Alumni in the Arts: Johnathan Payne

an African American male with headphones on

How did you get to where you are now? What paths can one take in the arts?

I got to where I am by hustling, plotting, scheming, making friends, and being humble. To be honest, I never worked an “arts-related” job while I lived in Memphis. How I supported myself financially after graduating included a slew of service industry jobs (I worked as a caterer, a server, a cupcake sales associate, and a gym receptionist) and nonprofit work. I was an AmeriCorps volunteer in Memphis for two year-long terms and a summer term. I worked as a Facilitation/Program Specialist at Bridges, Inc., a nonprofit organization that focuses on youth outreach and youth-led community transformation via a youth program called Bridge Builders. In this role, I learned a lot about the city of Memphis and the community-related issues that affect it. I impacted local youth by being a strong role model and advocate for their agency and leadership. This experiential work environment taught me what it means to be both in and of the world. It taught me that my subjectivity is contingent on my personal lived experiences, and that embracing difference and diversity in a REAL way is the only radical way to move forward as a community/ecosystem/population. I felt very fulfilled in this work. It was a continuation of the outreach work I did while I was a student at Rhodes. 

This all translated into my artwork. I grew more affirmed in myself and my ideas, and my disparate but unique work experiences spurred my interest in themes around self-concept, mental health, embodied realities, and social structures/systems, and how I could represent these using the materials and forms that are interesting to me. Really, there are an infinite amount of paths one can take as an artist. It really takes some self-compassion, patience, and creativity to envision what your life will be as an artist. You have to be comfortable accepting bewilderment and uncertainty. Fearlessness is key, and I wish I new that when I graduated. I had a lot of predetermined assumptions about what the world could offer me, but I also occupy a marginal identity and have felt the impacts of racism and discrimination.  

 How did your time as an art/art history major prepare you to meet your career goal?

This question is challenging for me to answer. To be honest, when I decided to become an art major at Rhodes, my decision was in part due to having had a botched experience within the science department and not knowing what to do with myself. I didn’t have many grand career goals when I was an art student (no, seriously), with the exception of getting my work into local juried exhibitions and networking with other artists in Memphis. This obviously paved the way for more robust career goals, such as being curated into exhibitions and applying for and receiving an artist grant. My time as an art major at Rhodes was really about me trying to understand and embrace myself more as a queer black guy. It was a confusing and anxiety-filled time. Ultimately, I lucked out by deciding to be an art major. It chose me, as cliché as that sounds. It’s really true though. I learned what real academic discipline and rigor means as an art major.  

What art and art history course(s) where you most impacted by?

I was impacted by many of my studio art courses. The first studio art course I took at Rhodes was Sculpture 1 with Benjamin Butler, a Memphis-based sculptor working primarily in wood, cement and metal. I took his class in the spring semester of my first year, in 2009. That class was transformational for me. It exposed me to concentrated processes and material manipulations/investigations that continue to be a vital aspect of my studio work. I took Intermediate Life Study with Erin Harmon in the spring semester of my sophomore year, as well as Painting 1 with Laurel Suscy, who is also based in Memphis (Ben is Laurel’s husband). Erin’s class gave me a space to investigate the body as a sight of self-conceptualization, desire, and queerness. Laurel’s painting class was my first time engaging with acrylic paint as a medium. I was also impacted by Hamlett Dobbins’ Alternative Media and Methods class, which I took my senior year in Fall 2011. That class introduced me to performance art and other experimental modes of disseminating ideas. It was a very radical course. 

In retrospect, my interest in art history was much less focused than my interest in studio art, but the art historical education I received at Rhodes did plant roots for later self-education. I appreciated David McCarthy’s Contemporary Art course a lot, and the maturity and high level of expectation he requires of his students. 

Any advice for Rhodes students?

I do, yet in good faith, I must disclose that I myself am still learning and figuring things out. So, take this advice as you see fit. My advice for current Rhodes students is to take advantage of all the resources you have at you disposal. I’m not sure what it’s like now, but when I was attending Rhodes, I had access to all the studio art classrooms 24/7. There was an abundance of class materials at my disposal, and rarely was there any overhead. If this is still the case, I say take advantage of these resources! You may think they are meager, and that’s because they somewhat are. But, it’s all for you, and the possibilities are, in reality, very expansive. Don’t tread lightly in your artistic and intellectual pursuits. Don’t think so much about what your degree will “do for you” financially either. It’s really challenging to relinquish capitalist tendencies in our contemporary culture. In my opinion, inherent to being an artist is the ability to imagine another reality of cultural/financial/social possibilities. It’s optimistic, utopic, and a bit naive and idealist, but this is really where the (art)work happens. Obviously, nothing is pure in our world- everything has a context. So, do what is within your means at any given time. Work within your cultural context. Accept your ignorances and do your research thoroughly. Sometimes you will be overwhelmed with self-doubt, anxiety, insecurity, and existential questions. This is normal and a good thing, as challenging and disemboweling as it is to process all that that brings. That is natural, and a marker of your deep emotional register. It’s not supposed to be easy. Remember, it’s all about the work. Do. Your. Work.

Post-Rhodes bio and current occupation/location

Johnathan Payne (b. 1991) is a visual, performance, and installation artist currently living and working in New Haven, CT. He received a BA in Art from Rhodes College in 2012, and an MFA  in Painting and Printmaking  at Yale School of Art in 2018. Johnathan’s artwork incorporates a post-minimalist exploration of found materials, contemporary dance, site-specific painting, and color abstraction. He engages in repetitive, ritualistic processes to intuitively explore themes of formal/cultural/abstract systems, desire, queerness, and self-conceptualism. Temporality, ephemerality, accumulation, and abundance are all significant elements of his work.

Johnathan has co-organized and co-curated several projects and exhibitions at Yale, including Queering Space (2016), Black Joy (2016), Publishing Camp: Queering Dissemination (2017), and Wild Seed: Yale Painting and Printmaking MFA Show (2018). He also works at the Yale University Art Gallery as a Wurtele Gallery Teacher where he teaches K-12th grade students the art of looking using the museum’s art collection. Johnathan has also taught undergraduate students principles of basic drawing. 

Johnathan has received recognition for his artwork in the form of artist grants, residencies, and awards, the most recent being a 2017 recipient of Yale School of Art’s Gloucester Prize for Landscape Painting, as well as an ArtsMemphis ArtsAccelerator grant recipient in 2014. Johnathan has exhibited his work nationally and internationally, most recently mounting his thesis work in Wild Seed at Green Gallery, located within the Yale School of Art (New Haven, CT). Previous select group exhibitions include Kaleidoscope at Kravets Wehby Gallery (NYC, 2018), Kink and Politics: The Ties That Bind at David Nolan Gallery (NYC, 2017), Viewpoints at Jenkins Johnson Gallery (San Francisco, 2016), and 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair (London, 2016).