the Zoo Keeper

There is an artistic body of work called, Poor Lady's Stained Glass. This is not your mystical bottle tree imagery, from Poor Man's Stained Glass, which is steeped in Southern and African, history and folklore. No, this work extends from the thought of traditional stained glass art found in Cathedrals and Old Churches, but on a lesser medium than glass. It is an interesting portrayal of successful females, whose occupations and roles range from Analyst to Zookeeper, and everything in between. Most of the portraits feature young black or ethnic women, who, quite frankly, could be anyone's daughter- your neighbor’s daughter, or your friend's daughter. Imagine that, any young girl could grow up to be one of the women in these pictures...because they are just regular people...these females are "everyone's daughter," and that is the message that the artist hopes to communicate, that anyone's daughter, regardless of what they look like, where they are from, or the type of environment they are surrounded by, can grow up to be who ever, and what ever they want to be. Yes, these portraits, could just be, a portrait of YOUR daughter.


The artist, Michelle Colligan Johnson, lives in the small town of Opelousas, Louisiana, which is about an hour West of the capital, Baton Rouge. As a working backdrop, Opelousas, is a little town with a lot of rich history, including the fact that Opelousas, served as the capital of Louisiana, during the Civil War, from 1862 to 1863. Although, working on these stained glass portraits, has kept this artist engrossed for many nights, during the last seven months, her main passion is photography. Ms. Johnson has been specializing in women and children's photography, with an eye-catching flair, for telling a story, in one photo, for the last 16 years, and she has only gotten better in wowing South Louisianans, year after year.


Driving her passion in her photography, as well as in her "Poor Lady's Stained Glass" series is her intense desire to articulate, through art, the beauty of black women, which she hopes, will help to fill a void in the modern art world. As we have seen, in the recent past, and even today, many of the images of African American women, translate into a portrayal of an individual who is hard, and tough. Other times, the images of black females are overly sexual, to downright raunchy, and when young African American girls, or when any young girl, regardless of their race or background, see these types of images, over and over again, it starts to translate the message that, that is how they should look to be noticed, to be accepted, to feel good about themselves, and to feel beautiful. And, so, we have a plethora of oversexual, hard, and tough-looking pictures flooding people's personal Facebook, Instagram, and Pinterest accounts, as well as the social accounts, of a lot of "wanna-be" models.


Ms Johnson's desire is to show that other side of black women, the side that a lot of young people don't get to see very often, or some young people may not have ever seen. The side of black women that has always been there. This is the side, that is there when they are raising their sons, when they are teaching their daughters, when they are helping their neighbors, when they are supporting their friends and families, and when they are loving their men. This side is their Soft Side. This is the side that resonates with their inner AND outer beauty. This side. . .  is their Love. This is the side of African American women that Michelle tries to promote in her images. But, of course that doesn't apply only to black women, that message needs to be related for all women. It is the fact that African American women, and other ethnicities, have been portrayed the least, as possessing these qualities, of softness, beauty, and love. Ms. Johnson’s Instagram account, is a good example of these type of positive images for all women.


Poor Lady's Stained Glass, is a continuation of Michelle's personal mission, to show the world, that black women, and all women, are soft, beautiful, and smart, but in a different medium than photography. Ms. Johnson, has always been artistic, and has been drawing since she was a little girl, growing up in the small neighborhood of Banks, in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. All through her school years, she enrolled in art classes, to help her make sense of that need that she had inside her, to express herself by "putting the pencil to the paper," as she puts it. After high school, Michelle's drawing routine, subsided for a while, as she became enthralled with new experiences, such as working at Baskin Robbins Ice Cream, traveling, seeking spirituality, and getting married, to her husband for 31 years now, Clift Johnson.


After being married about ten years or so, Ms. Johnson found herself living in the country, outside of the city limits of Opelousas, on family farm land, where her grand parents lived, which is a place full of childhood memories and a place that she loved. Now, she was raising her own young family, of three girls and one boy, at the time, and then another boy was added to the family, in 2008, whom she calls her "old lady baby."

