Artist Whitney Johnson hunts for her paper. She gets her inspiration from nature, making paper from fibrous mushrooms she harvests in central Illinois. “I’m interested in mushrooms because of their physical variability, and their ability to transform material by decomposing it, and their mystery. They’re so beautiful and curious to look at,” she said. The paper can be seen as an element of her painting After 11:45 p.m.

Artist Alissa Palmer carries around a book filled with ripped pages, sometimes bound by twine. When Palmer is traveling around and sees an inspiration for drawing, she pulls out her notebook and draws the things that are around her, never stopping to question whether the scene lends itself to the paper in front of her, but merely responding to the challenge at hand. “It’s a simple gesture to let someone look into a kind of diary, to be really open and honest. For me they’re sweet, sincere objects,” Palmer said.

The Joe McCauley Art Gallery at Heartland Community College is featuring both artists in Sensing Synonyms. The show is on display through Friday, January 26, at the gallery in room 2507 of the Instructional Commons Building on Heartland’s Normal campus, 1500 W. Raab Road, Normal. Hours are weekdays from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. A reception for the artists will take place from 4 to 5:30 p.m. Thursday, January 25.

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Whitney Johnson

“I’m truly interested in the action of searching for, sometimes finding, and mostly being surprised by the little moments of physical encounters with the world,” Johnson said. It’s these little moments that inspired her to make little photograph-sized paintings on scraps of canvas which can be seen in the collaborative piece, Dust Bath Brush Laugh.

“When digging through the little paintings in piles in my studio, it can bring similar feelings of walking through the woods and being surprised by an unexpected mushroom or spider, or it can bring up memories of spending time with someone I care for. It’s a feeling that can’t quite be placed,” she said.

Johnson, who comes from a family of artists, has always known deep down she wanted to be an artist. “It’s never something I’ve ever had to fight or look for. I’m kind of a quiet person normally so getting into something on paper was kind of natural.”

Johnson initially fell in love with watercolor and its wet-on-wet technique, and later found acrylics. “I fell in love with the way you can watch the paint flow and mix and kind of step back and watch it do its thing. The paint has a mind of its own and you can listen to it in a way,” she said. As a natural observer, stepping back and watching things happen is where the artist feels centered.

Johnson likes to set herself up with a problem, instead of having to know the answer first. “I find that stumbling upon or creating some sort of problem in a painting, or parts of a painting, can act like a prompt I can respond to. That way, it’s kind of like talking to someone and hearing back,” she said.

“I try not to be too representational in my work because I want the viewer to be able to explore the material as it is, the tactility of it, because that’s how the world is, tactile. I’m always looking for the viewer to explore how something might feel; imagining yourself holding one of the little pieces in the collaborative piece. How something feels is important.”

The alumna of Illinois State University has a bachelor of fine arts in painting, and will receive a bachelor of science in art education in December.

Alissa Palmer

“I see you. I feel your presence. Stop, take it in. Explore the sensations. Don’t travel to a spot of isolation. Don’t think about it later or even today. I’m here right now with you.”

These words, handwritten on a scrap of paper, are posted inside a makeshift bookcase at the gallery where Palmer’s piece, Poem, Shelf and Books: 6, 8, 11, 4, 3, 1, is on display.

When Palmer is not focusing on the now by drawing in her notebooks, she can be seen dyeing paper or fabric on a clothesline, or placing inspirational notes all over her studio walls to influence her next painting.

Palmer, a self-proclaimed planner whose “content and a frenetic frenzy occupy my mind, just as my materials pile high in my studio,” uses the content of her art as way of slowing down. “My mind doesn’t normally want to focus in on details or the present moment so I’m trying to do that by conveying these moments in my life. They’re very paused moments that are stacked on top of one another, memories. They’re autobiographical,” she said.

Palmer’s first exposure to art as something you can take seriously, and not just for fun happened her senior year of high school when her art teacher fostered a creative and comfortable environment for students to make what they needed at the time. It wasn’t until her freshman year at ISU that she really knew she wanted to become an artist.

The artist, who tends to go with material first and then think about why she’s using them, recently started working with sheets. “It’s about the tangibility, and knowing what the object would feel like if the viewer touched it, what its purpose is if it was in front of them. Also, it brings up things like home,” she said.

Palmer likes the way the sheets take paint, and the way the paper feels pasted to it. “I like what conversation the materials have between one another. I feel like they have some sort of dominate role in creating,” she said.

Palmer hopes that her artwork can be a way for people to look outside of themselves and live in the present moment. “I want the viewer to have a mutual relationship with my artwork, and that by seeing my memories transcribed through painting that they might be reminded of their own lives. I want them to pay attention to the subtle gestures that are happening around them at any time,” she said.

Palmer will graduate from Illinois State with a bachelor of fine arts in painting in the spring.