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Amanda Johnson: Cigar Smoke and Connection

By Allison Hagg

Amanda Johnson carries herself with a quiet sincerity that betrays her upper-midwestern roots. She takes her time answering questions, choosing her words and phrases carefully to get her message across. She has even made notes for our discussion ahead of time, in a spirit of preparation and politeness that you can only pick up by facing down four months of snow with only your cohort of neighbors to keep you sane. But it doesn’t take long to see that this modesty is an endearing trait of a woman who has been places you’ve only dreamed about and who harbors an undeniable passion for creativity. 

Her spark is evident in crackling sunset colors and roosters rendered with generous swaths of paint that have, until lately, been her main productions. In their vibrancy and energy, the paintings reflect the artist at work, “Things are expanding and contracting. I’ll be painting and my stuff will get tight tight tight tight tight, and then I’ll explode and it’s really loose.” She shows me some of her blazing beach sunsets, explaining: “Those are more about just letting that energy out.” 

Given the vibrant, tropical works that make up the majority of Johnson’s online gallery, you may be a bit surprised at her recent cigar series. Although unmistakably hers, the aesthetic is startlingly different. “I guess I like to be challenged,” Johnson reflects. “I like the challenge of something new. And that’s one challenge of being an artist because you spend so long defining your style or your body of work, but it’s almost the antithesis of being creative. ‘Cause once you’ve put [in] all that work to get there, then you’re gonna just paint the same thing over and over again?” 

For Johnson at least, the answer to this question is a decisive ‘no’. She got the inspiration to make luxury tobacco the subject of her Warhol-esque “pop art series” after meeting the local cigar enthusiasts and experiencing the strong cigar culture of Key West. It didn’t take too much convincing to get Johnson on the bandwagon. “Cigars are an art, there is a craft to a cigar,” Johnson explains. “I also enjoy fine aged wines, and food, and cheese, so the flavor of tobacco is something I can appreciate.” 

I wonder if Johnson has joined the modern-day Hemingways sitting on a porch and staring down the sunset amid puffs of luxuriant smoke. “I’ve tried a few… I have one that I actually like to smoke, but the other ones just make me dizzy” Johnson laughs. In case you were wondering, her cigar of choice is a box-pressed Drew Estate Java Latte, which she enticingly describes as a “sensual experience.” The cigars in her collection take up nearly the entire canvas and are rendered in rich, dark colors. They’re big, they’re bold, and the literature student in me notes they have a rather suggestive symbolism. “It does have kind of a phallic quality to them,” Johnson admits, and although she seems hesitant to let on that there is any deeper meaning behind her choice of subject, she acknowledges “I guess I like the fact that there is sort of a gender thing in art. When men and women are looking at art, they’re interested in different things.” She explains to me that making this her focus has allowed her to reach out to a demographic that she would probably otherwise never connect with.

It is this desire for connection that is the beating heart of Johnson’s art, “My life is also about communicating and connecting. That’s just a huge part of being fulfilled.” 

A former “rebellious teen,” Johnson admits that building bridges and creating links with other people has not been effortless. “Feeling different than others has never been in short supply for me, and it comes with its share of turmoil, so I would rather focus on connecting… I think a lot of artists strive to express their uniqueness. But for me it’s a choice not to.” She goes on to explain that despite her globetrotting, she has found focusing in on the local culture, exemplified in her cigar and rooster series’, as the best way of reaching out. “Something that’s in nature, like coconuts or a seascape, that’s about nature and beauty. But when it comes to other objects that have local, historical significance and cultural significance, I think that’s a really fun, more direct way to connect.” 

Her outlook extends beyond the canvas, and Johnson tells me that she is looking forward to connecting with people directly and in real-time, while teaching another course on art at a local college. She also has a personal goal to work with local, at-risk youth and other potentially “rebellious” kids. “We’re talking about doing murals with these kids. And that’s also a good example of where they can be involved in the community, so they don’t feel so isolated and branded as ‘problem kids.’ They can have something that’s a part of the community, that they can [use to] create that dialogue with people.” 

With her wayfaring backstory, it seems fair to assume that Johnson knows something about making herself a part of the community as an outsider. She has certainly made her mark in Key West, with her very own brick and mortar studio gallery and willingness to embrace entirely the rich local culture and history that lingers tangibly over Hawaiian-shirted tourists and barflies in thick clouds of smoke. A few days after we speak, Johnson sends to me some extra notes, and something she says about the past which she sought to embody in her cigars strikes me, “…History at it’s best reminds us of our own successes, joys, triumphs, creativity and ability to overcome obstacles.” Johnson’s own story seems a fine example.

See more of Amanda’s work at www.amandajohnsonfineart.com !

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