Johnston Newfield Discusses Art, Sexuality, Identity
The freedom to express, the freedom to know oneself and the freedom to communicate with and educate one another—this is what it’s all about.
Section 2(b) of our Charter of Rights and Freedoms states that everyone has the right to the freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression. This freedom promotes unique societal values, individual self-fulfillment, a means of attaining the truth and a balance of stability and change.
Johnston Newfield is a Montreal-based visual artist who explores themes of gender, identity, spirituality and TRANSformation. There is a cohesive entanglement of all these forces that play out in Johnston’s hyper-visual world of symbolism and colour.
For Johnston, the act of creating artworks is a way to express emotions, desires and the subconscious mind in its purity—a way to open up a space for people to contemplate, discuss and ponder issues that emerge in Johnston’s works.
The freedom to express is a freedom to TRANSform.
The Link: When did you come out as trans? Could you talk about that process a bit?
Johnston Newfield: Coming out as trans has been an incredibly revelatory and freeing process for me—it really has opened my eyes about myself and my work. But first, to explain a little, trans is an umbrella category that refers to many different groups of people. I personally identify more specifically as what is academically termed “transgendered,” in that I do not define myself as either a man or a woman. Realizing this, and coming to terms with this, has allowed me to become more myself in a short period of time than I ever thought possible. This has also allowed my art to blossom. Knowing myself and accepting myself in this way has taken me in a great new direction with my work. That being said, it’s still an ongoing process, my TRANSformation. Hopefully, it becomes fairly apparent in a lot of my pieces that this change is occurring.
What makes your work characteristic of you?
Right now, my work is heavily characterized by gender, identity and spirituality. Symbolism plays a heavy role in my work—I pathologically avoid the didactic.
I notice you tend to use extremely bright and loud colours in your work—what is the artistic gesture behind this?
Bright colours represent an array of memories and ideals to me, but especially the ideas of elation, pride and creation. In the alternate reality in which I imagine a lot of my work existing and taking place, these colours represent rebirth, the recreation of myself.
Your works also feel very, very spiritual, almost cosmically enlightened. What is it about a higher power that intrigues you?
Through my work, I have discovered my own personal spirituality. Gender, identity, and spirituality are also inseparably intertwined. To know myself, to accept and love myself, to try to show that to others, to lead by example, and love them all as well, this is what spirituality is all about for me. Art is my medium for doing this. As long as the act of creation continues to fascinate me in the way it does, art will always be my spiritual expression.
Is art a medium for self-exploration?
I firmly believe in the transformative power of art and the chosen identity, of our innate ability to become something we once were not. Art is the vehicle. I don’t really believe people can learn that much about art by simply looking at it; they have to be making art as well to really learn and benefit. In this way, I often learn more about myself, often in retrospect, from the process of art making and analyzing after completion than I do from anything else.
Tell me a bit about your aesthetic: Why you choose to do the things you do?
My practice began in the tradition of print media, almost exclusively screen-printing, but has quickly moved beyond that. My philosophy surrounding art is much the same as my philosophy surrounding gender: no boundaries. If a piece needs to be 3D to work, then I’ll make it 3D; if it needs a drawing, digitally altered, covered in paint, plastered to a piece of wood, with a projection over top of it, then that’s what I’ll do.
How does that reflect notions of identity and sexuality?
Identity is also a constantly changing and many-faceted reality. Identity is not contained in one aspect of our bodies or our mind: it is a combination of different identifiers for people (gender, race, sexuality, age, class. size, heritage) and art provides a medium to express how people interact with their own fluid relationships with these factors. It can be all or none of these things at once. And it can certainly appear contradictory. But identity is not formed by a pre-prescribed reality; we make our own realities through our chosen identity.
Are identity and sexuality separate ideals?
Identity and sexuality are very different ideals in my mind. Sexuality is how you express your love to others—identity is how you express your love to yourself. Regardless of what gender or biological sex of people I choose to have sex with, my identity remains separate, unaffected. If I choose to be a women, or like in my own personal case to not identify as any gender at all, I do this in awareness of but not ruled by my sexuality.
Is it possible to separate yourself from your artworks?
I feel a very strong tie to my artwork; it feels as real, as much a representation of myself as my own body. I do not think I could ever separate myself from my art, but if my physical body and my art were to be separated, I would choose to side with my art.
What are your thoughts on gender roles?
I believe that gender roles are inherently oppressive—as do many others—and I want others to know that they can act, dress, speak, fuck and do whatever and whoever they want, regardless of their biological sex organs.
This article originally appeared in Volume 31, Issue 16, published November 30, 2010.