Meet Nat Johnson, one of Mobile’s most mysterious artists

When residents of several midtown Mobile neighborhoods started reporting an abundance of mockingbirds sitting on stumps and posts, they were curious. Then at least one resident surmised on social media that the creator of the birds – which weren’t real birds at all – somehow had nefarious intent.

Artist Nat Johnson is no more nefarious than Boo Radley in the famous Alabama book with the word “mockingbird” in the title. All she wanted to do with the mockingbirds, she says, was spread joy, love and art.

She did get a kick out of some of the speculation. But there’s nothing remotely controversial about Nat’s desire to make people smile when they spot the mockingbirds around town. It costs her almost nothing to make the birds from recycled materials. She cuts the silhouettes out of discarded political signs, paints them black and inserts bicycle spokes that she gets from Mobile’s nonprofit Delta Bike Project. The spokes enable the birds to spin around 360 degrees in the breeze.

Nat calls this project, which she started in the spring, Mobimockingbird. Back in 2013, inspired by a Halloween parade in New York City where people wore giant skeletons mounted on backpacks, she started another public art project known as Mobi Downtown, creating supersized, wearable puppets to parade through the streets of downtown Mobile at the popular LoDa ArtWalk events held the second Friday of every month. She brings the puppets out – she can only fit five or six of them in her Subaru Outback at a time – at ArtWalk from October through April.

The puppets have a profound effect on Nat, who admits to being “somewhat shy” in social situations. “They allow my ‘spirit me’ to come out and socialize with people in a way that I don’t,” she says.

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Nat Johnson, wearing a mask over her head, sits in the living room of her art-filled home in midtown Mobile, Alabama. “As long as I can remember, I have hated having photos taken,” she says. “It just creates an angst in me, so I avoid and/or run, but behind a mask I am fine. I am the mask, and the mask is me, so it is a comfortable place to be.” (Photo by Michelle Matthews/mmatthews@al.com)

The reaction to the 10-foot-tall backpack puppets and the “big heads” is also heartening to her. “The most incredible part is, if they don’t scream and run, their eyes light up and they want photos,” she says. “We wave at everybody, and everybody turns into a child.”

Similarly, she sees Mardi Gras paradegoers turn into children as they watch colorful, creative floats pass by during Carnival season. For the past nine years, Nat has worked full-time as a float builder with Carnival Artists, helping to carry out the themes for seven different Mobile Mardi Gras organizations. Her specialty is sculpture. In recent years, she sculpted Slash, the Guns ‘n Roses guitarist, as well as the mouse from “If You Give a Mouse a Cookie,” among many other characters.

“You learn as you do it,” she says. “I get better and better every year, more confident.”

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With her own artwork, she’s self-taught, learning as she goes. Her dela art dela fills the brick ranch house she shares with her dogs, Buddy and Nicki, and her her cat, Miss Kitty. In the living room, where we sat chatting, unseeing eyes from fantastical creatures hanging from the ceiling, masks on the walls and art dolls in the corners kept watch. Light filters through colorful hangings on every window. These works of art look like stained glass, but they’re made of tissue paper sealed inside two sheets of Plexiglas. No room is left untouched by Nat’s art, which spills out onto the carport, the fence and the yard.

“I like to make stuff,” she says. “When I sit still, I feel bad.”

Nat Johnson

Every room in Nat Johnson’s house is covered with faces she’s created. (Photo by Michelle Matthews/mmatthews@al.com)

‘I wanted to get my art seen’

Nat grew up in Jackson, Alabama. She watched her mother dela paint in oils, and Nat always doodled, but she never took an art class in high school. When she went to Auburn University, she planned to study architecture, but it wasn’t a good fit for her, she says. She ended up moving to Mobile and earning a degree in physical education from the University of South Alabama. During her last quarter of her there, she took a printmaking class and realized she was “not bad” at it.

Meanwhile, she took classes in graphic design software and started working for local newspapers. She ended up in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where she worked as a designer for newspapers and magazines, becoming a pre-press supervisor until the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. “9/11 freaked me out, and I wanted to come back and be around my family,” she says. “I didn’t want to be that far away.”

By now, her parents lived in Daphne, so Nat, the youngest child of three, came back to the Mobile area. That’s when she started making needle-sculpted art dolls, which she found on the Internet. “They fascinated me,” she says. By watching a DVD, she figured out how to make them herself. “The artist didn’t show you how to put it together,” she says. “People love to keep their secrets.”

Similarly, she taught herself to make the oversized puppets that parade at ArtWalk. “No one shows you how to make backpacks, but I saw pictures and figured my way.”

“She’s such a quiet, reserved person,” says Nat’s friend Courtney Matthews, a makeup artist in Mobile. “She loves to be at home and creating.” Courtney was an early encourager of Nat’s artwork, suggesting that she make her dolls “bigger than life,” which led to Nat’s creation of the Mobi Downtown puppets. Nat fondly recalls Courtney standing outside her shop by her, Lunatix, during ArtWalk nearly a decade ago, wearing the first puppet costume and waving to passersby.

Though she’s an extrovert who “knows everybody,” Courtney understands why Nat prefers to be behind a mask, giving her the freedom to be something she’s not. “As far as attention goes,” Courtney says, “I love it in doses, but I also like to hide back and soak it in. I can do that when I’m a puppet. You exude being this creature, not yourself.”

Nat Johnson

In Nat Johnson’s bedroom, the puppet stands in a corner while an abstract face lights up as sunlight streams in through the window. (Photo by Michelle Matthews/mmatthews@al.com)

Nat looks forward to getting back out in downtown Mobile during the upcoming October ArtWalk with her troupe of giant puppet people.

“The whole point of starting Mobi Downtown was a way for me to get out of my house and socialize,” she says. “It’s a way to give back to my city, and maybe in a way that I didn’t need to be seen. I wanted to create something that had a large presence, but I wouldn’t need to be out in front shouting about it. Also, I wanted to get my art seen, so I decided to make it walk for ArtWalk.”

Meanwhile, some 250 of her mockingbirds are silently spinning all over town, bringing whimsy to neighborhoods in Mobile and beyond.

“I am so happy with the positive response people have for Mobimockingbird, and the reception we get with Mobi Downtown street puppets makes us feel like rock stars,” Nat says. “Thank you for the love.”

Read about more Alabama people:

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