Kiel Johnson is a maker. He’s an artist, yes, but he is a maker first. He’s hands on, he’s constructive, and he’s resourceful, pulling everything from scraps of paper to corrugated cardboard to use as his medium. The latter–cardboard–has become his trademark as he uses the material to erect very detailed cities, masks and objects. Recently this work has allowed him to be able to travel the world as he has been taken under the giant creative wing of TED, the now international idea spreading speaking and activity series. We met up with Kiel at his El Sereno workspace, which is referred to as Hyperbole Studios.
Kiel stands around a few large tables of cityscapes placing thumbnail sized cardboard cars onto little roads and tiny billboards next to buildings. “Yesterday I did nothing but make billboards,” he says as he places a few down. “I want this area to look like Broadway. I want to have all these theatre marquees and pack it with advertising.”
He continues to lay down these little objects and often stops to arrange or rearrange a moment in the small city. He appears to be pulling city features from an endless supply of items he’s fashioned from thick paper and cardboard, technically chipboard. “I think I may be mentally ill or something. I love nothing more than making stuff,” he explains. “But sometimes I will look back on the work I have made or look at drawings from a couple of years ago and I have a hard time remembering I made these things. Like these zombie masks–” He grabs a mask from a pile mounted on the wall. “They just popped up over a two week period. I don’t even remember what really caused them! I just wanted to make one which led to two which led to three…now I have to have an army!”
Kiel is mad about making objects, which he spends hours and days and weeks doing. He explained that he sometimes will spend a day building just houses or cars, getting into a pattern of building tiny items that are integral to a small city’s construction. His studio is very lived in and almost covered in cardboard creations and drawings he’s made.
“I spend 99% of my time here,” he says. “I think that’s what you have to do as an artist. Sometimes I feel I don’t have very good ideas, so I just get busy on one. I have a theory that it’s not about more being better–but the more stuff you make, the better your chances of stumbling into a really cool project.”
“I’m totally having fun with it,” he says of of building and populating cities. He places a car on cardboard pavement. “If it’s a cop, they may be hidden. Here’s a burned out meth lab so I have a cop nearby. When I get more colorful cars, I put them by the stadium. If there’s a limo, I try to put him where it is easily seen because there’s not that many limos. If I pick up what looks like an old person’s car, I put what looks like a young person’s car behind it because I think it’s funny. As I glue things down the compositions become more fine tuned.”
Kiel’s city building isn’t born out of his being a urbanite or anything like that: Kiel is from the Midwest, specifically Olathe, Kansas, where fellow artist and friend Travis Millard also grew up. That being said, he learned and became a constant maker from this Kansas upbringing. “I always liked making things. My parents were serious makers. My mom is a quilter, crocheter, clothes maker, craft person extreme–she is always doing something with her hands and that stuck with me. My dad owns a small newspaper that, until a few years ago, was completely analog, hand crafted, using layout boards, type setting machines, waxers, and X-Acto knives just like they did decades ago. He and his childhood friend started this newspaper in the early 70‘s and they never stopped doing it old school style. When computers took over the world, they just said, ‘Fuck it: we’re going to keep doing what we’re doing.’ It was a huge inspiration to see that thing literally being built by hand, week after week’”
The idea of serious art making came to him in school, from an influential teacher. “I didn’t really know what I wanted to do,” he says. “I discovered this guy Pal Wright, who Travis also had for art class. He completely transformed what art was in our minds. He wasn’t your typical high school teacher. He taught at university level before teaching high school so I think he expected more of us. He was also a working artist, showing his ceramic work at local art fairs and showing us that making stuff for a living was real. Pal gave us art history tests and constantly had us mixing up mediums. I remember sitting over a table working on a drawing of this cow skull and he suggested I try to draw it standing up, move my arms around, draw from the shoulder and make art a physical activity. Making drawings was what it was all about for me after that.”
After high school Kiel studied sculpture at the University of Kansas in Lawrence, where he ended up staying after school. “Kansas City has a really good art scene that is fairly unknown. A lot of people don’t recognize that,” he says. “I loved my time in Kansas City and had been floating around the art world there for a few years but I just felt there were more places to explore. I knew I needed to do something so I applied to grad schools near the ocean.”
This is where Los Angeles comes into Kiel’s life. The move wasn’t because of a school or desire to be in the city: it was from kayaking and a need for a great art scene, great weather, and closeness to water. “Honestly, it was kayaking and the schools proximity to the ocean that got me to apply to Cal State Long Beach. I had heard good things about it and I knew a ceramic artist who told me to check it out as well,” he explained. “To tell you the truth I didn’t really think about LA a lot. I knew about LA but, for some reason, the art world took my head to New York. I think I just felt like LA would like me more. I enjoy space, I like being in my truck–I enjoy being in tight spaces but I want room to hike around and space to work.”
Once accepted to Cal State Long Beach’s graduate program, Kiel relocated out West without any support. “I didn’t know anyone at all. It was so crazy driving in on the 10 at night and looking into the vast city lights thinking, I don’t know a single person out there. A great buddy of mine helped me move out all my gear and adventure began. It was a cool experience going to Cal State Long Beach and I ended up meeting a great group of artists who are still out there tearing it up.”
