goes above and beyond the joy Kiel experiences from individual art-making. During creation, Kiel provides example drawings to inspire creativity, but he never wants to influence anyone to create in his style. The whole point of what he does is to unleash the creativity of others.

And in that sense, it’s like collaborative wayfinding. Every project gets to take on a life of its own. Sometimes, it doesn’t work out. However, more often than not everyone finds a way to create something really, really cool. Ironically, it was this collaborative art style that helped Kiel find his own way. Whenever he would present at universities, he offered to stick around a few days and work with the students for some extra cash. Aside from financial motivation, Kiel remembered his own art school experience and the impact other artists had on him when they took the time to connect with students. Wanting to create a similar impact, Kiel started offering the facilitation of these group projects. When other schools and organizations saw the work Kiel was doing, they had to be a part of it.

Embracing freedom

There is tremendous freedom in making something collaboratively because the end result is the fruit of everyone’s efforts, not just a single artist. Yet, Kiel is also an individual artist and still has a love for that kind of work as well. When COVID changed the landscape of the art industry and the world as a whole, Kiel decided to do something radical: buy an old Methodist church from the 1800s in a small rural California town. Alongside his partner, Kiel is renovating this property to turn it into a live/work art studio compound. While there aren’t more hours in the day, he says the slower pace has seemingly given him more time than living in LA ever did. 

As a result, the freedom to work how and on what he wants has never been more of a reality. He anticipates having gallery shows and doing more commercial-based work in the future, but also wants the ability to get side-tracked with other projects and develop his own creative flow. He always wants the freedom to be himself. Getting a check from selling your work is obviously a good thing, but for Kiel, it pales in comparison to facilitating collaborative art-making experiences or being able to dictate the direction of his life. Watching the smile on his face as he talks about his art is evidence enough: Kiel has found his thing and I can’t wait to see what he does next.

Connect with Kiel Johnson

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Nicholas Wilton

Hi! I’m
Nicholas Wilton
the founder of Art2Life.

With over 20 years experience as a working artist and educator, I’ve developed a systematic approach that brings authenticity, spontaneity and joy back into the creative process.

Join me and artists from all over the world in our Free Art2Life Artists Facebook Group or learn more here about Art2Life.

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