Marie Okuma Johnston • Courtesy

Local artist Marie Okuma Johnston is accustomed to dividing her time. As both an artist and an educator, she works creatively in the worlds of visual art and music. Now, Johnston is the 2023 Artist Resident at local arts organization Push/Pull, with a presentation of her work coming up in an exhibit that opens on June 15, entitled Gendai Hyakki Yagyo, orModern Day Demon Parade.”

Initially, Johnston was not familiar with Push/Pull, a space in Ballard created by and for artists, until her friends starting posting about it on Instagram. “After visiting the space and reading through the expectations, I felt that this was a great opportunity to make my show Gendai Hyakki Yagyo: Modern Day Demon Parade a reality,” Johnston recounted. 

“I had this show in my notes for years and was waiting for the opportunity to have the funding and space to start this collection.”

In her interview with Push/Pull, Johnston noted that, as an artist, she wanted to experience as many different art spaces as possible, from flea markets to gallery shows. “Push/Pull is unique where they display artwork on their wall while also being an art supply shop,” Johnston said. “They feature many underground artists and pieces.”

Nine pieces were created during Johnston’s residency, all between two and four feet in length and width. 

“Each piece is based off of old folktales of yokai or current events adapted into yokai form,” Johnston said of these traditional Japanese ghosts, monsters, or spirits. “This is also my first full-acrylic show and my first time working in sizes larger than 16 X 20 inches.” 

Descriptions of each piece will be posted to help viewers understand each artwork. “I am passionate on storytelling and making sure that my art is accessible to all audiences,” Johnston said. “There’s power in interpretation, but I think a little bit of context would help provide depth to the historic references.”

Johnston recalls being surrounded by Japanese art as a child, with her great aunt on her mother’s side being a calligrapher and sumi ink painter. She remembers her childhood home was always decorated with gifted scrolls from her aunt.

“I remember one summer in Japan my great aunt had my sister and I over where she showed us how to paint dragonflies,” Johnston said. “I believe my parents still have my painting and keep it on display in the family room.”

Despite these early influences, Johnston’s route to becoming an artist was circuitous. She never felt that a life of drawing and making art was realistic, with other professions like entering the medical, education, or law fields seeming like “good jobs.” Art school always seemed unattainable and unrealistic so she gave up that dream years ago.

Though she never pursued formal training, people still noticed her natural creative inclinations. “Teachers at school would invite me to try creating things for class, my high school job at a Children’s Museum would invite me to window and face paint, classmates would encourage me to be the person doing drawings for projects,” she said. “In undergrad, my cartooning and caricatures were a running joke and I’d be invited to create posters or cards of my friends and classmates.”

Opportunities then kept coming. At one point, Johnston brought a set of cards to a Minidoka Pilgrimage Planning Committee as a white elephant gift, then was subsequently invited to take on the challenge of designing merchandise for the pilgrimage. She also created a cartoon piece for a show at the Nepantla Cultural Arts Gallery in West Seattle. Shortly thereafter, she was selected to be a core member of Gallery 110 through their Emerging Artist Program, later forming an ongoing relationship with Berkano Gallery in Belltown.

Her style, she said, is a mix between fine art and cartooning. “My visual style was developed through experimentation, YouTube videos, Bob Ross videos, and making connections through different art shows and markets,” she said. “The imagery can come across whimsical but presented and created through fine art techniques.”

Gendai Hyakki Yagyo: Modern Day Demon Parade runs from June 15 – July 19, 2023 at Push/Pull • Courtesy

Johnston’s musical side offers a contrast. “My older sister started the violin in fourth grade while I was in the first grade,” she said. “I was so upset that she got a violin and that I didn’t, that I flopped on the floor and threw a fit until I got one. Joke’s on me. My punishment was years of violin lessons I didn’t want to do.”

At age 14, Johnston switched to the instrument that she now describes as her soulmate:  the cello. “In 7th grade, my TMJ got severe and the violin started causing me pain,” she said. “This was also the year Master and Commander came out, where the violinist and cellist characters play a duet and Yo-Yo Ma’s Bach Cello Suite 1 Prelude in Gmajor was featured in the soundtrack with the Lady Washington sailing.”

For the past six years, Johnston had taught 4th through 8th grade string orchestra at Seattle Music Partners, finding connections to the music through storytelling.

“If my kids were frustrated with a certain technique, I’d share something that worked for me that I learned from my college professor, John Friesen, and the kids would be more eager to try these more advanced techniques,” she said. “I learned that if you invite someone to try something outside the box, or invite a more advanced challenge as a game, you can see progress come much faster.”

More recently, Johnston has worked in higher education.

“The funny thing about transitioning between 4th graders and college students is that sometimes it’s all the same,” she observed. “At our core, we’re all just balls of emotions.” 

Johnston found she could often approach her work similarly, as well, noticing that the theories and program development styles were applicable in both her role as a higher education administrator and as an orchestra teacher: a focus on equity, creating an education system that utilized all types of learning, audio, visual, kinetic, as well as recognizing the community cultural wealth of all of her students. 

On top of all that, Johnston maintains a website, including a listing her many projects, several of which focus on the Japanese American incarceration during World War II.  

“In collaboration with my dearest friends Erin Shigaki and Eugene Tagawa, we designed a WPA poster for the Minidoka National Historic Site 20th Anniversary,” she said. “Eugene invited us to stop focusing on the guard tower as it is a symbol of oppression and focus on the spirit and strength of the incarcerees. This is where we ended up featuring a water tower surrounded by barracks as a family looks on in the sunrise of a new beginning or the sunset of another day.”

In addition to the Push/Pull show, Johnston will also have an upcoming show at Gallery 110 in August, entitled Daburu, in collaboration with artist Gina Ariko. 

“We both realized that we had very similar experiences visiting our grandparents in Moji and Kokura Wards in Kitakyushu, Japan,” Johnston said. “Daburu is a reflection on the movement to change Hafu, or half, to Daburu, or double, our double experiences, and our double-feature.” 

Gendai Hyakki Yagyo/Modern Day Demon Parade runs from June 15 to July 19 at Push/Pull, 2000 Northwest Market Street, Seattle.

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