Rise Africa: Tell our followers, who is C.J. Johnson? Are there any particular words that best describe you?
CJ Johnson: I always describe myself as a visual storyteller. I create films, comics and photographs. I’m from Houston, Texas, and live in New York. For me, passion is the word that’s central to my life.
RA: What is Social Skills, why that name and what’s the inspiration behind it all?
CJJ: Social Skills is a website with satirical illustrations and stories, that’s updated weekly. It’s my way of personally expressing myself. I chose that name, because the tone of Social Skills is one where what’s being said, or observed isn’t what we’re “supposed” to say or observe according to most people. Plus, it’s on the internet, and people say that communicating through the internet decreases your social skills (which I find pretty humorous). The real inspiration was for me to have a weekly creative outlet, and to try my hand at comics and illustrations, which is an artistic medium that I didn’t have any experience in at the time I created Social Skills back in June of 2011.
RA: How do you do it? (Putting it all together, coming up with the ideas for storylines and characters)
CJJ: I write and conceive of everything, then collaborate with an illustrator to execute my vision. As far as coming up with the ideas for illustrations, or stories/characters it really all depends. Sometimes, I’ll have ideas for weeks or months until I’m satisfied, and then create it. Other times, I’ll have an idea that works right away. My inspiration comes from my personal life, observations and ideas/themes that I’ve been thinking about and want to explore. I’ve always thought in terms of stories since I was a child, so it comes naturally to me to create characters and storylines.
RA: Is your content particularly tailored towards a particular audience?
CJJ: The only audience I think of when I’m creating something is myself. I’m a very critical person, but I’m my own worst critic. So, if my work meets my high standards, then I know it’s something worth sharing. Whether or not other people will respond to the same things I do isn’t under my control. My only concern is creating work that is a pure expression of myself and helps me grow as an artist.
RA: How would you describe your audience? How diverse is your followership?
CJJ: Really, it’s hard for me to say because I’ve noticed that my audience is really diverse. People from really different backgrounds follow Social Skills, but I think what they all have in common is a certain mentality of questioning and challenging everything in society, plus an appreciation for art.
RA: What influences your work and what inspires you most?
CJJ: The biggest influences are the ideas/themes I ruminate on in my personal life, plus observations I make about day-to-day human interactions. Of course, other works from artists I admire really inspire me to keep going. My artistic role models are Thelonious Monk, Spike Lee, Nas and Basquiat. As far as comics go, I really enjoy Aaron McGruder, Daniel Clowes and Adrian Tomine’s work.
RA: Has social media played a significant role in promoting your work?
Yes, because Social Skills is on tumblr, so that’s where my followers and interactions/networking mainly comes from. Twitter plays an effective part in promoting Social Skills as well. In the future, I plan on doing a lot more, though.
RA: What are your plans for the future? Where do you see Social Skills in the next 5 to 10 years? And what advice will you give to upcoming artists?
For Social Skills, I plan on always using it as a creative outlet and having more illustrations and stories there, but also launching more tactile design oriented work (whether it be books, posters, clothing, etc.) Also, I’d like to eventually use Social Skills as a springboard to do more in my community, by organizing and building things for ourselves and for our future. I don’t want to get too specific yet, because I need the time to see which ideas will work in a few years and which ones might take a decade. But, I’m interested in building something that’s bigger than just myself.
My advice for upcoming artists is to stick to your own voice, always challenge yourself as an artist, question everything and make sure you know exactly what you want to do and stick to that vision. If you compromise your artistic integrity in order to “make it” you’d only be contributing to the very thing that causes artists to need to create work for therapeutic reasons in the first place. Your voice is what’s unique and what people want to hear, and anybody who tells you any different can’t be trusted under ANY circumstances. Also, perseverance is key. Having said that, even though I’m very proud of what I’ve done, I don’t consider myself anywhere near where I want to be, so I’m always actively working towards my own goals.
RA: What do you think of getting into the arts as a professional? Are there more challenges to face compared to the more common or regular professions?
CJJ: There are more challenges, but I think that the positives outweigh the negatives. Getting into the arts as a professional allows you to possibly create work that inspires you and others, while making a living off of it. Plus, having control over your work and life is rare for anybody. If you want to become an artist mainly because of the possibility of becoming rich and famous, then you’ll never be happy with what you’re doing, even if you attain riches and fame. So, it’s important to put things in perspective and never be afraid to turn down “opportunities” that would compromise who you are as an artist and person.
RA: What does “Africa Is Done Suffering” mean to you?
CJJ: My interpretation is that Africans, whether they’re in Africa or as a result of the diaspora are outside of Africa (like myself) are done letting outsiders murder, rape and steal our bodies, minds, culture and natural resources. We can’t rise without unity, and we can’t have unity without knowledge of self. It’s easier said than done, but awareness of the fact that our people have a history and a current position on this earth that’s both rich and tragic, yet unique to us, is the first and biggest step towards rising to where we’re supposed to be.
For more information about CJ Johnson and Social Skills check out http://socialskillsnyc.com or reach CJ on Twitter at @RealtimeCJ