Johanna Poethig keeps the vision of VPA alive


As one of CSU Monterey Bay’s founding faculty members, Professor Johanna Poethig has been with the Visual & Public Art Department since its inception in 1995.

The VPA program was one of the first in the country that emphasized not just the visual, but also the social aspects of art education. 

“The beauty of this program is that we do both,” Poethig said. “Students come here, they gotta learn skills. They have to learn how to be studio artists, and think about their personal creativity and creative growth. But they do that within a curriculum of thinking about how art takes place in a social context.”

Born in New Jersey and raised in Manila, Philippines, Poethig earned degrees from the University of California, Santa Cruz, and Mills College. She’s been in California since 1976, forging an eclectic career out of a variety of interests and mediums, from painting and sculpture to performance art and video.

“I’m a lot of different things,” she said. “That’s just who I am. ... Rather than choose, I do it all.”
Her installations include dozens of large-scale murals, many of which transform urban blight into pockets of color and meaning. In her Painting and Mural class, students are working on a vivid, 300-foot-long mural in the rural farmworker community of Pajaro.

“This community has had nothing – no place for the kids to play, no place for the community to get together,” Poethig said. The new park is “really kind of amazing – it’s like an oasis.”

Public art education develops skills useful in any career, like creativity and teamwork, Poethig said.

“The main thing about artists is that we’re not literal all the time,” she said. “We’re creative, so we’re divergent thinkers. That’s a very important part of learning. If you just train [students] in a linear fashion, they’ll never become as creative as when you help them make connections that are surprising. It’s only by making those unlikely connections that you get innovative ideas.”

Another project is renewal of the campus “Signs and Symbols” mural, which was removed for lead abatement. Poethig is leading the effort, which will involve faculty members, students and alumni in planning and painting a new version of the beloved mural.

“It will reflect on the vision of the university and draw upon the old design,” she said. “You don’t want to forget your history, but you also want to look toward the future.” MB


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Photo by Chris Brown