BARKSDALE AIR FORCE BASE, La. --
For some, the dream of utilizing a professional career to pursue a personal passion is just that…a dream. But Staff Sgt. Ashley Johnson, has turned that ideal into her every-day reality.
Johnson, a mechanical ordinance technician with the 707 Maintenance Squadron here, has leveraged her career as a Reserve Citizen Airman to further her goals as an artist. In fact, she has been able to combine her passion for art and her service to country on several different occasions.
From her earliest days, Johnson seemed to gravitate toward all thing artistic. But it would be years before the idea of joining the Air Force Reserve took root.
“I was always drawing something in elementary school and in by the time I was in middle school, I carried constantly carried a sketchbook with me,” she said.
When she enrolled as a student at Louisiana Tech University, Johnson naturally chose to major in studio art and minor in photography. During her time as a student, she began to contemplate another path, the military.
“I had friend in the Air Force and they loved it, so I thought that I might finish college and then go on active duty,” Johnson said.
While researching active duty options, she learned more about the Air Force Reserve and realized she could begin serving while enrolled in college. Before long, Johnson found herself serving as a Reserve Citizen Airman in the 307th Maintenance Squadron here.
Her fellow Airmen soon began to realize her passion for art and unit leadership was quick to utilize Johnson’s skills.
“They asked me to design a t-shirt for the unit, but once it was done, they thought it would look even better as a mural on our building,” she said. “So during annual tour, I would do all my work at the bomb dump and then work on the mural.”
Word spread about Johnson’s artistic abilities and she soon found a happy marriage between her duties as a munitions technician and her love of art. After seeing her mural, the 307th MXS First Sergeant asked her to take on a unique task: drawing the Rougarou, a werewolf popular in the Cajun folklore of South Louisiana, to serve as the unit’s mascot.
Drawing the mythical Cajun creature, presented some special challenges to Johnson.
“I’d never really heard of the Rougarou before, so I had to do some research and make sure I not only drew the creature well, but also included all the elements he wanted,” said Johnson.
Her rendition of the beast, trudging through a moonlit swamp and carrying a bomb as a B-52 Stratofortress flies overhead, was a hit with the other Reserve Citizen Airmen in the 307th MXS. It now hangs in the unit’s conference room.
Her reputation followed her after transferring to the 707th MXS. Not long after her arrival, she was asked re-brand the unit’s mascot, a nutria. The large rodent found in the swamps of Louisiana will be featured on a mural Johnson plans on creating in her new unit’s building.
While she takes on all the extra projects out of a sense of duty, Johnson is quick to note the Air Force Reserve has allowed her to pursue her art interests outside the gates of Barksdale.
“The Air Force Reserve has given me the resources I need as an artist,” she said. “The steady schedule gives me the time to pursue my art in the evenings and weekends and the extra income to purchase supplies.”
Of course, military life is not always predictable. But,regardless of the situation, Johnson seems to find a way to combine service to country and art. During a deployment to Guam last year, she took along her art supplies and soon found herself in demand.
“We’d have picnics from time to time and I’d bring my art supplies and paint the shore line,” Johnson said. “A few of the permanent party Airmen noticed my work and commissioned me to paint some photos of lionfish they had photographed while scuba diving.”
Since graduating from college, Johnson has taken a job on base as an Air Reserve Technician, a position that provides a full-time income as a civilian while still serving in the Air Force Reserve. The move has only enhanced her art career.
“I have faith in my skills as an artist and the ability to make a living off commissions, but having the ART job provides me greater stability, a steady schedule to purse art and benefits like health insurance,” she said.
Johnson said her time as a Reserve Citizen Airman has also provided her leadership opportunities not available to civilian artists. She is a graduate of the Combat Ammunition Planning and Production course, a rigorous school designed to build leadership skills, and is working toward gaining a commission.
While the integration of a career in art and one of building bombs may seem incompatible, Johnson believes any Airman can combine their passion with their career.
“ The Air Force Reserve gives people the opportunity to serve in the military while they pursue their dreams,” she said. “You have to be dedicated, but it is possible.”