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An Interview with Johnny Coleman

by Zoey Birdsong

art by Eva Sturm-Gross

[originally published November 2021]


Though I’ve never taken a class with Johnny Coleman, I got to know him last year as his freshman advisee. He was the first professor at Oberlin that made me feel welcome and supported. After finding out that I’m from New Mexico, he asked if I’d ever been to Taos (my small hometown). It felt good to know that there was someone at Oberlin who had at least heard of Taos, much less someone who understood some of its eccentricities. I had the chance to sit down with him and talk about his upbringing, career at Oberlin, and post-retirement plans.

After 28 years as a professor of Studio Art and Africana Studies at Oberlin, Coleman is retiring this semester. Professor Coleman grew up outside of Los Angeles and attended Parsons School of Design and UC San Diego. He’s an interdisciplinary artist, but is perhaps most well-known for his installation art. He explores themes of “history, Black culture, [and] specificity of place” in his work. He came to Oberlin as part of a joint appointment with Professor Nanette Yannuzzi and has been teaching here ever since.

Professor Coleman told me that he’s always loved to draw. As a child, he looked up to Los Angeles artist Charles White and would “keep an eye out” for White’s work on the covers of his parents’ magazines, Ebony and Jet. Despite his early pull towards art, he didn’t originally think of himself as an artist. He didn’t take his first art class until he was in his mid-twenties. Though he doesn’t believe it’s useful to have regrets, he said, “I would have been happier and healthier had I been intentional and sought out art classes.”

Coleman began his career as an educator in graduate school, where he was a teaching assistant. He wasn’t “born to be an educator,” but learned by developing his own “organic and conversational” approach to teaching. His natural affinity towards conversation gives him an advantage as a teacher. He says that the seminar table is a place of give and take, where everyone shares a responsibility to contribute. As an educator, he’s had to learn to “trust what can emerge within a shared space.” Coleman’s career as an educator has been as much about learning as it’s been about teaching.

“Art is the central, resonant core of the best of who we, as a collective species, can be,” he told me. He hopes that his students come away from his classes with a “passion for the subject” and continue to create as much as possible.

Moving into the future, Professor Coleman wants to slow down and come to rest. “I want to let some of the momentum dissipate,” he said. He’s looking forward to spending more time in the studio and with the people closest to him: family and friends.

“I hope that folks that I’ve been blessed to work with, from colleagues to students, have received a fraction of what it is that I’ve gotten, and I hope that the exchanges have been reciprocal,” he said.

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