Artist’s involvement at Standing Rock changed the direction of her Fresno State exhibition

Merritt Johnson

Just a day after her exhibition at Fresno State opened, artist Merritt Johnson presented a workshop to several teenagers from the Fresno American Indian Health Project. She greeted them using Indian phrases.

For the next hour, Johnson and the students explored the components of the exhibition. Standing next to one piece, she explained to the young people the artistic choice to have feathers covering the face of the figures.

“It represents what we see through and what we can’t see through,” Johnson said. “Decoration sometimes gets in our way.”

Johnson is of mixed Mohawk, Blackfoot, Irish and Swedish heritage. She works in sculpture, performance, video and painting.

Johnson presented an artist lecture on Jan. 24) in Conley 101, followed by a reception from 5 to 7 p.m. in the Phebe Conley Art Gallery. Both were free and open to the public.

Sponsored by the Department of Art and Design in collaboration with the Center for Creativity and the Arts, “This is a Creation Story” featured work created by Johnson individually and in collaboration with other artists.

The vision for this exhibition, called “This is a Creation Story: Merritt Johnson and the Unnamed Collective,” evolved from what was originally planned when Cindy Urrutia, director of Center for Creativity and the Arts,  booked the artist in 2016 to come to Fresno State.

Then Johnson went to the Standing Rock Indian reservation in North Dakota to be a “water protector” along with other artists, opposing the proposed Dakota Access Pipleline. The pipeline, as originally planned, would have gone through sacred burial grounds on the reservation. Protests grew over the next few months, drawing international support.

Johnson’s experiences there helped reshape the message she wanted to convey with the exhibition here, which includes work by some other artists, including Cannupa Hanska Luger, who is coming to Fresno State in March.

Johnson and other members of the collective assert that as one humanity, we have a duty to live in harmony with each other and all living things. They filmed at Standing Rock during the months of October and November, creating film, video installations, sound and performance works collaboratively with artists Luger, Nicholas Galanin, Dylan McLaughlin and Ginger Dunhill, among others.

As an individual artist, and as part of a collective, Johnson’s “This is a Creation Story” invited viewers’ introspection on themes like cultural appropriation, diversity, creativity, as well as the survival of land and culture, the impact of violence, and limited resources and perception.

The Center for Creativity and the Arts serves a hub for arts in which artists from a variety of backgrounds can work to stimulate public engagement through inquiry, discussion and understanding. Each year exhibitions are planned around a different theme. The theme for 2016-17 is “Native Communities: Tradition and Innovation,” celebrating the rich artistry of Native peoples of California and North America, as well as the indigenous Mexican diaspora of California’s Central Valley.

For information, contact Urrutia at or559.278.8341.

The free, public exhibition is on display at the Phebe Conley Art Gallery from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. through Friday, Jan. 27.

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The College of Arts and Humanities provides a diverse student population with the communication skills, humanistic values and cultural awareness that form the foundation of scholarship. The college offers intellectual and artistic programs that engage students and faculty and the community in collaboration, dialog and discovery. These programs help preserve, illuminate and nourish the arts and humanities for the campus and for the wider community.

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