New director of Steckline Gallery prepares for her first year

Aug 26, 2018
Shannon Johnston

Steckline Gallery at Newman University has a new director. Shannon Johnston has taken on the daily tasks of the gallery, replacing the previous director, Mary Werner.

Werner, who will retire from Newman at the end of the 2018-19 academic year, has been the gallery’s director for more than 12 years.

Newman Provost Kimberly Long, Ph.D. said, “While we welcome Shannon, we also hold a great appreciation to Mary for skillfully handling the Steckline director position. Professor Werner intends to remain on the Newman faculty and teach one more year before retiring. I’ve no doubt that Mary’s continued presence and mentorship will benefit Shannon and the entire Newman community long after her direct service is behind her.”

Johnston brings many years of experience in the art field with her. She’s taught at Wichita State University and Friends University in Wichita.

She received a Bachelor of Art degree from Belhaven University in Jackson, Mississippi, and a Master in Fine Arts from WSU in 2009. Johnston said she is excited to be back in Wichita doing what she loves.

“I came to Wichita after earning my bachelor’s, then left, but then came back for master’s,” she said. “For me as an artist, being in the art program at Wichita State, and being active in the local arts community, I started to suffer from the ‘big fish in a little pond’ syndrome. I went to New York City and became a very little fish, experiencing a paradigm shift that was important to who I am today and enabled me to come back and dig in.”

Johnston said because of her family’s military background, she moved from place to place throughout her life, but is somehow drawn to Wichita.

“This is the fourth time I’ve lived here (in Wichita). My dad was in the military so I’ve lived in 15 cities. Sometimes for a long stretch, sometimes less than a year. Through that experience, I’ve learned to appreciate culture, and invest and sink deep roots. Wichita somehow has had this lasting anchor, and I just keep landing back here.”

An art piece Johnston created from used teabags.

As an artist, she said the lifestyle strongly influences her artwork.

“Being this person who lived in all these places,” she explained, “my idea of home is shaped by rituals and objects — not a zip code, place or specific house. My understanding of home is birthday parties and ugly blue curtains, family meals and celebrating holidays. I don’t come from a traditionally artsy family. My first art lessons happened at 7 years old when my mom helped me make strawberry jam, and my grandmother taught me to cross-stitch.”

She said her artwork develops from things that already exist.

“I make weird stuff out of weird stuff,” she said with a smile. “I believe that matter matters and stuff is important, and what we make art out of instantly starts building content for us. For me, that connects to my art practice, philosophy, teaching and spirituality. It tells a story. I’ve made art out of wax, teacups, used tea bags, soap, old receipts, white paper straw wrapper covers, and currently, cat hair.”

Johnston’s cat, Barry McGee.

The cat hair is courtesy of her Maine Coon cat, Barry McGee. She adopted him and at first, he was very shy and scared.

“The first two months I owned him, he lived under a bookshelf. It broke my heart. Then he lived under the bed. When we got to Kansas, he loved it. He started loving me. He came alive and became a whole new cat. Seeing him, having this pet, is part of what makes this space home. So now that he doesn’t live under the shelf, his hair is everywhere. He sheds all the time.”

Johnston collects all the hair she can find, thinking “certainly there’s something I can make with this.” She spins the hair into yarn and from there, she just has to ask herself, “What can I do? Can I knit? Tie ribbons? Felt it?” She said she is now making artwork out of the cat hair because it is part of her home.

cat art
Artwork Johnston created using shed cat hair.

Johnston’s art career includes spending time in Australia working for a nonprofit organization as a resident artist and doing a great deal of work with the homeless.

“I did a lot of work with the homeless community, people who’d been culturally wronged. We used art as a means to reach out and create connections, shared time and experience. That was a really formative experience as an artist and career professional.”

She said she is looking forward to bringing her experiences to Steckline Gallery. She said the art community in Wichita has grown a great deal since she’s been away.

“What really excites me is getting to do the work and building the gallery. Finding artists who will bring work into the gallery that will challenge our thought and create a great conversation.”

Johnston said she’s also excited about the artists in this year’s lineup of shows, emphasizing that she wants to use the gallery as a platform in which artists can have a voice.

“I want people who don’t always get a voice — women, minorities, diverse backgrounds, schools of thought — to challenge what’s happening here, and to enrich the conversations happening, but to add a new voice to dialogs that are already going on.

“I’m so thankful for this year, to take over the gallery and have Mary right next to me. She’s been fantastic to work with. My dad was a squadron commander and there’s a whole process when you receive the flag, to always have one set of hands firmly on the flag and at some point, there are two people holding that. That’s how I feel. Mary’s still there holding it, but passing it over to me. She has so much knowledge about the gallery and university and doing things with grace and flare.”