B-MORE Cultured Interview: Meet Elena Johnston

  Elena Johnston  is an illustrator who lives and works in Baltimore. She has done a variety of projects which include La,La,Land, Paper Kingdom, as well as designs for bands such as Future Islands and Beach House.

I met up with Johnston and she showed me her most recent illustrations and collages. 

She also designed the 2010 Transmodern Festival poster.


 When did you realize that you had artistic talent, or that you were interested in art?

There’s no like defining moment where I was like ‘I feel like an artist,” but I remember when I was in high school I had to choose between art and soccer, because I played soccer all the time. My AP teacher was like ‘you can’t play soccer and do AP art,” just because they are so intensive for high school kids, I guess.

I chose art because it was something that I wanted to explore more, so I guess that’s when I started to take it more seriously, when I was a senior in high school.

collage by Elena Johnston

What was your experience going to MICA?

It was good. It definitely paved the way for what I am interested in now. I started there with my interest in photography. When I was high school I had a dark room in my house that I set up, so that was my focus and then I decided to go to MICA for it. But it wasn’t really that challenging to go there for Photo and I decided that I wanted to draw more and focus on that and I had some really awesome teachers who really challenged me and also inspired me. 

I think MICA is also good at teaching about the business side of art. In illustration you can learn about the different ways to promote yourself, so I’m happy about that.

Why did you decide to stay in Baltimore?

After I graduated I sort of branched out in terms of like seeing what was actually happening in Baltimore as opposed to like my small MICA group. And I saw that there were a lot of awesome artists, visual and musicians doing things and that there was a really active art scene. So I decided to see how I would fit into that or see how I could learn from it.

Do you think Baltimore is a good place for artists to make a living?

I do think it is, it’s cheap to live here and there are a lot of people doing cool things, so it’s inspiring.

What are your favorite types of projects? What projects appeal to you?

I’m not really sure how to answer that because there are so many different kinds of projects…. Well I love doing stuff for bands, I love art inspired by music. I like listening to my friend’s bands music and interpreting it visually, basically that’s my favorite and also collecting things and putting them into books.

Johnston's illustration for Future Islands

Could you tell me about Paper Kingdom, how did you come up with the idea?

I guess since I graduated, even before that I started collecting posters, which were mostly individually screen printed and there was a lot of care put into them. And also I went to most of the shows so I decided to have like a keepsake of that. So the more that happened the more I decided that they should be documented, because they weren’t being documented. I got a grant for it too, which helped print it and I had an opening for it. It was really fun doing that project and I got to work with a lot of artists and musicians.

What about La La Land?

That was like the prequel sort of to it. Although it was a completely different idea…it was sort of similar. I saw that there were a bunch of artists at MICA that were doing illustration work that seemed sort of similar but also very much in their own. So I just asked them if I could include them in this thing and it was really fun to do. I also learned about the programs through that project  like editing and laying out books.

So were you a student at the time?

I was a student when I did La, La, Land, it was sort of my senior project in illustration, but Paper Kingdom was two years after I graduated.

illustration by Johnston

Do you have any favorite artists from Baltimore?

That’s really hard because there are so many, but I can list some. Jordan Bernier is really awesome he does screen prints and drawings that are really cool. I like Dina Kelberman’s work a lot she does comics, so does Russell Hite he is really great. In terms of—there are so many so it’s hard to say. In photography, I like Andrew Laumann’s work and Natasha Tylea’s work.  Music, I love Future Islands and Beach House and bunch of others…. there are so many bands that are great.

How would you describe the Baltimore art scene?

Really inspired. Like everyone is sort of doing their own thing and keep’s each other afloat. I wish that I could describe it in a few words but ..it’s just very active and fun.

Where are your favorite places to go to explore Baltimore art culture?

I like going to the BMA, I like going to the Charles Theater to see movies. For me to get inspired to do art I like going to the conservatory and the free Book Thing where I can find magazines and stuff and different thrift stores. I like going to parks too. But also like small galleries, like when Current Gallery was around I liked going there cuz they had a lot of new fresh artists, and Nudashank is a really cool place. I also like going to the H&H building, in addition to Nudashank, theres a bunch of other places. Floristree is fun for shows, there are a lot of small galleries.

illustration by Elena Johnston

How did you get involved with the band, Beach House?

I became friends with them I guess in 2006, after I graduated, they asked me to do a t-shirt design for them. Then I went on tour with them, it was a US tour for 3 weeks. It was really fun. It sort of gave me an idea about what their music was about and that kind of thing. And I just recently did two designs for them. One was a couple of months ago which was a collaboration with Victoria, she gave me the idea and I developed them. Then I did a t-shirt based on an old Beach Bum t-shirt from the 80s. I haven’t actually seen it in person yet, I’m excited to see it but yeah, it says Beach House instead of Beach Bum.

Have you seen people wearing any of your designs yet?

 I have seen a few people wearing the shirt and I’m like ‘that’s cool.’ And I used to sell merch for them I haven’t in awhile, but it’s fun to sell the products too.

What would be a dream project for you?

I want to put out another book, it’s on Baltimore concert photography, but my dream project would probably be going on another tour, actually I have this idea to go on a tour to all of these different places that I have a list of.

Where can people see your work?

For my new art I always update Elenaart.blogspot.com.  I have another website ellenajohnston.com, but that’s a portfolio of work that I developed when I was a senior at MICA of fashion illustration, but I don’t do that anymore. Well I guess I sort of do it but in a different way.

Collage by Elena Johnston

Could you explain your transition as an artist?

When I had a class called fashion illustration, it was my favorite class because of the projects and I was like ‘I could actually do this when I graduate’ and I think I still could if I pursued it, but I’m sort of interested in other things. So I did that and I moved to New York to sort of pursue it, but I became interested in doing other things, like stuff for bands. Also, it was hard to live in New York because it was really expensive and I’d work like 60 hours a week.

Where were you working? 

There I worked at a designing event production company so it was like hands on studio work and then installations for like movie premieres and it was fun, but not my ideal situation and also I was working on Paper Kingdom and I wanted to move back to Baltimore to finish it.  So I sort of did that and you know constantly just meeting new people and making new connections, projects have come out of that. 

So what advice do you have for art students in Baltimore on how to get more involved in the scene?

The way that I did was just going to shows and meeting people and really seeing what other people were into and being open to that, but at the same time not stopping what you were doing.  There is a balance, keep doing what you’re doing but allow yourself to be open to other things. If something doesn’t work out for you try something else. Keep working and keep growing, you don’t have to be like one certain thing.


About Katie K.

Katie K is an aspiring something or other from Baltimore. She loves film & music. contact: Katie.Killon@gmail.com
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3 Responses to B-MORE Cultured Interview: Meet Elena Johnston

  1. hlemai says:

    This is a great interview, Katie.
    I love the examples of Elena’s art. She uses beautiful colors and I feel like you catch a lot of her personality in her videos- not that I’ve met her.
    I think it’s great that you captured her past, her present and her advice to artists.

  2. ha. I thought that name sounded familiar when I saw it in the Haiti show program. I almost bought her piece in that show yesterday.

  3. Pingback: “Vacation” opens November 30 @ The Penthouse Gallery | B-MORE CULTURED

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