by ALEXANDRA RETTER
Bursts of yellow, green, blue and red decorate the unassuming downtown Winona door. Other colors flash on a side-street building and in an alley.
The shades form words that Winona Creative Laureate Sarah Johnson hopes people find welcoming and uplifting amid the mental health impacts they may be experiencing during the pandemic. They make up the public art murals of Johnson’s Winona Color Project.
The most recently completed mural in the Winona Color Project series features the message “Hold hope gently and firmly.”
Johnson noted that she created the mural as the pandemic peaks and winter nears because she was aware of the mental health impacts community members may be facing and she wanted to highlight that “hope is an essential life ingredient.”
Johnson, a licensed professional counselor, is the mental health director at the La Crosse Area Family YMCA. In this role, she and her colleagues work to help people become comfortable with discussing mental health. They develop mental health training materials, activities and resources.
Johnson said she is grateful that she is able to apply her artistic side to her mental health work and vice versa. “And even if we can’t feel hope, we need to behave with hope and act with hope ... If we behave with hope and act with hope, even if we’re not feeling it, that’s the only way we can perhaps create the future we want,” Johnson stated.
When Johnson imagines holding hope gently and firmly, she said she pictures a baby bird nestled in her hands, and she does not want to squish the fluffy friend or let her fly away. A similar principle applies to hoping, she added. “Hoping for the best, that may be a setup if things don’t go the way we want them to,” Johnson shared. “Acceptance of reality, as it is, is an important life skill, as well. So it’s sort of balancing the two things together.”
The typical ways of caring for oneself may not be adequate in this stressful year, Johnson said, so people may benefit from trying new strategies, such as asking for help when it is needed. “I think lots of times people feel it’s a burden to ask for help,” Johnson noted. “They don’t want to bother somebody. The fact of the matter is most people feel better when they help people ... When we ask people for help, we’re also giving them the opportunity to have a sense of purpose, feel better and have their mental health impacted positively.”
Johnson also painted a mural — which proclaims, “Let’s create a life worth living” — at the Hiawatha Valley Mental Health Center as part of the Winona Color Project. She said she aims for the mural to remind people that even if their lives are not quite where they want them to be, they can build lives with connections to others and purpose.
Johnson has also installed a photo exhibit downtown. During the pandemic, she has taken hikes for her mental health, she said, and photographed her adventures, which have included leaving messages such as “Hi” out in nature for others to find. “And to me, that’s about the importance of being seen and feeling,” Johnson said of leaving messages.
Apart from her work as creative laureate, Johnson has placed colorful signs with messages which she hopes will support others’ mental health at the bottom of her driveway, she noted. The signs have had messages like, “Steady hands, open hearts,” “Be the history you want your great-great-great grandchildren to read,” “Be here now,” “Let nature nurture you” and, on a sign with a sun and moon smiling at each other, “Still each day we rise.”
“It’s great for my mental health, too,” Johnson noted. “It’s a way of feeling more connected with the community.”
Johnson has been creative laureate for about a year. She is the first person to hold this position after the city of Winona moved from having a poet laureate to having a creative laureate. “We’ve been so lucky to have some incredible poet laureates in our time, so this was an interesting shift, and I felt really honored to be chosen,” Johnson shared.
When Johnson’s term as creative laureate began at a time when the pandemic had not yet started, she aimed to increase the presence of public art, as well as community members’ recognition of the value of public art and the importance of artists receiving payment for their work, she shared.
“My hope is that we have artists from all across the community ... show their talents,” Johnson shared. “And really create a destination that people from outside Winona want to come see our color and our beauty and our art,” she continued.
Johnson said that her desire to continue the Winona Color Project was reinforced amid the pandemic due to her recognition of the mental health impacts people may be experiencing at this time. “So in a small way, I wanted the Winona Color Project to offer some solace, some light,” Johnson shared.
The project began this summer. Johnson was creating the mural “Full Blooms” downtown when a building owner nearby asked if she would paint their door, as well. She said yes, and she ended up including the message “Hi there” on the door.
That work motivated her to create vibrant murals with welcoming messages in the Winona Color Project, she shared, as she thought they could each serve as a “pop of humanity and surprise” while community members are distanced from one another.
She completed the another piece of Winona Color Project, a mural which says “Glad you’re here,” at Home and Community Options this summer. She said she hopes the work provides some humanity and connection for those who see it.
While she painted in public last summer, people would come by to spend time with her and take photos. “This summer, the public was missing, because we were trying to keep each other safe,” she said. “So that was a really dramatic difference in the process for me as an artist.”
Johnson also painted a mural for the project which states “Art is for everyone” at the Minnesota Conservatory for the Arts. She collaborated with Our Voices, a student group for students who are black and students of color, on a mural, as well.
Some memorable moments from her time as creative laureate so far came while working with Our Voices members, Johnson said. “I think my favorite moment happened almost every Saturday we painted,” Johnson stated. “It just went silent. It was just a group of people silently painting together, just in the flow.”
Our Voices founder and organizer LaShara Morgan said Our Voices had wanted to complete a mural in town for years. “The simple fact that she reached out to us and wanted to collaborate with us — that was exciting already, that she wanted to do this with us,” Morgan shared. “And I really enjoyed that she loved bright colors. She brought all these brightly colored paints.”
Morgan said she appreciated Johnson’s dedication to Our Voices’ work on the mural and Johnson’s willingness to open up her weekends to help with the mural. “And once the kids got into it, they would sketch things out, have [Johnson] look at it, give her advice on it … The paintings became how they were feeling in the moment,” Morgan noted.
“It’s absolutely gorgeous,” Johnson said of Our Voices’ mural, “and I can’t wait to do more art with them.”
“Full Blooms” may be found on Third and Laird streets in Winona.
The mural “Hold hope gently and firmly” is located in the alley between Market and Franklin streets and Broadway and Fifth streets.
Johnson’s photos may be seen at the Blue Heron Coffeehouse.
Mental health resources include Great Rivers 211 at 2-1-1, the national Disaster Distress Helpline at 1-800-985-5990, and Southeast Minnesota Crisis Response at 1-844-CRISIS2.