But, around this time, is when Michelle started to feel a burning desire to create, and to express herself in some creative way, and instead of drawing, she picked up a camera, and fell in love with that art form. Of course, there are a lot of photographers out there, and "moms with a camera," as Ms Johnson was often referred as, by those "serious" photographers, but, I think that everyone would agree, that although anyone can love what they do, regardless of their skill level, there are certain people who have an "eye" for perfection . . . the perfect pose, the perfect facial expression, the perfect mood and tone, the perfect setting, the perfect time, and then can translate that perfection in one shot, to tell a complete story, and Michelle. . has. .  that. .  EYE.


Often times, a photoshoot with Michelle is filled with many poignant lessons, such as, how a female should stand to enhance her natural beauty, and femininity. Or, in photo sessions with couples, she shares little tid bits with men, to help them to really "Bring It," in order to have the perfect male female chemistry. Her clients really appreciate those inside scoops of knowledge, because it gives them confidence, that they are in good hands, and also, they can always use that information in their personal photo sessions, in the future. Her, easy going, relaxing and jovial mannerisms always seem to put her clients at ease, and makes the shoot, that much more fun.


On the other end of the spectrum, Ms. Johnson, uses her gifts to give back, through photography. Michelle's oldest daughter, Chelsea, now 29, has Cerebral Palsy, and what Michelle noticed, before she became a photographer, was how difficult it was, to get a nice, decent, unhandicapped-looking picture, of her daughter. No matter the situation, be it a school picture, a department store promotion, or someone's cell phone snap shot, Chelsea was never shown in her best light, but, when Ms. Johnson, became a photographer, all that changed. Michelle found out, that by just taking her time, and being willing to take as many shots as needed, Chelsea's joy and happiness showed through, just like anyone else’s. As a mom, that was a very comforting feeling, to know that your Special Needs child could look beautiful in pictures. That feeling got even better, when Michelle took on a client, in the early 2000s, of a mom who wanted her Special Needs child, Camille, to be photographed, so Michelle applied the same care and patience that she used with her own daughter, Chelsea. When the mom saw Camille's pictures, she was so moved, an emotional, that her child could have beautiful images, just like any other person. In turn, Michelle, experienced so much gratification, and fulfillment, that she wanted to help other Special Needs individuals to be able to have, at least, one good photograph, that showed how beautiful they are as a person. So, Ms. Johnson started a Program, One Good Shot: The Chelsea and Camille Project. Through Michelle's efforts, along with a little help from a local news "piece," that Program has helped many families, in South Louisiana, to have at least "one good shot" of their Special Needs loved ones, that highlights their best qualities, instead of their disabilities, free of charge.


This same gratification and fulfillment, and a genuine need to be of service, is what drives her passion to photograph people, not just to provide pictures, but to create family treasures, and even family heirlooms. When speaking to individuals, and to groups, this is the message that Ms Johnson endeavors to pass on, about her art, and her mission. In reflection, Michelle, recounted how, when her grandmother died, there was this one picture, that portrayed the essence of what everyone in the family, loved and remembered about her grandmother. After much, negotiation, the picture went to her grandmother's youngest daughter, Aunt Theresa. So, then, Aunt Theresa, had a family treasure to pass down to her children, so that future generations can know her mom.


Ms Johnson has worked with many facets of the photography business, but as mentioned earlier, has enjoyed doing portrait work and "story telling" images of women and children, the most. She still shoots a few weddings each year, with her friend, Joel Treadwell who brings a lot of technical "knowhow" and consistency to the team. Although Ms. Johnson loves highlighting women through certain themed photo sessions, such as her Creole Women series or her Women in the Woods series, Michelle's focus in the last year, or so, has been in creating meaningful Wall Art for her clients . . . meaningful, because the subjects in these large pieces, are the client and their family, so timeless heirlooms are being created in every photo session. 


Ms Johnson is very excited about the opportunity to fulfill her need to create, through the Poor Lady's Stained Glass collection, and she hopes that everyone will enjoy these pieces, for what they truly are, possibilities for young people, and just people, to aspire to. But, "as an artist," Michelle says, "there is always that next level of self expression, to conquer, and the next stop on my journey, feels like . . . making MOVIES!!!"


  • Facebook
  • Pinterest
  • Instagram