Lizard lands a home: Mary Johnson’s larger-than-life animals

by Mike Madison

Mary Johnson’s whimsical sculptures can be seen from blocks away. Her most recent installation, “Lizard Lounge,” has a new permanent home at East Side Neighborhood Services (ESNS), 1700 Second St. NE.

“I started and completed it in 2008, but I’ve worked on it several times, most recently last week. It’s based on 1950s roadside attractions—they always had a catchy name. It’s made with stucco. The materials are all genuine to what a 1950s roadside attraction would have been made with.” The disassembled parts of the “Lizard Lounge” were brought in from 60 miles out of Minneapolis by Andrew MacGuffie, Jamie Weinfurter and John Hock. The team helped re-assemble it on the southwest lawn of ESNS on Saturday, August 7.

Her process: The larger-than-life piece started as a drawing. For the “Lizard Lounge,” Johnson first built the shack that is in the middle of the piece. She then made a steel armature right off of the shack, started with a circle then a long rod. Johnson used a lot of steel scraps, then metal lack followed by a layer of mortar mix. After the mortar she applied a layer of stucco and finally latex paint.

Another of Johnson’s pieces, “Max Rabitat,” is across from Mojo Coffee near the railroad tracks at 22nd Avenue & California Street NE. “It stands for maximum habitat. A rabitat is a habitat for rabbits. That piece was made in 2009.” Embedded in the rabbit sculpture are objects and trinkets that were collected and put into the piece by children who worked with her to complete it. The addition of a mask at the beginning of the pandemic reportedly led to a worldwide social media flurry in the medical world. “The mask is a PPE mask to show Max standing in solidarity with the people during COVID-19,” Johnson explained.

Johnson has a studio in the Casket Arts Factory Building, where she is currently working on some gallery pieces. She will also be an adjunct professor at St. John’s University this fall and in the faculty show there. “I’m always working. Work, work work. I love my studio!” smiled Johnson.

President of ESNS Kristine Martin explained the decision to add the “Lizard Lounge” to their site. “It’s part of the NE Sculpture portfolio of sculptures that have been created by Northeast artists. We want to be a part of the Northeast artist scene. We are an institutional partner and artists are a growing institutional partner as well. This option to work with John Hock [of Northeast Sculpture | Gallery Factory] and the sculpture group came up and there were a couple of pieces that we could consider. We really like this one of the lizard because it had the shack that we could use for our programming with our little kids. Perhaps even have the high schoolers use it for creative plays or activities, and as a place for the community to sit and participate in the fun!”

ESNS worked with Hock earlier in the year to obtain another piece located near the front of the building called “Uplift” by Ben Janssens. Martin said, “This amazing piece was hand-selected by John for our front because it really is about bringing all people together, and helping people move out of the places they are in if they so choose. It’s about community lifting up each other.”

Photos by Mike Madison.