Making Room for Magic: Participant Spotlight on Clare Johnson

 We are proud to partner with The Evergrey to shine the spotlight on Clare Johnson, a Seattle Restored participant with her installation “I feel safe here.” Clare is passionate about public art that invites residents of overlooked communities to share the joy that can be found there. In her Seattle Restored installation, Clare has “made room for magic” that comes from visitors bringing their own interpretations of her work.

Q: Tell us about your business or artistic focus.

A: I’m an artist and writer originally from Seattle. My career started while living in England due to US gay marriage bans at the time, so homesickness was an early foundation in my work.

I make many different kinds of drawings, paintings, interdisciplinary projects and public art, but across all my work I’m interested in celebrating overlooked spaces and histories, and opening up connections and empathy in accessible, enjoyable ways. I want my art to be a surprise gift for a stranger, something special emerging from the everyday landscape to brighten someone’s day and make them feel more connected to community, our local environments, and other people’s experiences.

Image from Clare Johnson's window art installation with Seattle Restored. Photo by Samuel Francois.
Photo by Samuel Francois.

Q: What’s a project you’re working on and how can our readers help you with it? 

A: This month I have a window art installation on view at 155 South King Street called “I feel safe here,” which I would love for people to visit! The art is inspired by work I did with a Low Income Housing Institute tiny house village for people transitioning out of homelessness.

A couple years ago I started creating art to decorate the fencing around Lake Union Village, sharing residents’ perspectives on living there. We were going to have coloring parties to bring everyone in the neighborhood together to celebrate and connect while coloring in these giant black and white banners I’d made.

But of course the pandemic really stymied that kind of event, so making this installation for Seattle Restored was a chance to celebrate tiny house villages in a new way. I filled each piece with layers of surprise details nodding to residents’ loves, hobbies and goals, so when you visit make sure to look up close for more discoveries.

Q: What’s the most rewarding part of owning your business / artistic pursuits?

A: Since my earliest memories, I always wanted to be an artist. At the same time, no one really ever tells you how to do it as a career, so I still feel kind of amazed at how long I’ve actually been doing it full-time now! The act of drawing has always felt empowering, even physically comforting—bringing things into reality that can’t exist otherwise, making room for saying more at once than our usual ways of communicating allow. My work makes space for processing all kinds of things personally, but it also can go out in the world and make connections without me, which feels utterly magical.

When art is part of the city landscape, anyone can connect—even if we’re unlikely to actually meet, or wouldn’t know how to feel comfortable sharing in person. It can create intimacy, even when we’re strangers.

Q: What are you looking forward to this year?

A: Most of my public art projects so far were only temporary, so I’m very excited to have a few exhibitions coming up that will revive two of my favorites in new ways.

In February and March I’ll be showing “And depths I cannot see,” a series of 14 banners inspired by local seniors’ memories around water, at University Unitarian Church. There’ll be a free reception on Sunday March 5th from 1-3pm.

Later in the summer “what we make it,” my art series based on interviews with local long-term survivors about HIV and family, will be installed in the lobby at Seattle’s LGBTQ+ Center.

And I’m so excited to be in a reading at Hugo House called “Rewind/Unwind” during the upcoming AWP conference, on Friday March 10 from 7-8:30pm. As a person who does so many different kinds of work, it’s really wonderful getting to showcase both my art and my writing so close together.

Passersby stroll past Clare Johnson's art installation "I feel safe here." Photo by Samuel Francois.
Photo by Samuel Francois.

Q: What brings you most alive about working or living in Seattle?

A: As the city gets increasingly expensive, one affordable pleasure that always sustains and delights me is discovering little details during neighborhood walks. Enjoying the landscape and views every-which-way, imagining histories in the architecture, meeting someone’s pet tortoise out for a walk, laughing at our indecisive weather—it’s all so lovely!

I recently got to celebrate this in my work by creating an art scavenger hunt along the Delridge-Highland Park neighborhood greenway in West Seattle, through the city’s Art Interruptions program. I designed intricate handmade drawings fusing past, present and future aspects of the neighborhood, which are now enlarged as vinyl wraps on the backs of 12 traffic signs you can find along the walking route.

Q: If you could give any one piece of advice to locals, what would it be?

A: It’s really hard in the arts to get paid for our time. My absolute favorite way of making work is to be paid for it, while also having a way for people to experience it for free—like with public art. It means so much to me when my work can be accessible in this way!

At the same time, public commissions are few and hard to come by, and all of us are vying for limited public funding for our projects. So if you can afford it, please support people in the arts by buying our work or our books or tickets to our shows! But if you can’t afford it, know that I’m genuinely still so excited to be making art for you.

Q: What’s your favorite Seattle Restored pop-up or art installation (not including your own) and why?

A: I’m a big fan of the entire program, but I have to admit to being partial to the art installations—it’s so wonderful that people can experience them for free 24 hours a day. You can create a really lovely self-guided art walk, moving from The Calling in Belltown and Fractures in Downtown, through to Jasmine Iona Brown and Echo (and mine) all in Pioneer Square, and finally up to Luminosity in Little Saigon (a perfect place to sit down for a delicious meal and discuss the art!).

I’m also thrilled that my former studio mate Ray Monde has an art installation up in Magnolia right now called The Reckoning. He and his work bring me so much joy. It’s such a treat to still be in the same community of artists together at ’57 Biscayne Studios even though we’re no longer sharing a room. 

Q: What’s your favorite Seattle memory?

A: You can actually experience many of my memories vicariously via art on my Instagram account because every night for over 15 years I’ve been creating a new post-it note drawing to save something from each ending day.

Memories are such a big part of my work, it’s hard to pick one favorite! But I am especially fond of my summers swimming in Lake Washington—one of the perks of having an odd schedule is being able to swim every day from June into mid-October. Most of the time I swim with my dad, who started the tradition before me. I have a lifelong condition called visual snow, which I didn’t realize was unusual until a few years ago; being immersed in the shimmering ripples of the lake is one of the only ways I ever get a break from the blinking dots my brain sees everywhere.

Between that and the time with my dad, swimming feels so magical that during the summer it seems like half my nightly post-its end up being memories from the lake.

Q: Where would you spend a lazy Sunday afternoon in Seattle?

A: One reality of my career is that I mostly work every day of the week—which can be tiring, but on the flip side I never ever get that Sunday letdown that seems to plague other people! So I have to be honest, my idea of a pleasant weekend afternoon would probably be meeting a friend or two for a work session and coffee at Ada’s Books on Capitol Hill. It’s a lovely way to be companionable while getting some admin things off my list, like working on trying to find a publisher for my hybrid poetry manuscript or my Post-it Note Project. That said, if you have a publishing lead for my post-its do get in touch—I wouldn’t mind trying out what it’s like to take some weekends off!


Clare Johnson poses in front of her window art installation "I feel safe here." Photo by Samuel Francois.
Photo by Samuel Francois.

Visit “I feel safe here”

Address: 155 South King Street

Seattle, WA 98104

Open hours: Anytime Window Art Display

Dates: December 5 – February 28

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Seattle Restored Partners