Why Kiel’s a Hawk to Watch:
To say that Kiel Johnson enjoys the creative process is something of an understatement. He’s positively enamored with it. On any given day, you might find the LA-based artist fashioning an old-timey Western stagecoach out of cardboard, sending sparks flying from metal sheets, or constructing a miniature cityscape from cut-outs, equipped with a winding river and steamboat. He is, admittedly, a bit obsessed with building and inventing. But don’t call him a workaholic. The way he looks at it, work and play are one and the same.
Kiel’s creations, which range from small-scale drawings and paintings to colossal, multimedia 3D installations, are designed to inspire curiosity in viewers and excavate the meaning of his own life’s adventures. His experimental “laboratory” approach to art has garnered him international acclaim and led to high-profile speaking gigs at conferences like TEDx. But for Kiel, the biggest reward of all comes from the journey of bringing his imagination to life and transforming material into “visual language.”
See what he had to say about the beauty of a creative life, building his artistic vocabulary in the College, travel and outdoor exploration, a 38-foot fall from the radio tower on Massachusetts Street in Lawrence, and nostalgia for a long-lost old Mustang.
Tell us in a sentence or two what you do for a living:
I bring the objects of my imagination to life, doing my best to share these experiences with others and convince as many people as I can to sacrifice everything for a life in the arts.
How did you end up doing what you do? Was there a certain moment when things came together? Or was it a longer journey?
It has been an incredible journey to say the least. Not any one moment. One project leads to the next and you just set out each time to try something different or expand on the last exploration. Eventually you look back on an amazing adventure.
What do you feel is your biggest achievement so far?
Trusting myself to follow my passion and pushing myself to get the work done. I’m proud of myself for putting in the hours when I could have been doing any millions of other things with my short time here. I have sculpted a life that I am proud of and is full of interesting challenges and awesome rewards, but it has been a ton of work.
What’s your lowest career moment and how did you pick yourself up and move on?
All highs come with lows. When I’ve experienced low zones, I just work on something. I’ve drawn my way out of any funk I’ve ever been in. Just get to work on something. Nothing happens while you’re flipping channels. Projects beget projects. A good idea comes while working on a bad idea.
Where do you hope to be in 10 years?
As crazy as it sounds I hope I’m doing the same things I’m doing now. Saying yes to projects that excite me and creating projects that excite me even more. Traveling the world, sharing with others and making things with community. Additionally, I think maybe I’ll have a compound of my own on some land with a bit more time to think and walk around.
What’s your best career pro-tip?
The ride is fast. Do what you love and focus only on your passion. The world will open up if you follow this simple prescription.
What do you know now that you wish you could tell your 18-year-old self?
1. Draw more than you already do.
2. Read more.
3. Start a relationship with technology now.
4. Master the camera and make more videos.
5. Don’t sell the old Mustang.
How did your KU degree prepare you for your current job?
I learned so much about manipulating material and physically making the visions in my imagination come to life at KU. In many ways it was a language degree. I learned to speak better visual at Kansas. I was encouraged to hone my particular dialect and take it out into the world with confidence.
What do you do after you’ve clocked out?
I spend a major amount of off time outdoors exploring the world. We travel extensively but I simply consider it part of a creative life to ceaselessly explore. I also try to read at least 12 books a year.
What is a fun fact about you that surprises people?
I accidentally fell 38 feet out of that tall radio/cell tower down on 8th and Mass. in Lawrence back in 1999. I crashed into a few I-beams on the way down and didn’t break anything but needed stitched back together. I’m eternally grateful it wasn’t my time to go. It so easily could have been. Might be one reason I work so hard today.
Be like Kiel. Work hard, play hard, and search for ways to do both at the same time. For more information, visit the Department of Visual Art and the School of the Arts at the University of Kansas. Explore more work from Kiel on his website.
Hawks to Watch are disrupters. They’re poised for greatness, inspiring their colleagues and excelling in their professions. Basically, they’re killing it. Having recently graduated, they are just starting to leave their mark and we can’t wait to see how their story unfolds. These Jayhawks span all industries including business, non-profits, tech, healthcare, media, law and the arts.