In this new series of articles, Le Rhinocéros by Phi pays tribute to creators of all kinds. Discover those who push the boundaries of creativity.
For Garrett A.D. Johnson of blessedpoppy, his creative process of making jewelry is also an outlet for his struggles, fears and questions. Through his work, this self-taught designer gives beautiful form to such darker themes as addiction, isolation and flaws.
While in trade school in attempt to “buckle down,” he took an electromechanics class and learned manual machining techniques, melding, and how to work with metal. Still searching, he hitchhiked to the West Coast, where he stayed with a girl whose grandmother had passed away. “They had an estate sale and [I found] a box of silversmithing tools. If I hadn’t had gotten those things to have around me and start doing basic stuff, I don’t know if I ever would have pursued it. It had never occurred to me,” he says.
A few YouTube videos later, he was able to apply those electromechanics skills into making silver jewelry and went on to launch blessedpoppy in 2013. As part of our series, we spoke with the Montreal-based artist, designer and entrepreneur about his creative process.
Your craft sort of made its way to you in this box of tools. When stuff like that happens, do you wonder if it’s meant to be or do you feel life is more random?
This feels embarrassing to say, but I do think it’s meant to be. For me, being open to what the universe is sending my way is a good thing. It also can very often be a painful thing. I was playing music for a long time, and within the past year, I decided I’m not playing music anymore, I’m done with it. I was not enjoying it for a long time, but clinging to the label of being able to tell people, ‘Oh, I’m a musician, I’m a jeweler, I’m a ‘bla bla bla, bla bla bla.’ And it was really painful to let go of that. But I wasn’t enjoying it anymore, so when I made that decision I felt like this huge weight was lifted. And I’m also open to the fact that that could happen with jewelry, too.
Right. Being open to stuff doesn’t mean life is going to be sunshine and rainbows forever, it’s more about growth, and sometimes that’s difficult.
Yeah. With my jewelry, the themes are sometimes subtly (and sometimes not so subtly) referencing that; growth and pain and darker sides of things. I was a heroin addict for a good portion of my life. I was first addicted to painkillers when I was 17. I lived on the street in Montreal for two years when I was addicted to heroin and putting $200 to $250 a day into my arm. Then I got sober and went to 12-step programs, which was very helpful for me. It's very much a spiritual program and teaches you to find meaning in life.
How do those experiences come through in your creative process at blessedpoppy?
Before, my entire world was heroin, that was my god, my religious symbol. Everything I did revolved around that. The innocence of it just being a flower, this thing that exists in nature that could be completely this other thing…
Then, when I got sober, I was dealing with a lot of issues with feeling meaningless, hopeless, not knowing, not wanting to follow a 12-step program, not wanting to be a spiritual person, but then I had given so much of my belief and my faith into this flower, into drugs. I had wholeheartedly done that with no problem. Realizing that allowed me to say, ‘Oh, hey, maybe I can try being a spiritual person and try to find meaning in something that I don’t necessarily understand.’
From that, I started to focus on underlying themes of domination and submission, because to me that was what addiction was. Being completely dominated by and willfully submitting to this feeling and trying to completely dominate my own feelings by continually using this drug. So I tried to explore that in other themes.
Do you choose themes in advance, or do they first come through in the work?
It comes through in the work I think. I’ll be working on a collection, I start with an idea, and then as I’m working on it something will click and I’ll start making these changes and it will take shape in my mind and then I’ll modify things, and build the story around it as things clarify themselves.
The second collection was based around jewelry that looks like it was armour, it was based on the Crusades–these people sent to live in a completely foreign land to fight for the Pope. To me, the idea of losing faith is really powerful and it’s something I’ve felt many times–the feeling of being completely alone in the world.
I was looking for ways to achieve that kind of feeling through a story I can tell in a collection. And it’s a story that doesn’t get told enough... I think people are afraid to face those moments, that’s the reason why I’m on my phone so much, you sit alone for a second without a screen, without anyone around and all of a m those feelings, at least to me, will start creeping in. Questioning things and wondering what it’s all about, existential thoughts…
Collection: HAUT DE PAVOT
You seem so open about these struggles and fears. Have you always been this free?
No, not at all. And that’s the thing: for so long I was scared of being myself, and being open. I was constantly hiding behind walls, and I still do. If I focus on it I can take down those walls and open up. But a lot of days I’m just on autopilot. I’m still an asshole who’s, like, maybe mean to people because I’m not having a good day… but I am capable of being open… a lot if times I do it because if there’s a chance I can help someone by sharing my own feelings and experience, that’s the best case scenario.
Even those who haven’t struggled with addiction specifically can relate to craving submission or domination, losing (or finding) faith, isolation, imperfection–themes you explore in blessedpoppy. Is expressing that stuff in your work a way to get it out of yourself?
It’s taking all these feelings and these fears and making everything into a real thing. The most recent collection I did was very literally that: I did a collection based on Milagros, Latin American religious jewelry. Which is, you’ve got these little charms you put on altars to ask for miracles. So, there would be these little charms that look like pigs because something’s wrong with your pig, or trucks because your truck is broken and you need to get to work, or lungs because a family member has a lung problem. A lot of them are body parts. The collection I made was all the body parts, but they had things wrong with them. It’s about wearing these defects on yourself as a way to claim ownership of them and by claiming ownership of them you remove some of their power.
On a lighter note, what’s your studio like?
My studio is a pretty simple studio. I work with metal itself, a lot of jewelers use wax carving but maybe because of manual machining techniques, I very much enjoy working with the metal itself. This collection I’m working on is all going to be cut-outs… which is a time-consuming and delicate process because you‘re making these fine lines with a jeweler’s saw which is very fragile... I’m pretty excited about this collection.
All the blessedpoppy creations featured in this article are available at Le Rhinocéros by Phi.