For Nitashia Johnson MAT 15, her unfaltering belief in art and design education as a force for good comes from a lifetime of experience. Growing up in Dallas, TX apart from her parents, she dealt with poverty and transience in her home life—but also received invaluable support from a handful of arts-focused mentors.
First, a middle school teacher encouraged her to apply to a high school for emerging artists. Then the faculty there endorsed her college aspirations. Finally, her success at Texas Woman’s University inspired her to complete a master’s degree through RISD’s Teaching + Learning in Art + Design (TLAD) department, an experience that continues to drive her success and dedication to empowering others through creative expression.
“My parents were not in the picture,” Johnson says, “so growing up, my teachers were the parents I needed.” Now living in Dallas again, the graphic designer, photographer and educator is currently enjoying another wave of support—in the form of a six-month residency funded by the leading electronics firm Sony.
As one of five Alpha Female Creators-in-Residence, Johnson is taking advantage of a $25,000 grant—plus $5,000 in Sony Alpha photo equipment—to help advance two ongoing endeavors: an arts education nonprofit called The Smart Project and The Self Publication, a series of portraits that gives people of color a platform for sharing their experiences.
Inspired by the TLAD-run college access program Project Open Door (POD) and a portrait publication she made while at RISD, Johnson has built both of these initiatives on her foundational faith in the ability of art and design to heal, while also helping unlock people’s innate talents.
With The Self Publication, she hopes to counter negative media portrayals of people of color with “new representations of black women (and black culture in general) [through] art, design and photography.”
“I see The Self Publication as a healing mechanism,” the artist adds—one that helps participants “understand their own worth.” Through the Sony residency, she is partnering with mentor Me Ra Koh to deepen her expertise in portrait photography and learn more about the genre as a means of empowerment. “Her career aligns with what I want mine to be,” Johnson says of the accomplished photographer and public speaker.
As with The Self Publication, Johnson has been busy pushing The Smart Project forward since graduating from RISD—all while working as a graphic designer and photographer at the University of Texas/Dallas and teaching digital design classes on weekends to middle- and high-school students. “I’m doing a lot of stuff,” she acknowledges, “but my vision is clear.”
“These projects are my babies and I want to work on them for as long as possible,” says Johnson, who is launching a pilot of The Smart Project at North Dallas High School later this year (in partnership with the Dallas/Fort Worth chapter of the American Institute of Graphic Arts). The mission of this after-school program is to build up students’ creative and critical thinking skills and provide valuable professional development experiences.
Johnson says the Alpha Female residency has been instrumental in advancing The Smart Project. “Now we just need to get into the school and get started.” She also credits RISD faculty like TLAD Department Head Paul Sproll with further enhancing her talents and teaching ability.
“The program makes great teachers,” she observes, “and it supported my growth as a photographer and graphic designer.” The educator also says that at RISD she grew much more confident in speaking about the value and quality of her work.
“I really feel like my time at RISD set the foundation for me to take off as an artist and teacher,” says Johnson, who’s happy to be making a living in her field but is determined to do so in service of a greater mission. “If you’re passionate about something it will last a lifetime,” she says, “so you shouldn’t feel nervous about not being here tomorrow. Take time to create something that will leave a mark on the world.”