Lessons from art with professor Shannon Johnston

Oct 13, 2021
Shannon Johnston

Artist, assistant art professor and director of the Steckline Gallery, Shannon Johnston is creatively productive in a variety of ways (as her many titles may imply).

The philosophies she has developed through years of working with art have made her a wonderful speaker, and she has frequent opportunities to express what she has learned. Whether she’s presenting at a high school, teaching her students or simply speaking with a colleague, Johnston makes it clear that art itself is a phenomenal mentor.

Shannon Johnston speaks about art with students at Northeast Magnet High School.
Shannon Johnston speaks about art with students at Wichita’s Northeast Magnet High School.

Podcast thoughts

Recently, Johnston was a guest on Greg Harrod’s podcast, “Connect Mobilize Deliver.” She is a repeat guest on the podcast, and she and Harrod have known each other for many years.

“I have known Greg for about 15 or 20 years. He is heavily involved in my parents’ church and back in the day I babysat his kids. So I’ve known Greg for a long time, and he’s watched me kind of transition careers a couple of different times and be in Wichita and through grad school.”

Click here to listen to the podcast “How to Lead When You Don’t Fit In” with Shannon Johnston.

Harrod has gotten to know Johnston as she went from her studies in art to nonprofit work and eventually to her position at Newman. When he created his podcast, Johnston said she would be more than happy to help, which led to him interviewing her the first time, and then again more recently.

In Johnston’s podcast episode titled “How to Lead When You Don’t Fit In,” Johnston explained how no one truly fits in, and it’s okay to be vulnerable in that way — individuality is the root of humanity, and art is a testament to that.

“As you are connecting with people, find that point of connection but also find the thing that makes you different and find the thing that makes them different and embrace both of those.”

She also discussed why art can make people uncomfortable, and why we should lean into that discomfort instead of shying away from it.

“In my Art Appreciation class, I tell students, ‘We’re going to look at a lot of artwork, and some of them you’ll like, and some of them you won’t like. It’s okay to dislike things, and it’s okay to feel uncomfortable based on what we’re looking at or talking about or the artwork we’re discussing, but it’s not okay to write things off because we’re uncomfortable.”

Shannon Johnston challenged her students to recreate famous artwork during online learning at the start of the pandemic.
Shannon Johnston challenged her students to recreate famous artwork during online learning at the start of the pandemic.

Art from the start

Johnston’s affinity for art had humble beginnings.

“I tell people all the time, my first art lesson didn’t happen in a studio. It happened at a kitchen table making strawberry jam. I have these incredibly clear memories of smashing strawberries in this big metal bowl, and it was this idea of making something to give to someone else that they could receive joy from and then feeling that joy in myself — that taught me the value of making things.”

Shannon Johnston shared her encaustic paintings in "What's NU: A Faculty Exhibit" in the Steckline Gallery, September 2021.
Shannon Johnston shared her encaustic paintings in “What’s NU: A Faculty Exhibit” in the Steckline Gallery, September 2021.

Her parents fully supported this passion as it grew and as her talents began to manifest.

“I remember studying science and I couldn’t tell you the parts of a cell if my life depended upon it, but I remember drawing them. And, no, I am not a creative writer, but I remember illustrating all these stories that I wrote in middle school and high school. So yeah, my parents kind of really encouraged me to push that skillset and that gift and provided me with art classes wherever they could.”

Continuing the creativity

Now that she and her husband are going to be parents soon, that same philosophy and that wisdom found in the arts will in many ways be passed onto their child.

“I think if we can instill an appreciation of beauty and the value of making — whether that’s making food, strawberry jam or artworks or logos or music or spreadsheets — there’s something beautiful and beneficial about making things. I think that’s kind of a human thing that we all strive for: make a home run, make a soccer goal, like make whatever you’re called to make — just make.”

In addition to parenting and everyday life, art has influenced Johnston’s leadership style and teaching strategies too.

An art piece Johnston created from used teabags.

“I think leading is much more about journeying with someone than telling them where to go or what to do. I think the best thing a leader can do is get out of the way of their team. Letting students pursue and follow their interests and finding how that connects to their creative process, whether that’s in their art-making, as an art major or just in their growth, I have an understanding of how to apply art in whatever field they’re in through Art Appreciation (class).”

Listen to Shannon Johnston’s podcast feature

Visual artist, professor, and experienced leader, Shannon Johnston, returns to talk about how to lead when you don’t fit in.