Smile Politely

Dreaming of Johnny with artist Sophie McMahan

If you were to enter the vintage dream/nightmare world of Dreaming with Johnny without knowing the artist, you might think that Sophie McMahan emerged out of the legend and lore of Hollywood, circa 1955. And yes, that place and that era have clearly inspired McMahan and her work. But the more you get to know Sophie McMahan, the more you realize she is the proud progeny of the C-U arts community. Though she has drawn and created comics since childhood, the decision to move from art history to art came after college, when she returned to C-U. She has studied with Parkland art faculty Steve Hudson and Joan Stolz, been inspired by her friendly neighborhood art store (Art Coop), where she once worked, and credits Kelly White and 40 North for much of the support and opportunities she has received here. It is also just one example of the aesthetic and philosophical tensions that run through Dreaming of Johnny. 

As I travelled through McMahan’s Etsy shop and Instagram, I discovered recurring themes that appear first as contradictions, but quickly expose themselves as complex takes on art and beauty.  McMahan works at the intersection of horror and love, fear and lust, and the upending of traditional notions of beauty and sexiness. Inside Dreaming of Johnny’s world of beloved and loving monsters exists a neo-retro feminism that embraces women’s softness as well as their strength, their tenderness as well as their fury. 

As McMahan has made her home here in C-U, kitschy kindred spirits around the country have been drawn to her aesthetic and the emotional truth within her images. I reached out to McMahan hoping to receive a users guide to Dreaming of Johnny-verse, but, as you will see, I left with so much more. And I hope you will too.

Photo of the artist in a spider-filled t-shirt. Photo from the Dreaming of Johnny Instagram.

Photo of the artist from the Dreaming of Johnny Instagram.

Smile Politely: What were some of your early art experiences/creations like?

Sophie McMahan: I drew a ton as a child. Most notably I created my own little world of strange frog-like people called GIBS. I would make little comics about them. My mother went to art school when I was a child. I was exposed to lots of cool art back then, and it shaped me a lot. Also, my dad had a large collection of Robert Crumb comics and other 1970’s underground comics from when he was a teenager. I would look through those for hours.

SP: How did Dreaming of Johnny begin?

McMahan: I actually started out with the name “You Were Swell” around 2012. I put out several comics under that name, as well as using it for the name of my business. Around 2016 I had somewhat of an emotional breakdown when it came to my art. I felt as though I was creating just to be popular, and not really working on what was true to my heart.  I deleted all of my social media and took about a six month break. I then came back as Dreaming of Johnny and more or less started again from scratch(although thankfully I reconnected with lots of the same artists and friends). 

I wanted to start fresh and not feel confined to what I did under “You Were Swell.” I’m very inspired by romance comics and girl groups from the 1960’s, such as The Ronettes and The Shangri-las. There are many songs pining over the a perfect dream boy, most often named Johnny.  I find it humorous and also relatable, always wishing for something that isn’t really real. 

Image of the Really Good Hair Club members. Image from the Dreaming of Johnny Instagram.

Image from the Dreaming of Johnny Instagram.

SP: What inspired your aesthetic of “vintage dreamworld/nightmare” which you describe as “a little bit kitschy, a little bit spooky”?

McMahan: All of the things I love most!  I consider my work to be a love letter to all of the things that inspire me and bring me much joy—vintage B movies, monsters, big hair, John Waters, badass female protagonists, old issues of Playboy, the color pink…. I could go on forever about all of the things that I love most. 

I try to keep a balance between beauty and the grotesque. I love images of gorgeous pinups, but I also hate them. I have struggled a lot with body dysmorphia, so while I am very drawn to the beauty of these women and images, it also has caused me a lot of pain because I could never live up to these perfect images.

SP: What’s it like working in such a niche market?

McMahan: I love it. I realize my art isn’t for everyone, but I think I’ve found my space—and it’s been an absolute pleasure meeting and connecting with others who have similar interests. 

Although sometimes it is harder to sell work and products, as they only appeal to a certain type of person.  This is why I’ve also vowed to never just rely on my art for my income.  It puts too much stress on me creatively.

