KOKOMO, Ind. — Growing up, Cybil Johnson was told she was “too much.”
As an artist, her response is to build larger-than-life metal sculptures.
“It’s very empowering,” she said. “I don’t care how much space I take up. By making big sculptures, I’m saying it’s OK to speak up, it’s OK to be too much.”
Her work is gaining notice and earned her a fellowship in the Master of Fine Arts program at Southern Illinois University. The fellowship covers her full tuition and living expenses, making it possible for her to move to Carbondale for the program with her fiancé and three daughters, who were all born while she was earning her degree.
“When I received the offer, I had tears coming down my face,” Johnson said. “I’m told people like me will never make it. I have defied every odd the world put against me as a mother and as an artist.”
Her most recent work will be featured in the Indiana University Kokomo Art Gallery Senior Thesis Show, which opens Wednesday, April 19, and continues through Thursday, May 18.
The paired work, which include a 9-foot-tall metal sculpture and a smaller work made up of three fabricated shapes, represent the two sides of her personality. She’s been surprised that some people find her intimidating, while she sees her softer side as a mother of three girls under 5.
“I feel like I have these two extreme sides of myself, between affability and intimidation,” she said. “When you walk through these sculptures, you will feel the tension between the two.”
The work doesn’t have a title yet, but she refers to the larger sculpture affectionately as “Big Bertha.”
“She’s intimidating and huge and takes up space. The only way I can describe her is as a force,” Johnson said, noting that the sculpture representing affability is made up of three shapes, leaning to the side.
“It looks like someone’s dancing,” she said, adding that while she’s already had interest in someone buying the larger sculpture, she’s like for the works to stay together.
“I’d love to keep them as a pair, because it’s a sign of who I am,” she said. “It’s OK to have a soft side, but it’s also OK to be, “I’m here, and I’m not going anywhere.’”
Her journey to graduation hasn’t been easy. She was mother of a newborn daughter when she started and gave birth to two more girls during her six years earning her degree in new media, art and technology.
“I struggled at the beginning a little bit,” she said. “At one point my second daughter had cancer, and COVID hit, and I thought my world had fallen apart. I wasn’t doing well at school. I was barely coming to class.”
A conversation with Gregory Steel, professor of fine arts and new media, provided the motivation she needed.
“He asked me, ‘Do you want to be an artist?’” she said, and she said yes.
“He said, ‘If you want to be an artist, you have to do the work,’” she said. “That lit a fire under me, and I haven’t looked back since.”
Steel said Johnson is successful because she’s not afraid to try new things.
“She has this inner tenaciousness. She doesn’t have any quit in her,” he said. “That’s what it takes to be good at almost anything, is to not let things stop you or make you want to quit, and she has that. Her work has evolved, she’s kept her focus, and stayed with it.”
He’s proud of the fellowship she received for her master’s program, noting it’s one of the most prestigious awards an incoming graduate student can receive.
“She’s worked really hard, and she deserves it,” Steel said. “The hard work pays off.”
Johnson looks forward to the Commencement ceremony, and to her daughters seeing her graduate and move on to her next chapter.
“I want them to look up to me and see that they can do this too,” she said. “They are my biggest motivations.