Artist, gardener and qualified Montessori teacher, Florida-based Kelly Johnson refers to herself as a “creative nature connection guide.” Come and learn about her childhood, spent joyfully in her grandparents garden, and discover how her early experiences lay the foundation for a lifetime dedicated to sharing the wonders of nature!
Where in the world did you grow up, Kelly?
I grew up in a woodsy neighborhood in Richmond, Virginia, in the US. Richmond is in the central piedmont area of the state, right on the James River, which is a great river for having fun in, and on. Richmond is a city rich in history and culture and is only 2 hours from the Chesapeake Bay/Virginia Beach and 2 hours from the Blue Ridge Mountains/Shenandoah Valley. I was very lucky that my parents owned vacation homes at both the beach and the mountains, and many friends and family members had homes on the Bay. I spent a lot of time outdoors in river, beach, and mountain environments and enjoyed skiing, hiking, swimming, surfing, boating, and pretty much every activity you can think of that involved being outside in a non competitive way. As kids, we had a lot of free reign in many different nature environments.
What are some of your favorite memories from childhood?
I had a really great childhood and I am so thankful for that. I got to spend lots of time in various nature environments doing a wide variety of activities. I was also very fortunate that my parents started taking me abroad at age 11. This expanded my mind and opened me up to embracing many styles of living and ways of being in and with the world. It also gave me the travel bug. Some favorite memories are: of endless hours playing in and catching waves at the beach; skiing and snowboarding; playing in the snow and ice skating on the lake by our house; roaming around in the mountains jumping in ice cold mountain streams; canoe and tubing trips on the river; camping; snorkeling and SCUBA diving in tropical places; riding bikes; jumping off things into various bodies of water (docks, rocks, trees, rope swings, masts, you name it I’ll jump off it!); and shelling fresh picked butter beans on the front porch with my great grandmother and grandparents. There are so many I could keep going! It was pretty idyllic and I feel very lucky for that.
Do you remember one special place with particular fondness?
It’s so hard to choose just one! But I’d have to say my grandparents’ yard. Both sets of grandparents and my great grandmother all lived close by. I spent a lot of time with my maternal grandparents and great-grandmother as a child. They taught me how to grow my own food and planted seeds of conscious living by example, so helping in their garden, playing in their yard, catching lightning bugs, and lounging around in the shade under their trees drawing pictures and reading books are some of my top childhood memories. My grandmother still lives in the same place and although she no longer has a garden since my grandfather passed, I do get to play with my young nephews in her yard too which is really cool.
How has nature inspired you to live the life you are currently living?
Nature inspires pretty much everything I do from my work to art to writing to hobbies to everyday living. I mentioned how my grandparents influenced me a lot, but it wasn’t in the most obvious ways. They grew up on rural farms, very poor, during the Great Depression, so they lived simply and in tune with nature. Either they, or their siblings, grew much of the food I ate growing up and they did things like upcycling and reusing before they had names or were popular. They planted these seeds in me that I didn’t even know were there until I was in college. Some even still sprout now - I’ll catch myself doing something and think, funny, that’s how they do this. I even use my great-great-grandfathers grubbing hoe in my own garden! And of course, I never could have written my first book or started all the garden programs I did without the farming knowledge they instilled in me. So it’s really their connection with nature that connected me.
But beyond things around the house like gardening and a reduce/reuse/recycle outlook, I try to always be thinking how my actions will affect the greater whole of the Earth. I now live in a sleepy little beach town in north east Florida which allows me to ride my bike everywhere I need to go on a regular basis - work, the farmer’s market, bank, natural food store, even the doctor, dentist, and insurance agent. I try not to drive unless I absolutely have to, I don’t like it at all and our area has very bad public transportation so I can’t use that. I don’t shop much but when I do, I try my hardest to buy used and vintage clothes and items, or if I can’t I shop from environmentally and socially responsible companies. If there isn’t an option I can feel good about or afford, I often just go without or save up. When I was 14 I went vegetarian and at 19 I became vegan, which were both health and environmental health choices. Being able to walk and bike places, not relying on a car, and be surrounded by plants, nature, and bright natural light is important for me to feel happy, calm creative, and productive.
I don’t have children of my own, but I have lots of nieces and nephews and hundreds of students I’ve taught over the years and they each deserve me to do my part in helping provide them with a healthy Earth for their adult lives, so I do what I can everyday. Small actions of one person may just be a drop in the bucket when looking at the health of the environment, but better a few drops than an empty bucket. And I know that I am living a life in line with my values as well as modeling for others that it is possible to slow down and live a life inspired by nature in modern life without dropping out completely.
Kelly, can you recommend a special book, or books, from your childhood?
I loved (and still love) Beatrix Potter’s Tales books. The beautiful pictures, the rascally critters, and the stories themselves. They are perfect in every way to me. Did you know her illustrations are botanically correct? If you see a garden, for example, it is planted correctly for the season as well as for the plants. You can learn a lot about nature from her illustrations. I learned this fun fact about her work when I was writing a paper on her in graduate school.
I also liked (and still primarily like) reading non fiction books on nature. As a child, I especially liked reading about gem rocks and butterflies from a nature book we had that was my mom’s from the 50s. And they aren’t really nature books, but I loved Pippi Longstocking books too.
I have always loved reading. Ever since I learned, I always have a book with me. (A real book.) I love books so much - their feel, their quietness, their power. Some favorite picture books I like to use in my workshops are: The Curious Garden by Peter Brown, The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats, Have You Heard the Nesting Bird? by Rita Gray, and I am an Artist by Pat Lowery Collins. I also love all the books by Emily Winfield Martin because they are so full of wonder, and she is my favorite illustrator.
We are so grateful to Kelly for sharing her childhood reminiscences with us!
You can learn more about this inspirational teacher and talented artist at her website: www.wingswormsandwonder.com and on Instagram at @wingswormsandwonder .
* all photos supplied by Kelly Johnson