As a woman of many layers, Native American printmaker Anna Johnson naturally creates art with many layers, too.
Through her primary medium of relief printing, Johnson carves away a single block, presses it with a layer of colorful ink and repeats the process until the subject comes to life on the paper.
She then adds collaging to the mix with materials she finds in nature – like birch bark from her mother’s home on the Turtle Mountain reservation – to share her culture’s stories through her art.
“My work is an active effort to keep my people alive,” Johnson says. “Native American stories are not always known, even by other Native Americans … I like the idea of bringing awareness of my culture to more people.”
Johnson is a member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians. She’s made art since she was young, and up until she moved to Fargo a decade ago to attend North Dakota State University, all she did was paint.
That is, until she tried printmaking.
“I was hooked from the moment I started doing it,” Johnson says. “I had a natural ability to see something in my mind that other people (don’t have).”
“When you’re doing a relief print, you’re carving away the color you want to stay, and you have no idea what it’s going to look like until it’s done,” she continues. “It’s putting a lot of faith that it’s going to come out right, and I always feel like it’s going to turn out right.”
Turtles, bears and rabbits commonly emerge in Johnson’s work – but especially the turtle, as it symbolizes longevity in life, she explains, as well as the Turtle Mountain tribe’s creation story.
She also enjoys incorporating other creation stories in her work, because of the similarities between Bible and Native American stories, she says.
Johnson’s art has appeared in several exhibitions in Fargo-Moorhead and in the Turtle Mountains. Her brother Matt Johnson featured her artwork on as the album cover for his band The Human Element.
Since graduating from NDSU in 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in printmaking and drawing,
Johnson continues to learn from printmaking mentors Eric Johnson and Kent Kapplinger as well as hone her skills through workshops at the Plains Art Museum with Laura Youngbird.
Through the workshops, which are free for Native American artists, she’s made baskets, carved pipes, screen-printed with encaustic and much more.
“Any time I can get out and do something different (creatively), I want to because I think that’s how you evolve as an artist,” Johnson says.
Her most recent endeavor was purchasing a printmaking press with help from an Individual Arts Partnership grant, which will help her create “limitless” art in the comfort of her home.
“(Owning a press) opens the doors to the sheer number of pieces I can bring to life,” Johnson says.
She’s also excited about more getting her work into more people’s homes, allowing her to continue telling her culture’s stories, one layer at a time.
“Everything I make has something to do with what I believe in,” Johnson says. “It’s humbling to think that other people agree.”