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Sarena Johnson: The Psychological Expressionist

I went to high school with Sarena Johnson. She’s always been a talented painter. And it seems that college has only made her even more talented. Her work can be described as many things – whimsical, twisted, colorful, dark – the list goes on. But a sense of real life and real emotion shine through each piece of work by this figurative oil painter. In her own words, she is “enamored by the medium of oil paint and [is] constantly learning and playing with its alchemy.” I stopped by Sarena’s South Philadelphia home to catch up with her and get some deeper insight behind her work. We filmed Behind the Canvas: Sarena Johnson, the first video in Downtown 500’s new artist exposé series, which you can watch below. Afterward, read our interview with Sarena that gives you even more insight into her creative process and her aspirations as an artist.


Click on any of the above images to open a gallery of Sarena’s work.


Describe your style of work.

In an attempt to describe my work I would say I am a psychological expressionist with a strong inclination toward realism. Often i stray away from the pretentiousness of academia. I imagine myself as an omnivore – devouring art history and regurgitating it into my painting, and always paying homage to the rich history of it all. At the same time, I strive to make something new and contemporary. My recent paintings have been autobiographical in their content, but also relay a more broad social commentary on the “Americana”.

How do you start a new piece? What’s the first step?

When starting a new piece it’s important for me to have an archive of photographs that are pertinent to my subject matter. I pull from these images and make a rough sketch on foam core with sharpie (oddly enough), so my marking is permanent. Afterward, I prepare my painting surface by stretching my canvas and priming with gesso, then I let it rip.

What is it that inspires you the most?

I am inspired by this odd and ever-changing thing we call life. By the joy, sorrow, pain, love, grief and everything in between. Sometimes reaching back to childhood is a springboard for me for making work, while other times I can be in the market and be completely tantalized by the way the sun shines through a strangers ear. I catch sight of the translucent red like a pomegranate seed, and BAM I’m inspired. Most importantly, humans inspire me – no matter what color or class. I have a deep love and admiration for my fellow human and they inspire me always.

What does art mean to you?

Art is the translation of something internal, to something external. Art is the way that I process life and it is my filter in which I understand. I think that art can be almost anything; from a beautiful Guatemalan textile, to a child’s portrait made out of her leftovers on her plate, to Rembrandts paintings in the Louve. Art is music, art is love, art is life!

Where do you see yourself in five years? Do you want to create art as a profession?

In 5 years I see myself in a studio preparing for my next show, with enough flexibility to travel, but enough stability to have a home for my kitty and my belongings. I absolutely need to create art as my profession, although I am going to graduate school and will soon be certified to become a professor. I would like to be a working studio Artist for as long as I possibly can.

Follow Sarena on Instagram. Also, catch Sarena painting live at the Fishtown Rivercity Festival in Philadelphia at Downtown 500's booth on Saturday, October 13th.

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