SP: Your art translates well to so many materials and products. t-shirts, prints, earrings? How do you decide which vehicle to use for each illustration?

McMahan: Awww thank you! I learned early on it was pretty difficult to sell my original art, plus I wanted it to be more accessible and affordable for people to purchase. Sometimes I draw with no real purpose in my mind, and then what comes out works great for a t-shirt or a pin. But other times I will have a specific design in mind for a shirt and I go from here.

Image of the Ladies Sex Appeal Chart. Image from the Dreaming of Johnny website..

Image from the Dreaming of Johnny website.

SP: Describe your process for us. 

McMahan: I take lots if inspiration from vintage teen magazines, cheesy advertisements, and pinup magazines from the 50’s and 60’s. I work in two ways. Sometimes I am so inspired by an image I see, that I create a piece based around it. Other times, I will have an idea in my mind, and then will look through old magazines to find inspiration for drawing it.
I work primarily with pencil, ink, and gouache. 

SP: You do a lot of commission work. What’s that process like for you? How do people find you?

McMahan: I do!  Most people find me through my instagram account. I came up with the idea to offer portraits of people with their favorite monster a couple of years ago. That’s mostly what I do in terms of commissions. I don’t take on too many specialty commissions, because it doesn’t leave me enough time for my own work.

SP: What have been some of your favorite commissions and collaborations?

McMahan: My favorite collaboration I did was with Vixen by Micheline Pitt. I designed a shirt with the slogan “Still not asking for it,” where the proceeds went to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network. I absolutely adore Micheline and all the good she puts out in the world. And RAINN is such a wonderful and much needed organization.

SP: During the pandemic, you’ve been relying on your Etsy shop. Do you plan on any in-person events in the future?

McMahan: I have, it’s been rough feeling out of touch with other creators. I love doing in-person events, and I really hope to get back into them when things become safer. It’s so great to connect with other artists and meet some really cool folks!  I also really enjoy coming up with really cool setups for my booths. I hope to do some in 2022.

SP: I get the feeling that Dreaming of Johnny isn’t just your “brand” but your own personal aesthetic. How else do you (or in what other parts of your life do you) express your spooky/kitschiness?

McMahan: Absolutely! My house is full of pink, kitsch and horror—just like my artwork.  I’m sitting in my living room right now where I am surrounded by a life-size poster of Jayne Mansfield in a pink frame, and a black velvet KISS painting. I am very lucky that my husband shares my love for kitsch and tacky things. I also try to bring some vintage kitsch into my fashion sense. It’s a lifestyle, ha ha.

Image of Be Kind to Monsters, featuring Frankenstein creature. Image from the Dreaming of Johnny Instagram.

Image from the Dreaming of Johnny Instagram.

SP: What are some of the advantages of being a maker in this community?

McMahan: There are so many…. This is such a fantastic and supportive area for artists and all kinds of creators.  People here are very supportive of the arts and art programs.  Personally, I am so grateful for Kelly White/40 North.  Kelly is so kind and incredibly supportive of the arts in this community, and works incredibly hard to get exposure for artists of all kinds and skill levels.

We are also so lucky to have the coolest independent art supply store around—The Art Coop. Hilary Pope and Anna Peters are doing wonders!  I worked at the Art Coop for several years—quite a few years ago. I’m thrilled they own it now and are making the previous owners (the wonderful Susan Smith and Knut Bauer) proud!

SP: What’s your advice for upcoming makers and creatives?

McMahan: I would encourage them to stay true to themselves and their vision no matter what. It’s easy to get caught up in following trends or doing what you think might be most successful, and that can get empty.

SP: How can our readers find out more about you and Dreaming of Johnny?

McMahan: Through my website, my instagram (which I update with new work most often), and, my Etsy shop. 

SP: Anything else you’d like to share with our readers?

Thanks for learning about me and my artwork! I hope to come out with my new comic, The Venus Pill sometime in 2022.

Top image from Sophie McMahan’s website.

Arts Editor

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