Johanna Tagada is a multimedia artist whose work can be described as calming and poetic. She paints, photographs, works with textiles… and much more. What better way to describe a modern artist but her. She's even launched her own press, called Poetic Pastel, where she self publishes zines. In a recent conversation, we discussed her work process, her love for traveling, collaborating with her husband Jatinder Singh Durhailay and her recent exhibition Épistolaire Imaginaire, an ongoing project all around the world…
Hi Johanna, how are you today?
Bonjour, I am well, thank you, hope you too. Just left the Welsh countryside and writing back to you from Bristol.
So let's start at the beginning. Where are you from?
From Alsace, east France. My attachment to this particular place has to be found at my grandparents farm house and its surroundings. It’s quite apparent in my body of work. But I now live in London.
Did you grow up surrounded by art?
In some ways, yes. My grandmother cares for her pretty five hundred and some potted plants and practices flower arrangements. She and my grandfather used to do a lot of things by hand, involving textile, basketry, tisane making... My grandfather's library, mostly composed by plants books, titles on the organic world. Herbal medicines and aromatherapy publications were filled with wonderful illustrations and pretty photographs. In between the pages, dried flowers and leaves were always lingering.
On Sunday we would travel to small spots of Alsace visiting churches and spiritual places such as Le Mont St. Odile. My grandfather would tell me about the architecture, awakening my interest for the present objects such as chandeliers, carvings on the wooden benches or the use of incense.
When did you realize you wanted to become an artist and not follow another path?
I never imagined myself doing anything else, really. As I child I always wanted to be either a dancer or a painter. To pay the bills and finance my projects I have had several kinds of jobs before becoming full time self employed. And all these other jobs made this childhood decision even stronger.
How did you get started making zines?
As many of us, I was doing little booklets as a child with images of things I liked, sort of collections. My first ‘official’ zine was Colletion #1 (2012) and most recently we (Poetic Pastel Press) created Colletion Vol.IV - The Diary of a Palm Tree, which was first released at the Tate Modern last February.
Self publishing, paper truly imposed itself as the main medium composing my body of work. As for sculpture, I enjoy the way the hand work can be felt in the fifty exemplars of each new title. As for other mediums, I am forever learning along the way, and believe this can be felt from one publication to the next. One very important point is for quality and respect for our environment to remain on top of quantity, I do one or two publications a year in which I invest not only money but considerable time, love, thoughts and space for things to happen naturally.
Why did you start Poetic Pastel? And where did the name come from?
Poetic Pastel is an open conversation, my way to work, collaborate, share projects with some of my very talented friends and people I admire. To name only a few, Claire Cottrell, Jatinder Singh Durhailay, Celina Basra, The Garden Edit, Kunsthalle Basel, Ruby Woodhouse, Utrecht Now Idea...
Poetic Pastel has two main focuses: Poetic Pastel Press, which involves hand bound publication, and Poetic Pastel Kasaya, which is an approach to positive clothing. Life and work as a painter and interdisciplinary artist can be quite solitary. A short answer would be that "Poetic Pastel is my way to be with others". A metaphor: myself sitting on a table on my own, solving problems, as this is mostly what the process of composing a painting or cross disciplinary work is. On the other hand, Poetic Pastel is a large round table around which wonderful people sit, moments filled with various discussions. We share and produce works together at paces that suit us.
My artworks are often described as poetic and pastel, and I enjoy the sound and rhythm of these two words together. It’s also a delicate memory of my grandmother’s pastel floral cushion, present in the garden each summer, a place where I am wishing to take all my friends. So it seemed to be the right name!
Where do you take your inspirations from?
Nature, positive feelings, Love, my surroundings, Japanese Tea Ceremonies, colour therapy, the spiritual path of Ikebana...
When you work on a painting or a series of photos, do you have a specific theme in mind? How is your work process?
When I feel like a theme naturally arises, I develop the work keeping this theme or title in mind while the all still grows organically. The final series is a warm tisane of thoughts and happenings of daily life.
Your  husband Jatinder Singh Durhailay is also an artist, do you guys ever collaborate on projects? By the way, congratulations to both of you on your recent marriage!
Merci. We collaborate through Poetic Pastel Press, yes. He also often photographs my artworks. Jatinder really supports my artistic practice a lot, he encourages me to take new challenges and not to be scared of materializing my thoughts. He is a very patient person, and there is no doubt that I have asked him to read this interview before sending it back to you, to ‘check my English’, as I say (laughs).
How did you get the idea of  Épistolaire Imaginaire? How did it start and how did it become a traveling exhibition?
It all started last year with Utrecht Now Idea, in Tokyo, the space founded by Hiroshi Eguchim, whose work I admire a lot. They offered to release my recent publications in Japan along with an exhibition. I remember reading their email and being so excited I started dancing in our Berlin kitchen (laughs). We went to a café and I sat in the sun, notebook in hand, thinking “what am I going to create for this space?”. I wanted to give something nice for free, create a site specific installation, yet one that could change its shape to travel and blossom further. That’s how Épistolaire Imaginaire was born. The visitors were asked to leave anonymously (or not), in any language, a drawing, a memory of a simple moment of happiness. As a present, each visitor could take home one of the unique, positive and encouraging letters I hand wrote. The installation, hosting both pink pale note books and letters, was composed of hand dyed cotton. It was thought as a traveling work questioning happiness, one of the predominant subjects of my practice. In our society we mostly measure and expect happiness from material possessions (a new car, new dress, expensive designer furniture…). We tend to ignore the honest happiness that can only be felt by being in contact with nature, the pleasure of giving and sharing.
The second settlement of Épistolaire Imaginaire took place in Los Angeles at Iko Iko Space, organized by BOOK STAND and curated by the wonderful Claire Cottrell. It's very interesting to compare the way people in Tokyo shared memories (briefly, mostly anonymously, only a few words), with
Los Angeles, where the visitors left very long notes, often up to one page, and most participants signed with their full name.
With the memories shared in the first settlement I created a video, the audio piece is the lecture of all memories left in Tokyo and the visual is a film I shot in Japan, introducing my memory of a simple moment of happiness. With the memories left in LA, I am working a on new piece that will be exhibited in London along with other works, for the third settlement of Épistolaire Imaginaire.
It seems like you travel and move a lot, do you have a favorite city and language?
Yes, we haven't found the place where we would like to settle in yet. We are looking for a countryside home, a few hours drive from London. I am dreaming of a cottage with a thatched roof… You might have heard me saying that the perfect thing would be to live in the UK, going to my hometown every two months or so, and to Japan once a year.
I do not have a favorite language, every language I speak is like a dress I like to wear. But when working, I sometimes enjoy listening to Vietnamese on the internet, it sounds to me as soft rain drops.
What is your favorite thing to eat?
So many (vegan) things! Trying to make vegan matcha pain au chocolat is on my to do list.
And what's on your playlist at the moment?
Jatinder is often playing his dilruba at home, so it would be his very own live playlist. In the morning, it's always Chen Leiji. For years I loved to listen daily to Alice Coltrane, Tagaki Masakatsu, Haruka Nakamura, Connan Mockasin, Rodrigo Amarante, Tujiko Noriko, Little Dragon (oh, I literally dream of making her video clip for "Pink Clouds"), Nujabes, Christian Scott, traditional music from Okinawa...