Tea with Niki Johnson involves a jaunt around her North Shore home and a tour of her basement that’s filled with plaster molds, power tools, projects in-the-works, and, of course, laundry. Bags of plaster mix, buckets and plates – they’re all byproducts of one of the city’s busiest artists, and perhaps its most visible. We stop at her delicate brown-glass sculptures of Michelle Obama’s arms, the fingers of which are translucent, like watery cola. To Johnson, A Vision in White
speaks to the media’s fascination with the First Lady’s body. After walking past an enormous stack of library-issued bookends, which she used in large-scale commissioned pieces for the Madison Central Public Library, we head back upstairs, followed by her fluffy cat.
Although she’s been honing her craft for nearly 15 years, Johnson gained national attention in March by unveiling her piece Eggs Benedict, a portrait of the former pope made entirely of condoms. His comment that condoms increased the spread of HIV stuck with Johnson like a splinter in the foot until she channeled those feelings into creating a 7-foot-tall installation of his likeness.
We end our tour in Johnson’s garage. Next to her Volkswagen are large sheets of metal signage wrapped in white and Girl Scout green. They’re from four Wisconsin Planned Parenthood clinics that were forced to close after Gov. Scott Walker’s 2011 budget cut their state funding. They’re the raw materials of another
project, one poised to raise more eyebrows and start yet another conversation.