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Winona artist, counselor and musician says she ‘could exist without people, but not color’

January 9, 2018 GMT

Some people lead colorful lives by virtue of their career. Some people lead colorful and busy lives by getting heavily involved in a community. Some people lead colorful lives as an artist.

For Winona resident Sarah Johnson, her life and world is shaped by an affinity for colors — her career as a counselor, her musical endeavors, her community involvement, and her passion for creating artwork.

“I could exist without people, but not color,” she said.

She makes it her goal to “see how many rainbows” she can eat in a day. Her breakfast the other morning consisted of orange and yellow carrots, red cabbage, green cauliflower and celery. Her hair is always a different color (right now it’s blue), and her outfits almost always contain a splash of this and that.


After moving to Winona from La Crosse 15 years ago to get her master’s degree from Winona State in counseling, Johnson didn’t have any plans after she finished school. But she loved the community here and ended up staying.

She bought a “project house” near Holzinger Lodge, and recently just finished the last project. Her house, too, is full of colors. Johnson’s art studio is in her basement, and the tiled floor features an assortment of colors. The walls are green and orange. The lampshade on her desk is pink.

“All of them,” she said when asked to name her favorite color. “Although there is a certain frequency of blue that kills me.”

For Johnson, all the components of her life are intermingled. She said it’s difficult for her to separate art from the other parts of her life because it’s so ingrained in her way of living. Some of her earliest childhood memories involve creating art.

Whether it’s her job working as a counselor at the YMCA in La Crosse, standing on stage and singing with her band The Old Fashioneds, painting, making her own jewelry, or leading a workshop on self-discovery, Johnson’s life revolves around color and art.

“I can’t paint every day,” Johnson said. “But I can find color and beauty and art every day regardless.”

It’s her way of communicating with others and also understanding others. Everyone has their own perspective, and Johnson loves engaging with other’s perspective through art.

Life is a process to Johnson, much like the creation of art, and she believes having different ways to interact with people’s perspectives helps highlight that process and digest difficult issues.

“There’s so many ways people can interpret something,” she said. “We all go through difficult things and it can be hard to put words to those experience; art can be a way to understand those feelings.”


One of her most recent art shows centered on the death of her mother, and Johnson was enthralled with the feedback she received from the show.

After the presentation, which featured some of her photography and paintings, she said a number of people came up to her and relayed how the show made them think about the death of a loved one close to them.

Another art show she did revolved around a difficult break up.

“It was silly, sarcastic, genuine, deep, painful,” Johnson said. “I was making fun of myself while gaining a sense of perspective (on the situation) at the same time.”

When it comes to identifying herself as an artist, Johnson hesitates because she doesn’t like to create art “just for art’s sake.” It needs to signify meaning in some way and allow for others to relate to the work or piece.

She has become more comfortable with the term over time, but she prefers to focus on creating her own vision as an artist through her curiosity, playfulness, and connection with people in the outside world.

“Life is hard and we need to be able to play. ... A lot of my art is really playful,” Johnson said. “We do some of our best problem solving and make connections when we’re at play.”

“Life is hard and we need to be able to play. ... We do some of our best problem solving and make connections when we’re at play.” Sarah Johnson“Life is hard and we need to be able to play. ... We do some of our best problem solving and make connections when we’re at play.” Sarah Johnson