The Inspired Artistic Footprint of Ann ‘Sole Sister’ Johnson
by D. Amari Jackson
The innovators. The ones who see things differently. The rare few who disrupt the traditional and the mundane in breathtaking ways and, in doing so, challenge the long-established cultural practices surrounding them, before reimagining them, transforming them into something compelling and “new,” despite being there all along, hidden in plain sight, yet waiting to be rediscovered by one bold enough to look at the same old thing in a whole new way.
For Ann ‘Sole Sister’ Johnson, such innovation was right at her feet. Three decades ago, while taking art courses at a Texas junior college, she stumbled across her artistic trademark. “I took a painting class and that’s when I stepped in some paint,” says Johnson, a mixed-media artist based in the Houston area. Though artistic throughout her early years, “that was when I started painting with my feet,” she notes. “And that’s where the ‘Sole Sister’ name comes from.”
“I thought it looked cool,” continues Johnson, who proceeded to paint her first self-portrait with her feet. “I just kept playing around with it and started painting on different surfaces like wood, which is different from painting on canvas,” she explains. “Then I just focused on it so I could master where to put footprints and how to go back in and detail with my fingers around the eyes so that it could be less raw and more refined.”
Rare talent acknowledged, Johnson’s numerous professional feats go beyond just her feet. The hands-on painter, sculptor, and printmaker has been showcased in solo, group, and juried exhibitions in major museums and galleries throughout the country. Johnson’s work, which largely examines issues relevant to Black life and representation, has garnered awards from the likes of Houston’s “The Big Show,” the Carroll Harris Simms National Black Art Competition, and the Texas Biennial. Pegged an “Artist to Watch” by the International Review of African American Art for her experimental printmaking, Johnson has also published articles for art magazines and penned and designed several books. Since 1995, she has taught art, merchandising, and design at her alma mater, Prairie View A&M University, a historically Black land-grant university and the second oldest public institution of higher learning in the state. The popular professor has been recognized with a Teaching Excellence Award, a Presidents Faculty of the Year award, and an Art Teacher of the Year award from the university’s School of Architecture.
“Ann is an amazing educator,” offers colleague, professor, and artist, Rabéa Ballin. “She always puts her students first, and she does so much for them, almost like a mother figure. She just has a nurturing aspect to her personality that, I feel, is infused in the work she makes, because it is so labor intensive.” In artistic terms, continues Ballin, “Ann is always cooking something up with the printmaking and her commitment to process, and it speaks to the organized and very thorough nature of her personality. A lot of her work is conceptual, so it is based on a lot of research, and I really want to speak to and honor her thoroughness when it comes to the work she makes.”
Like her talented toes, Johnson has forged a remarkable trail, one stretching across the Atlantic, back to London, England where she was born into a military family that, at age three, jumped the pond to settle in Cheyenne, Wyoming. Heavily influenced by her mother, an oil painter and avid gardener, and further shaped by an activist, military father who championed the effort to make Martin Luther King day a holiday in Wyoming, Johnson absorbed her parents’ penchant for creativity and social justice while figuring out her own path in life. She initially pursued fashion instead of art, attending Bauder Fashion College in Arlington, TX, largely because she believed she couldn’t measure up with the latter.
“I never thought I was good enough to major in art,” reveals Johnson, before describing how the rodeo was a “big deal” in Wyoming. In art competitions, “the kids would be drawing boots and cows while I’m drawing Tina Turner and Prince,” she recalls, with a laugh. “So I would never place.” It wasn’t until Johnson attended Prairie View A&M that she recognized art as her true talent and found a mentor and a collegiate environment more conducive to her skills. “Art was always my passion,” she clarifies. “I just was afraid of it.”
Upon graduating from college in 1991, Johnson pursued and received an MA in Humanities from the University of Houston-Clear Lake with a concentration in art. She began teaching art at her collegiate alma mater, simultaneously exhibiting and engaging her Houston-area community in such initiatives as public mural projects with the Museum of Fine Arts Houston, and art-based summer programs for children. For eight years, under Project Row Houses, Johnson taught arts and crafts to youth each summer while establishing the African American Art Festival Children’s Village. In 2002, she launched RAW Kids Mobile Art Camps to further serve her Houston community before pursuing and receiving her MFA from The Academy of Art University in San Francisco with a concentration in printmaking.
Such community engagement and service are wholly consistent with Johnson’s identification with the “artivist” tag. She is primarily focused on activism and printmaking these days, given her last foot-felt portrait of a newly elected President Obama was rendered in 2009.
“I always say that everybody ain’t built for the streets,” stresses Johnson, noting that a wise person “once told me to use your art as your activism.” She references ongoing police killings of unarmed Black citizens and the July 2015 death of Sandra Bland, the 28-year-old African American woman found hanged in a jail cell in Waller County, Texas three days after being arrested during a traffic stop. “That’s my backyard,” reports Johnson. “That was my campus where that happened, and I just can’t begin to tell you what it feels like to drive down a street you’ve been driving down for 20 years, but now you’re a nervous wreck, and your hands are shaking driving down that same street. So, obviously, it’s gonna have an impact, either consciously or unconsciously, on the work that’s created.”
Accordingly, Johnson produced a series of artistic sunglasses called You Can’t See What I Can See, in response to the decisions to not charge law enforcement officials for these killings. The first pair of sunglasses, a transfer print of a mother grieving her son, was titled, “It Just Keeps Happening.” In the aftermath of Bland’s death, Johnson curated an exhibition focused on women and brutality called How Do I Say Her Name.
Johnson is also an active member of ROUX, a southern artist collective that contributes to the discourse of contemporary printmaking through the employment of both traditional and experimental methods. Composed of Johnson, Rabéa Ballin, Delita Martin, and Lovie Olivia, the ROUX collective promotes diverse works that navigate between styles of the past and the proposed future while addressing issues of representation and experiences unique to women of color in the American South.
But for all her ongoing artivism, it is ultimately her 84-year-old mother, Thelma, who keeps Johnson on her toes. “She’s every woman,” laughs Johnson, pointing to her mother’s numerous skills including art, gardening, making clothes and hats. “I have always been inspired by her artistically,” Johnson told the Samuel DeWitt Proctor Institute in a January 2021 talk. “A couple of years ago, at the Community Artists’ Collective, she and I had a show together, and it was great.”
“But she was coming for me.”
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Amari Jackson is a creator, author, TV/web/film producer, and award-winning journalist. He is author of the 2011 novel, The Savion Sequence; creator/writer/coproducer of the 2012-2014 web series The Book Look; writer/coproducer of the 2016 film Edge of the Pier; and current writer/coproducer of Listen Up! on HBCU GO/Roku TV. He is a former Chief of Staff for a NJ State Senator; a former VP of Communications & Development for the Jamestown Project at Harvard University; and a recipient of several writing fellowships including the George Washington Williams Fellowship from the Independent Press Association. An active ghost writer, song writer, martial artist, and journalist, his writings have appeared in a wide variety of national and regional publications.
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