Derek Johnson will never stop playing bluegrass music.
“Early in the pandemic, I ran across a traveling sketchbook some college friends and I collaborated on years ago after we graduated. It was a way for us to stay connected through art after we all went our separate ways. In summer 2020, I thought it might be interesting to revive the concept. Once we started being comfortable doing backyard get-togethers again, I handed off sketchbooks to a couple of fellow artists and things just grew organically from there. I think it clicked with a lot of artists because it brought them joy during such a joyless time.”
MPLSART’s mission since its inception in 2005 has always been to showcase and elevate the Twin Cities visual art community. When my wife Katie and I took over operations in 2015, we continued that mission but additionally work to make the arts community more approachable and sustainable. We work hard to not only inform people of what is going on in the art scene but also make them feel invited. A lot of people think art just happens through public funding and that they do not need to engage with it or financially support it. Art is a critical part of the cultural fabric of the Twin Cities. A big part of what we do is marketing and education. At the end of the day we want people to make art a meaningful part of their everyday lives.
The 2021 MPLSART Sketchbook Project is the follow-up to a project we did throughout the second half of 2020. Early in the pandemic, I ran across a traveling sketchbook some college friends and I collaborated on years ago after we graduated. It was a way for us to stay connected through art after we all went our separate ways. In summer 2020, I thought it might be interesting to revive the concept. Once we started being comfortable doing backyard get-togethers again, I handed off sketchbooks to a couple of fellow artists and things just grew organically from there. I think it clicked with a lot of artists because it brought them joy during such a joyless time. The series of sketchbooks from 2020 were compiled into a hardcover book sold via a successful Kickstarter campaign and the original sketchbooks were acquired by the Minnesota Museum of American Art. We split all the net proceeds among the 69 contributing artists. It was an amazing ending for something that started out as a random idea.
The second iteration of the Sketchbook Project started in early 2021. We worked with a whole new cohort of Twin Cities artists, 70 in total, ranging from hobbyists to internationally exhibiting artists, from Jerome Fellows to artists just starting their careers. The project has proven to be just as important for artists in 2021 as it did in 2020. A lot of artists are still hurting and the 2021 Sketchbook Project gave them something to really look forward to. I’m really humbled by all the amazing artists that participated. It turned out to be another stunning project.
Both the 2020 and 2021 MPLSART Sketchbook Project are mini time capsules capturing the hearts and minds of the artists that contributed to them. The project was an outlet for many artists helping them get back into making work after devastating creative blocks, isolation, and social media bubbles. Some artists tried new things for the first time that they carried into their regular practice. The 2020 Project had a lot of collage work whereas the 2021 Project had more textile work with stitches and sewing. I see it as a subconscious metaphor about collecting the broken pieces and starting to repair them. Many artists created pieces working through trauma they faced over the last two years. The work really reflects the variety of experiences the community has been wrestling with.
The 2021 MPLSART Sketchbook Project is being compiled into an ultra-limited edition book available exclusively through a Kickstarter Presale Tuesday March 1 through Thursday April 7, 2022. The limited edition book will be available for $55 during special early bird pricing through March 11, after which, they will be $65 through the end of the presale. There are also reward levels to get some original artwork as well as exclusive prints from work from the project.
Additionally, Gamut Gallery will be hosting an exhibition March 18th through April 9th featuring new work from 35 of the artists involved in the 2021 Sketchbook Project. The original five sketchbooks will also be on display as well. This is an excellent opportunity to see the sketchbooks first hand. The opening reception takes place Friday March, 18 from 5 to 9 p.m. There will also be a round-robin style artist talk Saturday, April 9 at 10 a.m.
The pandemic reinforced the need to financially support the arts community. Most of our future plans are in that realm. We’re working on a more equitable way for artists and galleries to sell work. We’re building partnerships with other Midwest metros to create additional markets for local artists to exhibit their work and do a sort of cultural exchange with these cities. We’re also working on a handful of features to reduce the dependency of social media for event RSVPs, ticketing, marketing etc. There are lots of partnerships in the works with local businesses and other hyperlocal arts focused platforms like ours. There’s been a lot of requests to do a podcast or video series as well. We’ll also likely be making the MPLSART Sketchbook Project a trilogy as the need for the project still persists. I see the next two years as sort of a renaissance for arts locally and we’re prepping for it.
When we started out, we both had full time jobs: my wife as an art director at an agency and I as a software engineer. MPLSART was more of a passion project for us, but as time progressed, we started dedicating more time in order to give it the attention it really deserves. We’d switch off who had the full-time job to pay the bills and who was focused on MPLSART. Burnt out after years in the startup world, I left a gig right before the pandemic started and have been doing the day-to-day operations for MPLSART ever since. We also work with some amazing contractors who help make a lot of the magic happen. We’re working to grow the business to the point where it doesn’t hinge on our involvement and where ownership is dispersed to be more equitable for everyone involved. We’re still working through what that looks like — bcorp, coop, 501c3, etc. — but we need to get our revenue up a bit more before it makes sense to include more people. 2022 will be critical to showing us the path forward.
The last two years have been really hard creatively. I’ve been doing a lot more art journaling than making new large scale works for exhibitions or commercial work. I made a lot of sketch paintings of friends to feel more connected to them. I illustrated a lot of the major news events. I tried out a lot of new ideas just to see how they felt. It’s all mostly personal work rather than things I share on social media, etc. However, I did try out a new technique of laser engraving my illustrations in ceramic tile. The first work I made in earnest using that technique recently sold, so I might explore that medium further. People really seemed to dig it. It’s been a great time to try new things without worrying too much about the end result. I have a few big illustration projects on the horizon that were postponed by the pandemic.
There are so many amazing artists out there that it is really hard to not just list every artist we work with. However, John Schuerman, Sean Connaughty, and Nikki McComb are doing some really important work in our community. If you are not familiar with Leslie Barlow, Caitlin Karolczak, Ta-coumba Aiken, CL Martin, and Piotr Szyhalski, look them up. Keep your eyes out for murals around town by Reggie LeFlore, Hibaaq Ibrahim, Chuck U, and Melodee Strong. Alison Hiltner’s work always blows my mind. Through the Sketchbook Project I got to know the work of Xee Reiter, Samuel Fleming, Amina Harper, and Maiya Lea Hartman and I think they’re going to be really important artists over the next few years. Megan Bell, Gordon Coons, Ron Brown, Russ White, Suyao Tian, and Jane Wunrow are some highlights of my small personal art collection. Every local artist is worth knowing and there’s something for everyone in our local arts scene. Visit galleries and peruse the open studios and find the art and artists that speak to you.
Photo by Sharolyn B. Hagen