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Omaha Magazine

Downtown Disruptor

Dec 31, 2019 04:26PM ● By Kamrin Baker

Michael Johnson sat in an abstract, red and white bird costume as an audience gathered around. Blue and pink streamers and an “It’s A Boy” banner hung in confident festivity. Johnson revealed a needle; this was the day they began hormone replacement therapy.

Johnson is a transgender artist who splits their time between Omaha and Des Moines—and is a self-proclaimed expert in “goofy gay s---.”

Essentially, this means Johnson creates artwork—painting, drawing, design, performance, and more—to highlight queer and transgender identities, as well as arts accessibility. The aforementioned baby shower was a show called Pluck at Petshop gallery in Benson in June 2019.

In terms of identity, Johnson is upfront and knowledgeable, but seemingly most sure of themselves through the lens of the Wiggle Bird, an autobiographical fictional character born in 2016. It first appeared as drawings and paintings, and is now a performance art costume.

“The Wiggle Bird pretty much functions for me like a little bit of a diary,” Johnson said. “It’s been a really powerful tool of self-reflection, and a way to admit what I am really feeling to myself. The Wiggle Bird has been really instrumental in me coming to terms with my identity and eventually making the decision to start hormone replacement therapy—which I ended up kind of memorializing through Pluck.”

Johnson said the response to Pluck was “phenomenal.” The performer was pleased with the turnout at the gallery, moved by the support of the art community, and felt safe in a climate of openness and acceptance.

However, Johnson’s art doesn’t hinge on a single personal celebration or communal bonding, but rather, through constant disruption.

“The idea of art sometimes scares people because it’s seen as this very fancy thing that you need a degree to make and understand, and a disruption is just, like, walking around a mall with a traffic cone on your head,” Johnson said. “I love art that doesn’t take itself seriously, that is silly, that involves other people, that calls people out of the routine that they walk through every day.”

Johnson decided to start hormones while building the Wiggle Bird costume. They started walking around downtown Omaha in the seven-foot-tall bird suit that “kind of looks like a dolphin” to some.

Exploring transhumanism through soft sculpture was incredibly freeing, Johnson said, adding an explanation in a follow-up email.

“Transhumanism is the idea that humans can physically transform, alter, or otherwise better themselves through science and technology. For me as a trans person, transhumanism means using hormones and surgery to change my body in ways that make me feel happier and more at home in my own skin. It means taking initiative and ownership of the way I exist in the world.” As an artist, Johnson extends the concept to costumes, using the wearable, soft sculpture to change body shape, abilities, and perception.

As a trans person, passing as one’s identified gender is stressful—including during simple acts such as walking around in public.

“So, it’s a really radical act to build this bird costume and say ‘OK, this is my new body,’” Johnson said. “In the same way that I may be freaked out walking around downtown and not knowing how I am being perceived by others, now all of a sudden, these people whose gazes might otherwise scare me—now they’re freaked out.”

While personally bold and inventive, Johnson produces subtle and routine daily work as a graphic designer for Hatchlings in Des Moines, Iowa. The artist also creates a monthly zine for their Patreon patrons, a loving flock called the Wiggle Bird Mailing Club.

“My entire life, I have always enjoyed making little comics, and I learned that if I called them zines, people would look at my little comics,” Johnson said. “So zines have been really great to just keep me making. And they’re not just a creative outlet, they’ve also helped me meet so many amazing people.”

The income generated from this project goes directly towards Johnson’s top surgery, which is planned for late 2020. For Johnson, top surgery will be more than simple breast removal, because in addition to removing breast tissue, the surgeon will also sculpt the chest to create a masculine shape.

Many people—in their different, glorious, confusing forms—are sure to see the message in Johnson’s work.

“I do make art about my identity, and I don’t necessarily try to make really positive work, but I think that’s mostly how I feel about myself, and that is what I feel compelled to make,” Johnson said. “It’s deeply, impossibly gratifying when people see being trans as a casual, positive, sexy thing.”

Johnson would like to know more trans/masculine performance artists and role models in the community, adding that “A support group would be nice.” Seeing those representations earlier in life could have brought Johnson more peace and understanding a lot more quickly.

“I don’t see the things that I make and I don’t see the things I feel or experience represented in art nearly as much as I’d like to,” Johnson said. “That is a driving force about why I am so upfront about things that are so personal. I want to challenge people, and even here in the Midwest, people are really starting to wake up.”

The baby shower, bird costume, portraits, zines, and beyond are simply extensions of Johnson’s wingspan, reaching as far as possible.

“It’s cliché, but we’re all human,” Johnson said. “We should all be building bird costumes, you know? I think everybody should build a new body for themselves. Try it out.”

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This article was printed in the January/February 2020 edition of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

Michael Johnson photographed at Petshop

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