Doug Johnston

A Thread Through Time

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This process seems to capture or collapse that long history. It allows me to see a really deep view of time.

__Doug Johnston

Lineage. It’s a word that evokes an almost tangible perception of our past, a straight line connecting us to our biological and cerebral past. For most cultures, it determined a person’s status, occupation, even worldview. As humans, we share a collective lineage dating back millions of years, generation by generation, winding a tale so complex and vast that there is and always will be more to discover, more to glean from the clues left by our ancestors. Genealogy, anthropology, are our efforts to access the time capsule of human knowledge, experience, and through an intimacy with that past, find insight into the present – into ourselves, even. In tracing back the ticks on a timeline, the mistakes, the bright spots of hope, we discover we are part of a stand as long as history itself. It is with this invisible bond in mind that Doug Johnston begins each new piece of his work. From the simplest of materials, Doug constructs much more than bags, buckets, and bowls – he connects history with imagination, translating a single line into a multidimensional view of time and space.

Doug began the trajectory of his current work through during a grad program at the Cranbrook Academy of Art. He had recently completed a degree in Architecture and Studio Art, and was attracted to Cranbrook’s unconventional curriculum. “My department was very unique in that there were no classes, no grades, no projects. You just got a studio and did your work.” While there, Doug met a fellow student named Yu-Chih Hsiao who would transform his work from then on. “I was doing work that was facilitating social interaction, and he had been doing this translation of a two dimensional line into a three dimensional form. We were really interested in each other’s work, so the last semester of our program we decided to collaborate directly.”

Their joint thesis project was forming a gathering space: a few thousand feet of plastic tubing woven around a towering wooden frame. “Every time it crossed over itself, at the intersection we would put a ziptie. It was fairly improvisational, very immediate. It was like drawing three dimensionally with this line. We were forming this kind of shell space, and at some point we had made enough connections that it became semi-rigid so that we could remove the frame, creating an internal space. For both of us, that was really pivotal. I became obsessed with that way of working, with this flexible line of material connecting to itself, to create a three dimensional object.” After his thesis, Doug moved to New York to begin his career as an architect. Significantly limited by space and time, he scaled down his materials and continued exploring the work he began at Cranbrook. “I tried knitting for a while, but eventually I gravitated towards sewing. I found it amazing that this thin, seemingly weak, innocent thread can be so strong when it’s stitched in a certain way and bond two pieces of material together, almost invisibly.”

Long before sewing and stitching, architecture had captivated Doug from a young age. “When I was really young, I took it for granted that buildings existed. I just thought they were like trees, or rocks or something, they were just part of the world. When I was only five, my mom would drive me around and I would ask her about buildings and the houses we were driving by, like, ‘how do those come about?’ She told me that there were people called architects that design houses and then they get built to the design. Up until that point everything in my mind told me that God put it there, or something. Like walls were there because God was like, ‘we

should put a wall there, and it’s this size. Oh, and a ceiling fan’. There were very few people in my family who were making things, so I wasn’t aware that that was how you could spend your life. Art was even more fascinating because the things that artists were making played a totally different role within society than making furniture or cars or paper.”

These influences of his early life continue to reveal themselves to Doug in his fascination with his work. Like his father’s passion for the Southwest’s desert ruins and Native American culture that shaped many a family vacation, often to explore the Puebloan cliff dwellings of Mesa Verde or the geological monuments of Canyon de Chelly. “Later in life I realized what a profound effect that had on me. I recognized then that not only were humans deciding how space would be formed, but how they would interact with natural space formations. It influences a lot of what I do in my work, how spaces are formed by depositing layers, and the balance between what is natural and what is formed by humans. Later in life all of these things have been synthesized into one process, this coiling and stitching rope. It’s enabled me to get in touch with these things that were so formative for me and my understanding of the world.”

From continued experiments carried out in his Brooklyn apartment, the studio grew into Doug’s full time occupation, with enough work to keep him busy and then some. His wife, Tomoe Matsuoka, came on to help with the overflow and eventually began contributing her own ideas for new designs. Japanese by birth and formally trained as an architect herself, Tomoe brought organization to their team, as well as a collaborative spark only she could provide. “She’s an incredibly important part of the studio. There was definitely an adjustment, working with your spouse, but we love it. We feel really fortunate to be able to do that. She would make these really fun pieces every once in awhile, and as things got going she started designing pieces, as well.” To keep up with the demand for their designs, Doug has also invested in bringing on two other members of the studio, Sarah Finkle and Barbara Pearsall, both talented sculptors. Without patterns to instruct them, Doug can’t help but commend his assistants on their patience with the process, their unique ability to create in uncertainty. “[When we’re doing something new], we have to make it before we know what it’s going to be. With a lot of pieces we’ll start with a really general idea. It might even be just a process, and we’ll set that process in motion and at a certain point we see what’s come about. We just start driving down the road and sometimes you have to turn around. They understand that it’s a journey that could span years to get to some unknown destination.”


