Traci Johnson’s ‘Safe Space’

Young soft-sculpture artist brings a pop of color to Affordable Art Fair NYC

| 27 Mar 2022 | 10:48

The annual Affordable Art Fair made a return to Chelsea last week, bringing mazes of gallery booths to the Metropolitan Pavilion in another successful showcasing of contemporary art from around the world. Joined by nine participating cities, the NYC fair ran from March 23 through 27 and featured thousands of works from both local and international galleries. Among creators was this year’s Young Talent Exhibition feature Traci Johnson, a Brooklyn-based textile and sculpture artist. Let’s take a look at their installation “Safe Space” and the inspiration behind the work.

“I love installation pieces when you can enter a space and touch something, you know, be involved in it,” says Johnson, holding out their phone with a photo. It’s a picture of the soft sculpture “Freeform,” the artist’s favorite piece from “Safe Space.” When installed, it hangs from the ceiling by invisible wire, a series of hand-sewn plush tubes that snake in and out of each other in a geometric sea of multicolored faux fur; it’s a child’s chromatic wonderland of neon orange and tie-dye pink.

But in the photo Johnson shows, “Freeform” isn’t hanging. Instead, the pillows of fabric wrap their body like python, head peeking from the knot to reveal wide eyes under oval turquoise sunglasses and a messy bun of electric pink braids.

In either form, the sculpture is just as warm and inviting as its creator, the FIT graduate with a talent for rug-making and transforming large spaces. “I started “Safe Space” during the pandemic because I was at home all the time and realized my space didn’t look like myself,” explains Johnson, who likes to think of their work as a personal reflection.

Burdened like the rest of us by the everyday stresses of pandemic life, Johnson was inspired to create a shared escape. “People have so many things to worry about,” they said. “This can be a space where you can forget all that, even just for a moment. Hopefully the vibrant, euphoric colors take them back to a time when they were child — when they didn’t have a lot of other cares other than just being happy.”

“All Five Senses”

Johnson’s work brings a new perspective to the Affordable Art Fair’s mission, promoting the accessibility of contemporary art. “It’s important to me that everybody feel included, and not appreciate art in only one way. For me, I want all five senses to be triggered. That’s where the idea to use faux fur came from. People are inclined to touch it.” As it turns out, “Safe Space” isn’t only a comfort to Johnson’s audience — the artist’s past self couldn’t have imagined a future where art alone could support them completely.

During the years at FIT, Johnson liked to think it would last forever. Partying, painting, experimenting with texture and yarn. Professors may have hovered over painting sessions, but they offered little practical advice for the entrepreneurial path ahead. “I was frustrated,” Johnson recalls. “They never really had clarifying answers; I was very lost.”

After graduation, Johnson was able to find a studio through a friend who bought their work, transforming the space into a walk-through gallery filled with similarly vibrant textured tapestries and large-scale soft sculptures. Through time they made their way through local studios, expanding their opportunities and audience simultaneously. “I always thought in such a big scale,” the artist explains. “You know that saying, ‘your eyes are bigger than your stomach’? Well, your eyes are bigger than how much time you think you have. For me, the bigger the better.”

But while Johnson’s entrepreneurial endeavor is a big one, it certainly isn’t lonely. “My family is like my team,” they say. “The other year I had them crocheting with their hands. They’re like, ‘Traci, this is crazy.’ And I know! I just can’t do it on my own.” The rest of Johnson’s support system includes their boyfriend and other artists, who form a community of creators Johnson credits for inspiring their work. “[The art] always reminds me of my family and the people who helped me,” says Johnson. “Little memories go into my work, and that makes me happy.”