Thursday, August 10, 2023

Stepping foot into the studio of Johanna Winters is sure to leave an impression. Visitors are greeted by a haunting entourage of paper mâché puppets with oversized heads, beady eyes, flared nostrils, and thin, pouting lips. Sitting in silent focus at her desk, the artist tediously wets and applies layers to the face of what is soon to be the latest iteration to join her evocative family.

en cayss uv romanss_reddying (2022), a print by Johanna Winters
reddying (2022), by Johanna Winters. Printmaking inspired Winters to explore her ideas in sculpture, puppetry, and video performance.

A 2022-2023 Grant Wood Fellow in Printmaking, Winters has bridged her training in printmaking with a more recent interest in puppetry, sculpture, performance, and video–merging those media into a new body of work largely centered around a puppet who performs her sensuality.

“I'm thinking about ideas around the shame and embarrassment and pleasure of aging in a body–specifically a femme body,” Winters explains, “What that looks like and what that feels like, and how do I want to make a character that is vulnerably expressing that for an audience.”

The character, simply referred to by Winters as “the protagonist,” consists of a paper mâché costume worn by the artist herself and performs in a series of videos. In one of her most recent outings produced with Auden Lincoln-Vogel (a Visiting Assistant Professor in Cinematic Arts) and Jessie Kraemer (a graduate of the Creative Nonfiction Writing Program and current MFA candidate in Book Arts), the protagonist is awkwardly waiting alone in a motel room for an ambiguous encounter with a companion. She engages with a number of props in this desolate, isolating environment, straddling the line between dark tension and humor.

“I think of the costume as kind of both a confessional performance space and a protective shield,” the artist explains. “So I feel both very vulnerable and overexposed and maybe oversharing in that kind of performance space, but also hidden, and like I can enact certain ideas that I'm much too uncomfortable to articulate in my real life. But performing as this character gives me permission to explore these ideas around embarrassment and shame and pleasure.”

The videos don’t rely on conventional, linear storytelling but are rather “gestures towards an idea” to leave the viewer with questions.

Johanna Winters in the studio
Johanna Winters works on a paper mâché character in her studio in the Visual Arts Building (photo by Cale Stelken).

“I'm interested in accessing that discomfort of being human,” Winters says. “And that's certainly my experience of performing as this character and whether people who are witnessing her perform can also tap into that discomfort and acknowledge it as part of the human condition.”

Winters holds an MFA from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, and a BA from the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay. She has been awarded residencies at Yaddo, Elizabeth Murray Artist Residency, Lawrence Arts Center, ACRE, Vermont Studio Center, Arrowmont School of Arts and Crafts, Guttenberg Arts, and Eugeniusz Geppert Academy of Fine Arts in Wrocław, Poland. In addition to her Grant Wood Fellowship at Iowa, she is a 2022 recipient of the Charlotte Street Foundation Visual Artist Award.

Prior to her artistic pursuits, Winters trained as a professional cross-country skier and competed on an Olympic-development ski team based in the Upper Midwest.

“I used to think of them as two completely separate parts,” Winters reflects on the link between her past in athletics and her current artistic endeavors. “I see a connection through vanity, ego, scrutiny, and performing and both wanting to be witnessed and wanting to impress,” she explains. “I think those things are very much present in the work that I make now.”

Said work has been exhibited and performed nationally. During her fellowship at the University of Iowa, Winters used her time and studio space in the Visual Arts Building to make a new body of print, sculpture, and video work, titled HOWW TO WAYT, that was exhibited this spring.

A collaborative exploration

Winters says her training in printmaking facilitated a deeper expression through a diversified, multimedia approach. She became more interested expressing vulnerability in her work and gained the confidence to pursue puppetry as a way to perform the ideas she had been drawing about through print. The artist began studying with a puppeteer and playwright based in Minneapolis who showed her how to build a basic marionette.

“I think what has kept me interested in puppetry is the tension that a puppet object holds. It's both unhuman in its kind of strangeness, but very human, like when it begins to move. And so we recognize something of ourselves in a puppet,“ the artist reflects. “And that kind of seduction is really interesting to me.”

Johanna Winters and her crew at the 2023 Open Air Media Festival.
Artists from various University of Iowa departments collaborated at the 2023 Open Air Media Festival. Left to right: Ramin Roshandel, Martha Strawbridge, Sarah Minor, Lya Finston, and Johanna Winters (photo by Jason Smith).

Collaboration with Iowa-based artists of different media has expanded Winters’ creative scope. Winters says this is because her collaborators–in addition to offering cinematography skills–are removed from her self-consciousness and able to offer ideas that she wouldn’t have conjured on her own.

A finale of sorts to her fellowship came at the Open Air Media Festival hosted by Public Space One in June. Winters was joined by Sarah Minor (an assistant professor in the Creative Nonfiction Writing Program), Martha Strawbridge (an MFA candidate in the Nonfiction Writing Program), Lya Finston (an MFA candidate in Printmaking), and Ramin Roshandel (a doctoral candidate in the School of Music) to perform a shadow puppet show for a live audience.

“I've never lived in a city with that sort of community, space, and an activeness,” she says. “I think that the size of Iowa City allows for someone to feel like they have a place where they belong and they feel valued.”

Winters has also found both the teaching component of her Grant Wood Fellowship and Iowa’s facilities especially rewarding and supportive in the exploration of her protagonist character.

“The School of Art and Art History has a really fabulous printmaking department, and the facilities are the most beautiful printmaking studios I've ever seen,” she asserts. “Getting to use those spaces during my time here has also been incredibly productive, and the print work that I made here in Iowa was sort of another way of investigating this persona.”

Lessons in artistic prosperity

Johanna Winters in costume
Winters thinks of her costume as "both a confessional performance space and a protective shield" that gives permission to explore ideas around embarrassment, shame, and pleasure.

Winters has found the components to flourishing as an artist are to remain curious, generous, and open, as well as being brazen in creative decisions without necessarily being concerned about the outcome.

“Self-doubt can be productive if it's not too sinister or too dominating, and being generous in how you talk to other people about their work and are curious about their ideas will be reciprocated,” Winters insists. “It can inform the work that you're making, and I think there's a need for generosity in a studio practice or in an art community.”

As she prepares for a two-year role as Visiting Assistant Professor at the Eskenazi School of Art, Architecture + Design in Bloomington, IN, Winters–who once only knew the model of the solo artist toiling away in a sequestered studio–also takes with her the value of creative alliance gained over the last two years.

“That idea of shared authorship is something I hadn't really considered before coming to the University of Iowa, and I think Iowa City is specific in its concentration of creative people who either studied here and then stuck around here or moved here for other teaching jobs or community engagement reasons,” she reflects. “But I found a really distinct community of creative people that want to make things together, and that has been the most rewarding part of being at the University of Iowa.”