As the coils of rope take on various forms, one of their most common is that of a bag. “Bags hold a special fascination for me. They’re kind of the evolution of a basket as our technology has evolved, emerging some time between basket making and garmentry I imagine. But to me they get at that essential need of humans to make things, one for survival, and as we’ve evolved in communication, other needs came about that were more cultural or intellectual.” Physically speaking, the process of creating each of his products gets back to the way we have always created space. “This process of coiling is one of the oldest forms of vessel construction both in ceramics and basketry, so if you need a container, just coiling up material into a three dimensional form is one of the simplest and most direct ways of achieving that. It’s similar to the processes of masonry in architecture, and even 3D printers work in a very similar way. I’ve been really interested in that lineage of creating space. Even before that, in geology, inside of a cave there will be stalactites and stalagmites where you have this space and slowly over maybe over thousands of years, these forms will build up or downward to form these spaces, or space is carved away. To me, as I’m working, I think about these things and that connection to what I feel is this essential human act. This process seems to capture, or even collapse that really long history. It allows me to see a really deep view of time.” Particularly in what might be described as his more sculptural work, these pieces are thoughtful, provoking even, but they aren’t your typical

lofty design objects. They’re actually pretty weird when get down to it, and it’s undeniably that weirdness that’s so attractive. They are exactly as Doug describes them: questions upon questions. Just a glorious, tangible gallery of stitched up thoughts about human nature and human history. He points to a nearby three-humped piece with deep caverns inside each leg/hump, an object somewhere between a basket and sculpture. He summarizes its construction. “The three legs are made first and then joined together. The rest of the piece is built on top of that new perimeter. The way that space is formed, deposited layer by layer, the two grow into each other in a way and then unify into a single space. It’s really hard for me to describe. It hasn’t come to me, just how to verbalize that connection. But that’s why I’m working, in a way. I’m still chasing that.”

Beyond the space that’s formed, his materials are yet another ode to this extended metaphor of time and occupiable spaces. “Rope itself is a very early human technology. The rope I use isn’t super refined; there are a few less steps from plant to material. As I’m sewing, you might see like a little chunk of actual fiber from a leaf or a stem. I like that, because it connects to where that material came from.” This organic material in turn relates to the serendipity of color and pattern that show up in every basket or bag Doug coils into existence. Binding the natural rope with primary colored thread, you immediately notice small concentrations of color throughout.


“I’m drawn to work that acts as a physical journal, objects that have inherently recorded their making. On my own pieces, the thread shows very clearly how it was made. The zig-zag stitches and the little spots where it’s more bold typically happen where the bobbin runs out, and the longer stitches are most likely where the seam got a little bit off. I really like leaving that as a record of what happened during its making; being really upfront and not ashamed of what happened.” This is because creating something truly unique is not for Doug an exercise in ego, but more an exercise in stewardship. “Visually they end up becoming the decoration. I don’t decide where they’re going to go, they just happen naturally. This way, the pieces take on a personality. They all have a slightly unique story that they’re telling. They become their own thing.”

Over the past five years, this visual journey from rope to object has ceaselessly kept Doug coming back, continuing to engage in each meditative stitch. It’s not only about designing and constructing something beautiful or weird to sell or put on a shelf, it’s about falling deeper in love with his purpose in life, with what makes him him. “My wife and I are both fascinated with anthropology; we love thinking about what makes us human. It helps me get in touch with who I am and gets me excited about these things I want to do in life. Especially when you look at the big picture of human history and all these crazy things we’ve done and do. Like going to Mesa Verde and seeing where humans were trying to live on the sides of cliffs in this completely unforgiving environment, and they did it for thousands of years. Today we’re trying to put humans on Mars, and do essentially the same thing. That’s our history; it’s our nature. That’s why

art is still so fascinating to me. It puts me in touch with my experiences, and my relationship to what’s possible in my own life, with my own hands and brain. Making things has helped me become aware of that.”

For Doug, his work has not only introduced him to himself in many ways, but informed the way he conducts his present life, the way that he moves through the world. “It’s been an almost transformative way of being in the world, for me, rather than being really focused on the present or this timeline of consciousness that goes from my life to only a few other generations, but goes back maybe thousands of years or beyond. The work helps me maintain that perspective, which has been a gift. It’s a wonderful way to exist in the world.”