Before completing his second bachelor’s degree in photography and an MFA at the Savannah College of Art and Design, Ervin A. Johnson graduated from the University of Illinois-Urbana Champaign with a degree in Rhetoric—which we can broadly define as the use of speech and its ability to create knowledge and use it persuasively. Imagine applying such aural and visual skills to make art, to look out at the world, look within and follow that with a universal language. SCAD Art Sales, a consultancy program offered to students, submitted Johnson’s series, Monolith, to Photo London Digital, the first online international photography fair.

Monolith is the third part of a larger series titled #InHonor, a project Johnson admits had been percolating inside for years. The Trayvon Martin case lit the powder keg and gave him the impetus to make art that he felt would make a difference. “How could I be more vocal and contribute to this movement and honor this multifaceted thing that exists in the art world, in the real world, on social media, which is why it’s called #InHonor. The project is really about bringing the work to the people it’s made for. It’s meant to be shared online, because I felt like I wasn’t visible for a long time, and I want it to help others feel visible.” Trayvon, the Black Kid in the Gray Hoodie, as well as Kids Driving While Black have all been “painted” in broad strokes, but not heard, much less represented. Johnson took multiple photos, then digitally and physically collaged facial parts to present them as one face. Broad or aquiline noses, hooded or deep-set eyes, dark or light skin, each has a special smile or frown, but each shares a kinship. By sharing the series online, Johnson uses the rhetorical power of social media to recognize and usher respect to the individual, as well as express affinity with the group.

While this is a pretty close to perfect example of an artist experimenting (successfully) in multimedia projects, it also illustrates the opportunities found in a school like SCAD, which, in its photography school alone, offers a panorama of technical classes, from camera systems to lighting styles, from photojournalism to fashion, and real mentoring from faculty. In a time when many of us are re-examining career—and community—there’s hope, there’s buoyancy in seeing Ervin A. Johnson looking inside and sharing his wisdom. That’s Art. —Gwynned Vitello // This article was originally published in the Winter 2021 Quarterly