The gilded identity of Olivia Johnston’s Saints and Madonnas

Olivia Johnston's new exhibition is called Saints and Madonnas. Photo: Olivia Johnston

Lady Madonna children at your feet / Wonder how you manage to make ends meet
— Paul McCartney

Olivia Johnston was raised in an artistic family, but music was the focus of her early years. Her brother and sister both stuck with it and today he is a conductor in Germany and she is the principal oboe with the Regina Symphony. But Olivia … well she went her own way.

“I played the cello for a substantial portion of my childhood. I went to Canterbury High School for music.” But after high school she just had to get away from music.

She ended up at Carleton in Art History but that didn’t take right away either so she turned to another passion — photography — and enrolled in the School of Photographic Arts in Ottawa (SPAO). That clicked and she’s had a good bit of success especially with her portraiture. Today, in addition to her photography, Johnston teaches history and theory at SPAO and is the school’s operations manager.

A look at the exhibition Saints and Madonnas in CUAG. Photo: Justin Wonnacott.

Somewhat ironically, then, she’s now featured in a major exhibition of her work at the Carleton University Art Gallery called Saints and Madonnas that is on view until December.

It’s important to note before going any further that Johnston returned to Carleton and finished her Art History degree. In her studies at Carleton, she became fascinated by art works from an earlier time, many of which featured images of saints and the Virgin Mary.

Over time an idea of iconography and symbolism captured her interest. In paintings of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance you often see people posed as a character in a painting about an event from the Bible.

Queen of Heaven (Hannah), 2019. With Bill Staubi’s figurines, Courtesy Olivia Johnston

In the exhibition, Saints and Madonnas, Johnston said “I am following in that tradition a little bit but because it is photography there is the complication of reality. It’s a real person.”

About five years ago she did a project which featured modern women photographed as characters in the Old Testament.

“It was a feminist approach. I was trying to make people realize the Bible’s influence on people and how we live our lives.” Since that show called Fallen, she’s been thinking of this current exhibition.

“The idea of the Virgin Mary and her presence in art history has been in my mind for years and years.

“I did have a vision of her while sitting in class in 2o12 and all of a sudden I had a thought of Virgin on her death bed when she suddenly questioned everything.” That first inkling has compelled her since.

In the show Saints and Madonnas, the theme of her work has broadened.

“I am using men and women and people who appear androgynous. I’m playing with gender and questioning how we use symbols to identify ourselves and others. I’m thinking about how we can assign meaning to something.”

Johnston was invited by the gallery to be CUAG’s fifth artist in what is known as the Collection Invitational series. In this series she was able to immerse herself in the university’s massive collection and find artworks “that depict or reference Madonnas, as well as works that contain symbols or narratives associated with saints” and use them in her exhibition. For example, she chose a piece by Tony Urquhart showing a box of keys for Saint Peter. For Saint Jerome, she found some sketches of lions.

“I ended up pulling a bunch of stuff out and now there is a wall of works from the collection that depict Mary or the attributes of the saints.”

Our Lady of the Eye (Nneka), 2019. Courtesy Olivia Johnston

Johnston’s show includes 12 depictions of the Madonna, Mary Magdalene and the angel Gabriel along with several Saints.

Gabriel is depicted by someone who identifies as non-binary, she said. That brings the idea of the angel, which are often depicted without a sexual identity, into a contemporary context as gender identity has become central to our dialogue today.

Johnston said that this portraiture has had an impact on the Carleton community. She said people are seeing the show who may be struggling with their own questions of identity. She’ll get a chance to gauge public opinion more directly at a talk she is giving on Nov. 6 at CUAG.

Her models for her portraits are mostly friends or acquaintances. She even drafted her boyfriend for one.

“I didn’t ask strangers. I’m too shy. I tend to have specific ideas about who is going to represent whom and what kind of faces I want to portray. I did build a list of people I wanted to use in this project. Most of them worked out.

“The show ended up being enormous. There are 20 images in the show. And I can see the project continuing.

“The Madonna portion is very much about what it means to exist in the world as a feminine person. I was playing with questions of gender there too. Two of the Madonnas are men actually, very feminine men.”

There is another aspect of her portraits that expand the idea of her work.

“I ended up designing the frames with what is known as a CNC machine which is basically a computerized wood cutting machine.” You input a design into the computer and the machine makes it. She was helped by an organization called CNC Ottawa.

She designed the edges of the frames based on images she obtained on Pinterest. Yes Pinterest. Her pins are pretty unique these days.

The frames are right out of art history, she said, with the contemporary twist of the CNC machine.

Adoring Madonna (Pippa), 2019. Courtesy Olivia Johnston. 

“I also hand-gilded each frame with gold leaf.” The finished product as a result is very much an individual physical objects. They are one of a kind pieces that are more than just an image on a wall.

If she wanted to reproduce them it would require her to remake and re-gild each frame. “It’s more work than just printing out a photo.”

Johnston is not a religious person. In fact she identifies as an atheist “I guess.”

But she admits to a fascination with the Madonna in art.

“When you go to a museum or a major gallery there is inevitably a room chock full of Madonnas. Those works are magic to me. They are often small and precious and there is a lot of gold and I just want them all.”

It’s likely trite to say but the Virgin Mary must be the most portrayed woman in western art history.

“I am trying to access these potential identities. If the Madonna was a real person what kind of person would she have been.”

As for the saints that she has portrayed, the attributes that are attached to them are compelling.

“A pope said once that the walls of churches are the Bible for the illiterate.” We have often used a form of visual literacy to communicate ideas in the past and eve today. Think emojis

Saint Stephen (Stephane) 2019. Courtesy Olivia Johnston

“I think all this stuff is much more relevant that we realize and not just in a religious context. It’s also about visual literacy.

“Perhaps I am compelled by images of religion because I am not religious.” After all when she was playing the cello in public, it was often in a church. No wonder the magic of it appeals.

“It is an interesting thing to think that there will be people who go to the show and who may have a specifically religious experience. For me though, I hope it can help people start thinking about who can embody holiness or saintliness.”

Also in the show are some artifacts from a collection belonging to Ottawa artists and collector Bill Staubi.

“He has turned one of his bathrooms into a grotto. I knew about this and I reached out to him and asked to borrow some of his objects to include in the show.” Most of the items are figurines that reference the material culture that surrounds the Madonna and the Saints, she said.

In town: Saints and Madonnas will be at the Carleton University Art Gallery until Dec. 8. Olivia Johnston will be in conversation at CUAG with Prof. Janet Tulloch on Nov. 6 at 7 p.m. For more information:

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.