“I’ve never stopped making stuff,” he adds, his work ethic and need to make things is in his nature. “It can be a constant struggle but I feel like I have the best time: I get to wake up and do this every day. Sometimes you end up selling some stuff to a collector and making good money. It’s not about money, sure, but it kind of needs to be if you want to make stuff for a living, which is why I’m currently making four smaller wall pieces instead of one huge piece. I think it’s a fine compromise.”
As he continues making, Los Angeles has periodically found its way into his work. “The architecture and the buildings of this city absolutely come into my work, these new works are an almost literal interpretation of how a city has affected me. Even my drawings have changed. In general, I’ve noticed elements are much more densely packed in drawings from this last decade, which started when I moved out here.”
“I lived in the Port of LA for a long time,” he explained, noting that the area was where he initially moved to in Los Angeles. “I felt like I had to get out of there because my work was losing all of its color and life. There was no grass, everyone running around down there was on meth, and–for four years–I was working in a giant warehouse with no windows and a sulfur plant three blocks away. I started building what I call ‘Attention Getter’ pieces. I don’t have any of them here, but I built a huge half submerged submarine, a big air traffic control tower, and this all wooden conveyor belt piece that carried a set of storm clouds around and around.”
“That’s where cardboard came in: I didn’t have a lot of money and I wanted to build big pieces to attract attention, to get people to wonder who I was. When I started working with cardboard, I realized the stuff I was building was looking more and more like my drawings: my worlds were coming together! Before, I was making drawings, welding steel and casting aluminum and it seemed like two different artists were making the work. Working with paper was immediate and spontaneous. I could make the shapes of my imagination with cardboard in a similar way to drawing. If you wanted to erase something you just grab the X-Acto and slice it off. I could see a shape in my mind and within minutes have it sitting there on my desk in 3-D. You could see results! I loved it.”
His making eventually got to a point where he was building buildings that grew into tiny cities. This wasn’t intentional, either. “It wasn’t a conscious decision. It only happened because I live here. I wasn’t particularly blown away by the LA landscape until I got in the air, went up on a friend’s roof Downtown or walked up by the Hollywood sign and looked out. I was also lucky enough to fly above LA in the Sanyo blimp a few years back. The vastness of this place just blows me away. Every time I fly into this city I think, ‘What: I’ve lived here twelve years and I’ve never been to that section!’ Los Angeles goes on and on.”
“It all just goes into my brain, gets jumbled around and comes out,” he says of direct influences seen in his work. “There are some buildings that seem more Kansas City to me and a few that seem a little Chicago. It just all comes out. Most of them never existed and come from my head.”
Kiel at one point was building a nearly to scale replica of the Franklin Hills where the Hollywood sign sits. The process was being recorded by a film crew but fizzled out as his work during that time led him to focus on making cities and then making them bigger and bigger. The project eventually became a cardboard city with a 64 sq. ft foot print, whose building process was completely caught on tape. The mountain still remains unfinished.
“[The city] was exhibited without the mountain and just as a city, which is where the TED organization saw it,” Kiel explains. “They approached me about exhibiting it and then found out I like doing workshops, which is a whole other part of my work: I’m really into turning people on to the power of making stuff.”
In Kiel’s recent workshops, he works with groups and communities to build little cities, which are sometimes replicas of their own cities, as he recently did in Dubai. Kiel along with his “salad bar”–a series of pre-built houses, signs, and other cardboard city fixtures–are what he needs in order to conduct a workshop. For the past few months, Kiel has been conducting workshops at various TEDs, teaching people that they can build things and create just as easily as he can.
“I’m a firm believer in that you only get your good ideas while working on bad ideas,” he says, sharing a philosophy that is omnipresent in all of his work. “If I just sit around in here thinking I have no ideas and that I suck, nothing happens. If I keep making stuff, things naturally evolve and happen.”
Kiel will continue to build things and create art for as long as he can. He certainly has no plans to stop making–but he does want to change. “I don’t want to be ‘the crazy cardboard guy from 2008 through 2012,’” he says. “I put pressure on myself to evolve and I’m very much into drawing. I draw a little every day and bounce around to different projects. Lately I have tried to dedicate and keep focus on one project at a time. I’ve also been doing one abstract drawing every week for a year. A collection of 52 drawings, each one leading to the next.”
“I want to have a very organic career,” he says, as he begins placing tiny power lines through a small city. He points to the four small cities he has been working, which he is planning to mount to walls, something he’s never done before. “If these hang up on the wall and, within three days, there’s a red dot on all of them? You can bet I’ll probably be in here making some more. Most likely I’ll probably move on from this paper metropolis project to other things, heading where the wind blows. I wish I was more of a planner but I’m really not.”
For more on Kiel, be sure to poke around his website, add him on Facebook, follow him on Twitter, and catch him on Instagram. Kiel also has a lot of upcoming happenings for TED including a three day workshop at Chirstchurch, New Zealand on August 27 along with a TEDxYouth event in Santa Monica soon. He’ll also be in R&R Gallery‘s late September show entitled SPACE.