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Photo by Dante Fontana
Jennifer Johnson broke new ground in women’s welding.
More than 20 years ago, she was the only woman in welding classes here at Sierra College and at the College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland. “The guys laughed at me,” she remembers. Not anymore. Johnson – a lifetime Auburn resident – has proven herself as a strong, vibrant internationally recognized metal artist. Like anything else, when you are a trailblazer, the way can be very hard. Successful businessman Harvey Firestone said it best, “The way of the pioneer is always rough.”
It was hard for Johnson, especially when the other students in her class (all male), would make fun of her and her work. Sometimes the student critiques of her work were harsh, but she turned those negatives into a positive lesson. “I learned how to understand my own work,” Johnson says, “and I learned how to help other people appreciate it.” She wants people to know the feelings behind the creation. “Art can change lives…it has a lot of power,” she explains.
Johnson lives in her family’s home just outside of town. Her grandfather, William Billing, built the house in the 1930s and her welding studio served as the repair shop for the ranch. She caught the metal bug from her dad, R.B. Billing, who collected old car parts and restored antique automobiles. She used to pick through all the pieces and fell in love with the interesting shapes and sizes. Johnson has the amazing ability to look at a piece of metal and bring it to life as an animal, person or other interesting object. Her maternal grandmother, Vesta Chastain, an art teacher, exposed her to all types of art forms and was her inspiration to become an artist.
A believer in recycling, Johnson works with Recology Auburn Placer as their artist in residence. She is the only artist permitted to rummage through the mountains of scrap metal. “I always find really cool stuff,” Johnson admits. Admirers of her art and others leave boxes of metal pieces at her studio all the time. “It’s like Christmas every time someone leaves a box,” she says.
And her work scattered and displayed in the front yard of her home demonstrates a zeal and understanding of form. From first glance, you can see why she has so many loyal customers and collectors. “I don’t create work with intention to sell it,” Johnson explains. “I wouldn’t be able to follow my passion.”
Locally, she has pieces available at Auburn’s OZ Gallery and Avantgarden. Catherine Row, OZ Gallery owner, is very impressed with Johnson’s work. “She has the ability to create movement,” Row says. “She can take a stagnant flat piece of metal and make it three dimensional.” She also explains that Johnson’s pieces are affordable and that it is hard to keep sufficient inventory of her work at the gallery.
Nancy Odom, the “Shop Girl” at the gallery, also loves Johnson’s work. “Jennifer is constantly evolving with her craft,” Odom explains. “She is always taking it to the next level.”
For more information, visit jjohnsonstudio.com.