Arts·Video

In Saints and Madonnas, photographer Olivia Johnston is searching for the 'divinity within us all'

"To consider this idea that the Virgin Mary or Jesus were real people who had real problems — I think that that makes us all more holy in a way."

'To consider that the Virgin Mary or Jesus were real people — I think that that makes us all more holy'

In Saints and Madonnas, photographer Olivia Johnston is searching for the ‘divinity within us all’

12 months ago
5:27
“To consider this idea that the Virgin Mary or Jesus were real people who had real problems — I think that that makes us all more holy in a way.” 5:27

Imagine trying to photograph one of the biggest celebrities of all time ... except she's never had her picture taken because she's been dead for a couple of millennia, long before the first photograph was taken.

Artist Olivia Johnston set out to capture the essence of Mary (yes, that Mary, the one who gave birth to Jesus) and several saints from the Bible in her latest project, Saints and Madonnas.

Johnston grew up in a secular Ottawa household but spent much of her childhood performing inside churches. That dichotomy piqued her interest in exploring the impact of Christianity on Western society. She studied art history while building her photography career and now finds herself searching for the "potential divinity within us all" in her work.

Work from Olivia Johnston's series Saints and Madonnas (Chris Snow/Olivia Johnston)

For the Madonnas part of the project, she photographed friends, acquaintances, and her mother, capturing a different side of Mary in each. "If she really existed, what might she have looked like?" Johnston wonders. "Could she have looked like anyone of these particular people? Was she old? Was she young? Was she beautiful? Was she plain? Was she smart? Was she not so smart?"

"The sort of idea that she's like one of us and we are all her — so to kind of access the magic, for lack of a better word, that is ... present in her identity and to think about any average person or any average woman or femme person as potentially being as graceful, as holy, as she is."

Olivia Johnston (CBC Arts)
To accept that fact and to even consider this idea that the Virgin Mary or Jesus were real people who had real problems, warts and all — I think that that makes us all more holy in a way. Rather than making them normal, it makes us holy.​- Olivia Johnston
Work from Olivia Johnston's series Saints and Madonnas (Chris Snow/Olivia Johnston)

Johnston photographed her mother with a melancholic expression, capturing Mary's possible sadness knowing Jesus was going to die. "There are so many of these depictions of her where she's crying," she says. "She knew as her son was being born that he would die."

Both Johnston and her mother have depression, so she views the photo as a sort of self-portrait that explores the melancholia that people with depression often live with regularly. "To accept that fact and to even consider this idea that the Virgin Mary or Jesus were real people who had real problems, warts and all — I think that that makes us all more holy in a way," Johnston says. "Rather than making them normal, it makes us holy."

For the Saints part of the project, Johnston photographed male and male-presenting friends with particular attributes, such as their name or a tattoo, that relate to a saint in the Bible. Johnston photographed Fin, who is non-binary, to depict St. John the Evangelist in a feminine manner. "This sort of idea of androgyny existing between the genders ... is very interesting to think about in the context of the Bible," she says. "And then for me to take it into a contemporary context, what that might look like, depicting a non-binary person, was what I was trying to do with that image."

Work from Olivia Johnston's series Saints and Madonnas (Olivia Johnston)

"It's very much about, again, this sort of idea of normal people as holy — the idea that people could have kind of a sacredness about them, and that [doesn't necessarily] have to do with religion. It's this idea of magic or their presence that exists in the world. I really wanted to kind of tie in that very historical narrative with contemporary life."

Saints and Madonnas exhibited at the Carleton University Art Gallery in 2019, and the portrait of Johnston's mother has been acquired by the City of Ottawa. Johnston continues to build on the collection. When she's not working on her own projects she can be found managing and teaching at the School of the Photographic Arts: Ottawa.

Olivia Johnston's mother, centre, with other work from her series Saints and Madonnas (Chris Snow/Olivia Johnston)

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Susannah Heath-Eves is a documentary filmmaker based in Ottawa, currently working on stories about healers and artists. She has worked as a reporter and current affairs associate producer for CTV and CBC Radio and Television. She has a Masters Degree in Broadcast Journalism and a BA in English Literature, both from Carleton University. You can find her sipping on mushroom coffee and trying her hand at growing vegetables.

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