Entering Morgan Johnston’s artist studio is a full sensory experience. Just steps from the communal family space she shares with husband Duquette Johnston and son Tennessee, she has created her own world. It’s a layered world, brimming with books, candles, family heirlooms, stacks of dried palettes and boxes of past work. It’s also, as we come to find out, the living diary of a prolific artist. Today, fresh pink peonies, dozens of flickering candles and Palo Santo give the space an ethereal, almost spiritual vibe—but spiritual in a cozy, springtime, feminine way.
“There is a scene in Sleeping Beauty where the fairy godmothers shrink themselves down and fly into a jewelry box. That imagery made a lasting impact on my life. My studio, currently, is the full, grown-up expression of that jewelry box,” Johnston laughs.
Johnston’s love of color wasn’t always so obvious. Less colorful—some might say “goth”— teenage years were followed by a decade of life, work and love, but little painting. “We were all born creative, but we get separated from that,” Johnston states, recounting how the birth of her son and the illness that followed sparked her creative recovery.
Today, it’s a different story. “I just make art all the time. Yes, it’s a practice and a business, but it’s just what I do,” she says. Looking around, it feels as though her artistic energy knows no bounds. While many works find immediate homes with collectors, Johnston keeps a sizable body of work for her son as mementos of their shared experiences. “Not all art needs to be shown or sold.”
Johnston removes a box from a nearby shelf. “These works have never been seen,” she says, flipping through small works on paper created during the pandemic. Depictions of friends, a Manhattan hotel room and a family beach trip can be found within what she’s dubbed her “In the Field” series.
What’s next: This spring and summer, Johnston will be traveling to New York, Dallas, Houston and New Orleans, conducting portrait sessions. She’s also working on a children’s book “Little Miss Honey,” which takes place in Paris. A documentary film — shot over two years during the pandemic and depicting the creation of the large-scale triptych now hanging in the Johnston living room — is set to be released imminently.
Ongoing: A Serena & Lily collaboration, as well as her yearly “Channeled Landscapes” series.
Words to remember: “The muse is not a real thing. You show up every day, change your scenery or read a book if you need to reinfuse yourself—but show up to the practice every day.”
Inspired by: English artist and designer Luke Edward Hall, Italian fashion designer Alessandro Michele, American artist Joan Mitchell.
Supplied by: Alabama Art Supply (where she’s been going since her days at Alabama School of Fine Arts).
Follow Morgan Johnston on Instagram, @ruggedandfancy, and be sure to follow Birmingham Lifestyle on Instagram for a Valentine’s playlist curated by Morgan and Duquette Johnston, @birmingham.lifestyle.
Like Johnston, Birmingham native Caroline Gray makes painting her daily practice. Surrounded by black and white family photos, coffee cans full of paint brushes, completed oil paintings and Herman, her one-year-old English cream dachshund, Gray has an idyllic artistic space. Located in her parents’ guest house in Mountain Brook, the airy, light-filled English Tudor cottage is cozy enough for a Nancy Meyers film, down to the slate roof and creamy shiplap interiors.
After completing her undergraduate studies at Vanderbilt, Gray sought out a place to study traditional technique. Local art collector and attorney Michael Straus recommended The New York Academy of Art in Tribeca, a school founded by artists, including Andy Warhol, to teach figurative and representational art. There, Gray continued to hone her craft, achieving her MFA in painting in 2019.
Back home in Birmingham, Gray creates landscapes, figurative portraits and pet portrait commissions. Predominantly working with oil, she also enjoys watercolor.
“When I’m stressed out with a figurative painting, I go to a landscape. They are more natural for me — I can take more liberties; they’re easier,” she states. Blurry images from road trips provide inspiration, while some landscapes come from memory or imagination.
Gray’s demeanor is casual and light-hearted, our conversation peppered with self-deprecating humor. Humble about her talent, she is clearly not finished learning. This spring, Gray will be spending three months in Manhattan, taking classes from her favorite art school professor, Amy Weiskopf.
Inspired by: Mitchell Johnson, Euan Uglow, Cristina Weaver, Amy Weiskopf, Xico Greenwald, Susan Jane Walp and Sydney Licht. “I’ve studied under Amy and Xico in Italy and love both of their bodies of work,” she notes.
Antidotes to artistic ruts: Hiking, being in nature, visiting museums.
Ongoing: Gray continues to take commissions—pet portraits have proven a hit, as well as watercolor portraits. She is enjoying utilizing old black and white family photos as inspiration for large-scale, colorful figurative paintings. Gray will also be the featured live artist at the 38th annual ArtBLINK Gala, on February 4 at The Kirklin Clinic.
What’s next: Teaching. Gray plans to teach aspiring artists in the Birmingham community how to paint their own pet portraits.
Find her: Chairish, Well + Wonder, Design Supply. “Promoting myself makes me cringe, so it’s great to have partners who can market my work!” she says, laughing.
Follow Caroline Gray on Instagram, @carolinengray_art, and be sure to follow Birmingham Lifestyle on Instagram, @birmingham.lifestyle, for more local artists and art we love.
This is the first in an ongoing artist series. We’d love to know who you’d like to see featured.
“We were all born creative but we get separated from that,” Johnston says, recounting how the birth of her son and the illness that followed sparked her creative recovery.