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At the bottom of a white staircase

Wilma Johnson was born in London and has a first class degree in Fine Art from St Martins College of Art. She founded the Neo Naturists along with Christine and Jennifer Binnie, a bodypainted performance art which appeared at a variety of London’s venues collaborating with artists such as Derek Jarman, Michael Clark, Andrew Logan and Leigh Bowery.  Her artistic work has been deeply influenced by her travelling experiences like hiking the Scottish highlands, Lapland, and Iceland; her experience in Mexico to where she arrived just for holidays and finally she stayed there for a year; her years in Ireland while bringing up three children, and her current life in a little fishing village near Biarritz to where she moved in 2001 and where she wrote her memoir Surf Mama released in 2011 which tells the story of her life as an artist, single mother, neo naturist but mainly her decision at 44 to become a surfer. She explains that her creative process is quite ritualistic and all she experiences along the process goes somehow onto her artwork. We can definitely say her life is her art and vice versa.
Who is really Wilma Johnson?

I’m an artist, mother, surfer, writer, traveller, neo naturist, dog trainer …. it depends what day you catch me on…

What’s art for you?

Anything from cave painting to grafitti. Sometimes I’m quite traditional and use oil on linen, sometimes I make frames out of rubbish I find on the beach and paint people’s bodies.

Are you traditional in other aspects of life?

No, I don’t think so, I hate traditional as in conventional, but I do like really old traditions like weird dances and carnivals– and my surf style is quite old school.

You studied painting at London’s St Martin’s College of Art. Why did you choose painting as a way of expression?

My uncle was a landscape painter, he used to let me follow him when I was a child as long as I promised not to speak. He took his easel to the beach and I watched him cover huge canvases in an hour or two, it seemed like magic. He was very bohemian – he wore caveman furs and drank a lot of whisky…. I think he was an early role model.

And what have you learned at the College of Art?

I didn’t learn anything from my tutors – they were all abstract expressionists, they hated me so I didn’t have a tutor. But I learned a lot from having a studio in Soho and being able to paint all day – and I met a lot of amazing people there, fashion designers, film makers and conceptual artists as well as painters.

What are your artistic references?

Primitive, tribal, naïve, outsider art. Heironymous Bosch, Manet, Frida Kahlo, Goya, Toulouse Lautrec. I’m feeling quite Art Nouveau and Parisian right now.

No contemporary artists?

Yes, I think I kind of misunderstood that question. I’ve worked with a lot of contemporary artists, starting with the Neo Naturists – the Bonnies and Grayson Perry, we also collaborated with people like Leigh Bowery, Michael Clark, Derek Jarman and Andrew Logan, which definitely influenced my work.

I don’t really think of myself as part of any mowement now, like to keep a wide range of influences. The best show I saw last year was New York feminist Judith Bernsteins’ Birth of the Universe, the last piece I bought was by a skate and tattoo artist called Jean Rockeadi. (It wasn’t a tattoo – but he said he’d do me one I’m quite tempted)

You also set up the Neo Naturist performance art group with Christine and Jennifer Binnie. In what did it consist?

We did cabarets wearing nothing but bodypaint, they usually involved a mixture of cooking, transformations, yoga, dancing, on-stage painting, rituals and poetry. Sometimes it seemed like a joke, sometimes it seemed like a subversive feminist art movement. I guess it was a bit of both.

And how do you see the situation of women right now?

There’s this ridiculous idea that there’s no need for feminism now! I did a shoot for a big UK newspaper and the photographer told me they weren’t allowed to print pictures of women in jeans because it was threatening. Most of world is still run by men and anyone who doesn’t realise that is in denial.

All this happened in the early years of the Thatcher’s era and the punk movement. How did you live those years?

I started off as a punk when I was 17 and once had a date with Joe Strummer! But it was very negative, and I got sick of wearing black plastic. It was great when I got to the art college and the New Romantic movement started…  I wore feather hats and ballgowns to paint in, and went to the Blitz dressed as Marie Antoinette. The Neo Naturists were part of the new romantics, but we were also rebelling against them, a lot of them wore white, so they were quite scared of the bodypaint!

Do we have a sane relation with nudity?

No, although there are loads of naturist beaches here which is a good start …

Your painting work is also deeply inspired by nature and hiking round natural landscapes around the world. What does nature give to you?

It’s funny no-one’s ever said that before. I love wild places and extreme landscapes, lava fields, stormy oceans, deserts, jungles. I climbed a mountain yesterday because it was my birthday, my friends asked why didn’t you go shopping or go to San Sebastian for tapas? but I liked getting caught in a blizzard on the mountainside…. I often have my best ideas when I’m alone in the wilderness.

When I first saw your artwork I thought immediately of Frida Kahlo and then I read you’ve stayed in Mexico for a year in the late eighties. How it was?

I went to Mexico after a friend gave me a book about Frida because she thought our work was similar... On my second day there I met one of her friends in Oaxaca, (Arturo Garcia Bustos who threw the communist flag over her coffin.) He said I reminded him of Frida and took me to their old hang outs, he bought me red lipstick and tried to lend me one of her huipiles for a fiesta once, but of course it was way too small.

I spent the whole year travelling, painting and going to fiestas and carnivals, it was very inspirational.

Then you moved to Ireland where you stayed for ten years where you had a revelation that changed your life again. What changed then?

Yes, I realised that I wanted to be a surfer when I was forty. I’d never done any sport in my life, but I decided I had to ride the waves one day when I was being earth mother on the beach, looking after the kids and cutting up banana bread. I loved Ireland but I needed a new adventure.
We went to live in Biarritz and I swapped a painting for a board. It was a bit of a disaster at first, but I didn’t give up, and now I’m a certified surf addict.

You set up the Mamas Surf Club. What’s its purpose?

It was set up to get together women in their forties to learn to surf together. A lot of people thought we were too old, and not many women surfed at the time, so we had a lot to prove, to ourselves and the macho surf world…I think we did prove it because there are a lot of other Mamas Surf Clubs along the Basque coast now.

One woman search for love, happiness and the perfect wave” from your book Surf Mama. How it was the experience of writing about your life?

The good thing about writing about yourself is that it pushes you to make different choices- you can’t write a book about sitting on the sofa watching TV, you have to get out there and do something exciting… even if it ends badly it makes a better story! It made me appreciate all the things I have done as well.

Have you already found love, happiness and the perfect wave?

Yeah, but you can never get enough love happiness or perfect waves… the search continues.

Could you tell us a dream?

When we were neo naturists we used to all have a recurring nightmare that we got on stage and had forgotten to take our clothes off, like the reverse of most people’s anxiety dream. The others would be all painted and covered in jewels and stuff, and I’d be there in old jeans and no make-up.

Then when I learned to surf I dreamt I was caught out in these tidal waves, but gradually that dream was replaced by one where I was looking for a wave but it was flat – I think that’s when I realised I was a real surfer!

An interview by Juan Carlos Romero
Wilma Johnson website
Photos courtesy of Wilma Johnson
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