The quilts of Jess Johnson and Cynthia Johnson


Jess Johnson is known for incredibly detailed drawings filled with precise, almost obsessive, patterning. So it comes as no surprise to learn that the New Zealand-born and New York-based artist is a self-confessed perfectionist. But this hasn’t stopped her from embracing the potential of outsourcing and collaboration.

Johnson says that, for her, the biggest challenge and greatest benefit of working with other people is the same thing. “It’s the loss of control. I’m an absolute control freak in most aspects of my life so handing control over to someone else is both repellent and deeply attractive,” she explains. “I keep most things in my life very routine. So this is like a hack that goes against my nature, but I know I need it for growth: I welcome the intrusion because it’s generative.”

Since 2018 Johnson has upped the ante on the challenges of collaboration by working with her own mother, Cynthia Johnson, who is well-known in the quilting world. For their joint quilts, Jess Johnson creates new compositions from a digital archive of her signature style components, and gets them printed on cotton fabric which she posts to Cynthia in New Zealand, who then designs and sews the quilted borders.

“The dynamic can be somewhat fraught. We’re both very accustomed to having free rein over what we make,” Johnson admits. In addition to the fact that both artists struggle to “translate visual ideas into words” Johnson says, “Mum also has a tendency to go rogue for a few days, then she’ll send a picture of some half-completed thing that we haven’t discussed with a prickly question mark.” From there, she says, they argue “until we can shape it into something we’re both happy with.” The Johnsons’ mother-daughter collaboration may sometimes be tense, but it is clearly fruitful. As the artist says, “A lot of my favourite pieces are conversely ones that are imbued with the most difficulty and frustration.”

Jess Johnson and Cynthia Johnson
Darren Knight Gallery
30 January—27 February

This article was originally published in the January/February 2021 print edition of Art Guide Australia.

Preview Words by Tracey Clement