Color. Life. Joy. The Art of Sandra McMorris Johnson

Sandra was a joy to talk with, generous and genuinely happy about how she spends her time. You can tell from looking at her work.

A World of Color
Using her own hand-dyed fabrics, a fiber artist composes stunning fields of expression.

By Vanessa Salvia

Published in the Register-Guard’s special publication, Dash on January 2, 2013

Color. Joy. Life. Those words describe not only Sandra McMorris Johnson’s art but her philosophy, too. A tall, elegant woman with more than 30 years behind her as a professional artist, Sandra has taken the traditional woman’s work of sewing and fabrics to new heights, both literally and figuratively.

Sandra began sewing dresses with her mother as a girl. “We all did back then,” she says. And after she completed her master’s in fine arts in 1983, she contemplated the impact of art’s status quo. “At the time, I saw this as women’s art really coming into its own, and if I painted I would be just joining the men,” she says. “If I stuck to this ‘woman’s work’ then I would stay true to myself, and I would be saying, ‘no, it matters.’ I felt like, it’s important to honor that tradition that women had.”

Rather than painting with oils or acrylics, Sandra paints with fabric. “They say that paint is color suspended in a gel medium,” she explains. “To me this is color suspended in a cloth medium.” Twelve of her large “color field” fabric paintings are currently on display in Great Falls, Mont., and will return to Eugene in time for a January display at Maude Kerns Art Center. “What I pride myself on is painting with fabric. I’ve been trying my whole career to paint with fabric and it’s only now that people are saying, ‘this is like a painting.’ So I think, ‘Wow, I finally did it!’ ”

Labors of love

Sandra’s enthusiasm permeates her work. You would have to be excited about fabrics to spend as much time on art as she does. She spends hours hand-dying the cloth. More hours cutting it. Stiffening it with fusible bonding. Countless more hours shaping the final combinations.

Her artist jackets take even longer. While in college, she made her first quilted jacket, inspired by the shape of Japanese hippari jackets. “I would lose them,” she says, “so I kept making them.” Two years ago a gallery owner asked Sandra to make a series of jackets for display, and she made 35. Each is crafted of Indonesian hand-dyed viscose rayon, cut, sewn and hand-quilted by Sandra. “In college, I started weaving and that took a long time,” Sandra recalls, “so then I went to quilting and that took even longer. And now these things that I do are the worst! Don’t ask me where I didn’t get the message.” She laughs. “But art always takes a long time.”

Scraps of fabrics will end up in piles and some combination of color and texture eventually will catch her eye. Smaller pieces are born from her large works. Many of her works are inspired by events in her life. One piece called “Mourning Pages” in flowing silver, gray and deep red, reflects her father, who passed away three years ago. Some of this fabric Sandra had saved for 20 years. “It’s like him, so elegant and so subtle, and it has so much integrity. It just embodies him and his character,” she says. “Finally in the end they just make themselves.”

Sandra and her husband moved here from Illinois in 1994, when he took a job at the University of Oregon. She was already well into her career teaching and creating. In 2000, Sandra installed the “Millennium Clothesline” atop Mount Pisgah — 2,000 pieces of hand-dyed fabric strung along a clothesline. She is still using some of those fabric pieces, and still remembers something she didn’t expect: the sound of wind whipping through 2,000 pieces of fabric. “And the color just flapping,” she smiles.

Sandra’s large pieces, she hopes, envelope the viewer in color and richness. “It seems so simple to say that color enriches our lives,” she says. “If you take time to look at the inner relationships with color it can be both mesmerizing and really enriching, and time suspending. People have their work-a-day lives and they don’t get to spend time contemplating the richness of the world and the goodness that is here.”

Wassily Kandinsky wrote a book called “Concerning the Spiritual in Art,” which has greatly influenced Sandra. “Color is spiritual, and I try to express my world in a spiritual way,” she explains. “I hope when they look, people can connect with what I’m saying about life, and basically what I’m saying about life is that it’s really good!”

Art show

See Sandra McMorris Johnson’s color fields and a new artwork called “Cabinet of Wonders” in “Curious Temptations,” a group show at Maude Kerns Art Center, Jan. 11-Feb. 8. Sandra’s quilted jackets will be for sale in the sales gallery. Visit


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