In its presence and its absence, the sun lies at the center of Ashley Johnson's work. The Winston-Salem, North Carolina-based multidisciplinary artist diligently studies and makes use of sunlight to craft flash-form narratives. Using mixed media, like textiles, live florals, and woven and braided masks, Johnson explores and draws in the viewer with themes of identity, intergenerational relationships, and Southern femininity. Her still life portraits similarly examine our relationship to the earth. Recently, we spoke to Ashley about her obsession with the sun, why she sees flash-form stories as natural to her work, and what she hopes her prints inspire in people.
Johnson is the first in our Lulu and Georgia Artist Capsule series, in which we spotlight emerging artists every few months with limited capsule collections. Each artist will select a number of their current works for an exclusive, limited-time release on our site. Discover her exclusive photography prints, which radiate with a sense of tenderness and intimacy, and shop her complete Artist Capsule here.
Tell us how you got your start in photography and then fine art.
I’ve always been one to document the world around me, and so having a little point and shoot on me at all times was an entry point to that desire. I began creating editorials with my friends and family—fun and honestly, bad, little concepts. Over time, being known as someone who liked to build sets for shoots was my thing, and I had a full-blown photography business. Eventually, I decided I wanted a little more out of my camera—and for those images to be for me. I started making fine art around 2019.
We love the strength, both in color and light, of your prints. How would you describe your creative process?
I am obsessed with the sun. My friends call my apartment a glass treehouse because I live so far up in the trees, surrounded by windows in every room. I even have a window in my pantry. But light inspires me, both the presence and absence of it. I love to watch seasons change or tell time by the presence of light at different times of the day or watching the sun’s angles. If there’s an emotion I’d like to communicate, I watch the light in my shoot for a few days to see which time of day will communicate that light best. I have a notepad of dates, times, and locations where I loved the light in that area and refer back to it. A camera’s job is to literally capture light, and so I start there. The rest of the ideas unfold after.
The “flash-form” narrative inspires your art—can you explain more about that
Flash stories, or flash fiction, are defined as “very short stories.” They are beautiful microcosms in time, and because they’re so brief, there are things (hidden or missing), even with plot points and resolutions. They also end strangely or seemingly not at all—it depends on the writer.
We often desire narratives to either resolve, give us an abundance of information to tease our thoughts or end on a note we can comfortably live with. My favorite pieces of art—from movies to images—are works that leave more questions than answers. It’s the way our lives actually work. At present, there are so many open narratives, weird storylines, and unresolved endings in my life. Flash fiction is inspiring because it’s intrinsic in the work. It’s how I prefer my work to exist.
What or whose work is inspiring you most right now?
Food narratives! People who are telling food stories in unique and interesting ways! Chef’s Table is so beautiful it’s hard to look at sometimes. Digital creators like Alvin Zhou and Cedrik Lorenzen (completely different in their approaches to food) have shown that one can have such a singular approach to food storytelling and have fun with it.
What are a few pieces in your collection that you are most proud of?
I love my WOVEN series with Nambi. It was the first series of images I ever made, and people still enjoy it so much. What I love most about it is that I wasn’t looking to prove anything. It just was practice for me. The love people share for the series was so affirming for me as a family and lifestyle photographer turned fine artist.
The Ranunculus images are also a favorite. During the beginning of the pandemic, I’d stopped shooting. I was experiencing a bit of anxiety with my practice, and working with human subjects before the vaccine didn’t quite help. I love to use my hands during downtime in my shooting, so building tiny little worlds in Still Life form on my desk was my weekly practice. I would go outside each day, pick up a few things and shoot them. It was a meditative and stress-free practice that led me to product photography—which is now my preferred shooting category.
What do you want people to feel when they get one of your pieces
Introspection. My images are soft, strong, quizzical, and a bit strange at times. So, I want people to feel that sense of softness, strength, curiosity, and a little weirdness. Especially in their homes and when asked to talk about them. It’s okay not to know what an image actually means and to talk about it with guests.
As an artist based in Winston-Salem, how do you feel North Carolina and the South have influenced your work?
North Carolina is my home, and so I make art that has conceptual ideas around southern living and all of the nuances that come with it.
What’s next for you and your practice?
Rest. I’m one of those “work all the time” people, and I’d like to experience a time—or at the very least, a season—where I prioritize relaxation and return to a very centered and quiet space in my mind and body. I desire that for myself. There are so many lovely opportunities on the horizon for me in my photography practice and life that truly center what I’d like to be doing, and I’m following those paths.