“I belong wherever I’m headed.”
Mother. Artist. Commencement Speaker. Danforth Scholar.
Janessa Johnson, a student at St. Louis Community College at Florissant Valley, is all of the above.
Johnson’s journey to this moment in her life started as a child. Since she was little, everyone has known her as an artist. After high school, she went to college, but it was different than anticipated. Then she became a mother, and life changed.
Fast forward to the present moment…in a week, Johnson will graduate from St. Louis Community College. At the commencement ceremony, she’ll give the student address to hundreds of her peers. Together, they’ll share a milestone – college graduation. Then, she’ll move on to her next destination.
But, wait…what’s her story? How’d Janessa Johnson get to this moment?
High school to college
Growing up, everyone knew her as an artist. She drew pictures of her family. She taught herself some techniques and styles, and enjoyed the creativity.
As a senior at Northwest Academy of Law in Saint Louis Public Schools, she was introduced to a studio art class. She learned different skills and materials, and “fell in love” with charcoal.
She graduated from high school in 2010 and attended Webster University. But, Johnson experienced “a cultural shock” and wasn’t “passionate or confident in her mindset.” She didn’t return.
Somehow, between high school and her first college experience, she lost her passion and drive for art.
As life continued, Johnson became a mother, giving birth to a daughter. She was still unsure about going to college, but knew she needed something. A friend suggested St. Louis Community College at Florissant Valley, telling her about the Child Development Laboratory Center, and how she could go to school and have child care.
“It’s one of the best decisions,” she said.
In 2016, Johnson enrolled as a general fine arts student.
“My daughter pushed me beyond what I was used to, and art is my path.”
A woman, an artist
On a spring morning in April, in a quiet art studio in the Humanities building, the sound of charcoal pencil scratching against paper lets you know Johnson is focused. She’s the only student in the room, getting a little work done on a day she doesn’t have a class.
As an artist, she works from “an intimate perspective of who I am as well as searching for that universal connection as a woman in the world.
“I’m interested in pushing the cultural boundaries of comfort,” she continued. “I work very boldly and directly with the subjects of feminine power.”
At Florissant Valley, Johnson feels she was able to “grow so fast as an artist and as a person.” She learned more skills and techniques, and new materials. “I practiced to get better and better.” Watching her peers was a benefit. “They helped me develop as well. There’s a lot of influence around me.”
In 2018, she was chosen for an Ox-Bow Artists’ Residency, complete with a scholarship, to study for a week in Chicago.
“It was a significant moment because I didn’t even know what an artist residency was until I heard about the competition. A juried competition, and I was up against some of Florissant Valley’s most talented students and the faculty thought I was worthy enough to get it! The blessings didn’t stop there. All of my materials for the week-long journey were paid in full. I never would’ve been able to go if the generosity of my faculty wasn’t available to me.”
In March 2019, Johnson’s work was exhibited for Women’s History Month in the Terry M. Fischer Theatre on campus. “My work is very bold and speaks on the duality of femininity, but not everyone approved of the content I decided to display.” In the end, faculty gave their support and her work remained. “That act of solidarity – when it came to me – will forever be embedded in my heart!”
Representing where she’s from, life’s journey
Johnson grew up in Baden and Walnut Park in St. Louis city. She is unapologetic about wanting to make an impact in art in the neighborhoods where she’s from, and for “people who look like me.”
She wants to “create a place for the kids in these neighborhoods where they can see beyond their environment and understand that there is so much more that the world has to offer them, and them to the world. They can have a safe place to escape the everyday struggles they face, and I will expose them to so many of the things that I’ve been exposed to because they deserve it.”
When asked the advice she’d give to someone with a similar life story as hers, and who may be unsure about college, Johnson is sincere.
“There is a stigma that community college isn’t a ‘real’ college experience, but that’s not true. My time at St. Louis Community College has shaped who I am as an individual and has opened so many doors for me. I would say that coming from where we come from, that it is still possible for you to reach places that you never dreamed of.”
Johnson attributes her journey to earning a college degree to her daughter, who is in pre-kindergarten.
“She gave me a new meaning in life that is indescribable. I knew that I needed to show her that when you put your mind to something, that there is no limit to what you could achieve.
“When we get up each morning, getting ready for the day, she says, ‘Mommy, you’re going to school and I’m going to school!’ It makes my heart swell because she is starting to understand the significance of an education and she uses me as a guide to how she should approach her own learning.”
“I belong wherever I’m headed.”
As STLCC marks its 54th commencement ceremony on May 10, 2019, Johnson is preparing to graduate, and to encourage her peers as the student speaker.
Each year, campus leaders nominate a student to interview for the role. Johnson was thrilled to be nominated by Michael Quintero, art professor. She was motivated to be ‘that person’ after hearing a student speaker at a friend’s graduation from STLCC.
“I’m looking forward to being the commencement speaker,” she said. “It’s still unbelievable to me!”
What’s next for Johnson is impressive. She received an Elizabeth Gray Danforth Scholarship to Washington University in St. Louis, a full scholarship, renewable for two years. She’ll continue to study art in fall 2019.
“This opportunity is astronomical! Washington University is one of the top schools in the nation, and even better than that, it’s home. So many doors are going to open because of this opportunity.”