Middle School teacher shares love for comic books and experience with personal identity in FC art exhibition


Rae Johnson

Rae Johnson displays their artwork in the Fonseca Center gallery.

Viktoriia Sokolenko, Staff Writer

While teaching IEC in the Middle School, Rae Johnson has continued to pursue their life-long passion: art. In January, they showcased their work in an FC exhibition. Their art stood out in its creativity with a style similar to comic books and illustrations.

“There are different tools that you can use in comic books, because you don’t have to say everything out loud,” Johnson said. “You can show some things with imagery, you can show things with dialog. And you can show just through the character’s design…certain aspects of their identity, just by the way that they look and they are designed.”

Johnson draws inspiration for their work from tabletop RPGs, fantasy stories, and Japanese manga. Growing up watching Pokemon and Sailor Moon, they became drawn to the unconventional style and themes covered in Japanese comic books and shows.

“Just seeing a show that was just about young girls dealing with young girls’ problems, that didn’t exist in western cartoons,” Johnson said. “That appealed to me right off the bat way more than a superhero cartoon that you would see on TV at the time would have. Also, the way that manga is drawn just adds more, I think, ambiguity to characters. All characters [may seem] the same until you put them in a costume or a different scenario.”

Many of the portrayed characters represent Johnson’s experiences, particularly with gender identity.

“What I try to express through my artwork is maybe sort of a more holistic or a more inclusive perspective, especially on personal gender identity and sexual identity,” Johnson said. “So for a lot of the characters that I create, they are sort of different aspects of masculinity or femininity, or something altogether different than that. And when they talk to each other, it helps me to work out some of the conflicts that I see in the world and in my own life.”

A 2011 Masters alum, Johnson returned to the school as a teacher in 2020. They said that their experience in art has helped them in teaching IEC to middle schoolers.

“There is a lot of creativity that goes into the projects we do [in IEC classes],” they said. “For the Middle School IEC program, the priority is on using basics, like 3D modeling and coding, creatively and making things that are maybe not super complicated, but that are fun and functional, and that are expressive in some way. So I think that being creative is essential not only for me as a teacher, but for the students to put into the work.”

Besides teaching IEC, Johnson also leads the Middle School Gender and Sexuality Alliance. They work to educate their colleagues and students on the history of and current issues affecting the LGBTQ+ community.

“[GSA is] also helping [middle school students] express themselves, helping them to find the information and the language they need to help educate themselves and their peers,” Johnson said. “As a teacher, I think a lot of my activism has to happen in the classroom, because I know that the students that I’m teaching are going to be the ones making the changes that they want to see later in life.”

While studying at Masters, Johnson pursued their passion through various art classes. They credited Bruce Robbins and Cheryl Hajjar, art teachers in Middle and Upper School respectively, as a huge source of inspiration and support for them.

“This school has always allowed me to put as much time and effort as I wanted to, into the skills that I wanted to learn,” Johnson said. “By being able to learn new art techniques, I was able to express myself more clearly and get more involved in the art world, beyond just my small perspective as a cartoonist.” 

Cheryl Hajjar said she followed Johnson’s art throughout the years and has long wanted to exhibit their work.

“​[Mx. Johnson] has a natural way of spinning a story using both words and images,” Hajjar said. “I thought that it would be very meaningful to exhibit their work so that their middle school students and former middle school, now upper school students could witness how prolific and impassioned they are about art.”

​[Mx. Johnson] has a natural way of spinning a story using both words and images

— Cheryl Hajjar

As a student, Johnson made many friends through the fandom and the stories they enjoyed. By sharing their art with other artists online or in art camps, they built connections with others and developed as an artist themselves.

“I’ve never published anything outside of a school,” Johnson said. “For me, it really has always been about the community aspect, and not so much about making the work, but just about talking to people and telling stories together.”