Renewed inspiration

Melinda Johnson

Photo By Larry Dalton

As an accomplished, practicing sculptor, Melinda Johnson enjoyed a rather nice life, traveling the world and showing her work in places like Brussels, Belgium; Paris; and Japan. But after suffering a major health crisis four years ago, Johnson faced new challenges, as she was suddenly grounded to her home in Sacramento. Never one to just pass the time, Johnson soon regained her strength and began curating art shows at Coffee Works, located on Folsom Boulevard. Showcasing the work of the known, unknown and also unidentifiable, these shows have given Johnson renewed inspiration and one of the most rewarding experiences of her life.

Did you have an artistic upbringing?

Oh, yeah. I was a very artistic child growing up. My mother and father highly valued music, art and education. I went to a private school as a kid and studied art there. In high school, I was the artist of the group.

Where has art taken you over the years?

As an artist, I’ve been lucky enough to have traveled to a lot of different places to show my work. But one of the best places art has taken me is Oaxaca, Mexico. For a while, I was traveling to Oaxaca pretty regularly to export folk art for the Mexican museum in San Francisco. When I was there, I got really interested in coffee and specifically organic coffee. So, I partnered up with a Mexican landowner who agreed to grow certified organic coffee. And, in return for me getting the crop certified, I was given coffee to sell on the U.S. market. At the time, around 1992, I think I was one of three organic coffee brokers in the whole world.

Wow. That’s quite a hobby. Did this organic-coffee gig somehow lead you to Coffee Works?

Yeah. I had already known John Shahabian, the owner of Coffee Works, through teaching his kids. For 20 years, I was an art teacher in the San Juan Unified School District. But I also used to sell organic coffee to John.

How did the idea for having art shows come together?

A few years back, I had a sudden bout with bad health, in which I became almost completely grounded. I eventually got to the point where I could drive enough to go to Coffee Works and have coffee and read the newspaper in the morning. At the time, John was doing a remodel and was trying to figure out what to do with the walls. I mentioned my background in art and explained my health situation, and that led to the monthly art shows.

What kinds of artists have you shown in the past four years?

I’ve shown all kinds of artists: school kids, senior citizens, people with lots of education, people with no education. It’s been a pretty wide range of people. Before I started out, I wanted to kind of focus on two groups of people: Midtown artists and people who wouldn’t necessarily have an opportunity to show at a commercial gallery and could benefit from the exposure and wall space. Not to say that everyone that’s ever shown has exactly fit in those categories, but there’s always been more than just decoration on the walls. I’ve always wanted there to be something to ponder.

What’s involved in putting together a show?

Well, the first thing that I usually do is spend a day with the artist whose work will be going up, get to know them and talk about the showing. We’ll talk about whatever might need to be done, like framing, putting together an artist’s statement and résumé, business cards and so on. After that, I patch up the holes with plaster, throw on a fresh coat of paint, and then we’ll usually put everything up together to make sure that it looks nice. And then if the artist needs help with some of the other things, like a statement and so on, we’ll work on that.

Who are a few favorite artists that you’ve shown?

One of the best shows that I’ve ever done featured kids from an anonymous kids photo program. These are kids that are in the system and are either living in foster care or in group homes because their parents are incarcerated. And because they are considered at-risk, their identities have to be kept anonymous. That showing was amazing. Those kids are so talented. Another favorite of mine is the artist whose work is up right now. I don’t want to go too far into her story, because it’s very personal, but she was so nervous hanging her work up that she almost cried. It’s really overwhelming for some people.

How has the whole experience affected you?

Working with all of the artists has been one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever done. It’s kind of funny. I’m amazed at all the people that do art. People you wouldn’t think would be artistic have, over the years, done around 10 pieces, and that’s all it takes. I tell them to bring their stuff in, and we can sit down and take a look at it.