A Catalogue of Imaginary Beings

By Serena Fox

Imagine a world of monumental mythical beings dressed in surreal costumes: people made of mountains, city streets, rough-sawn logs, or plumes of steam; people who wear houses, bird wings, crystalline geodes, or even the moon.

That was the vision of collage artist Johanna Goodman in 2015 when she embarked on A Catalogue of Imaginary Beings, a personal project inspired by magical realism, surrealism, and symbolism that explores the role of the individual in fashion, history, and the artistic imagination. Four years later, the project has grown into a series of moret than 350 playful and strangely iconic images, and has led to a New York Foundation for the Arts fellowship, commissions from National Geographic and the New York Metropolitan Transport Authority, and ad campaigns ranging from skateboards to West Elm home furnishings.

“I keep thinking it’s run its course, but it hasn’t,” says Goodman. “I have not run out of ideas, and I keep getting more interest from the outside world.”

Goodman’s project was inspired in part by the illustrations in Audubon’s Birds of America. “They’re big and beautiful and scientific,” she says. As with the Audubon compendium, Goodman grouped her Beings into categories based on characteristics. These images are pulled from the City category. (All images courtesy of Johanna Goodman.)

A diverse artist, Goodman works in paint, ink, and digital collage, and she brings more than 20 years’ experience in editorial illustration and portraiture to the project. A lifelong freelancer based in Nyack, New York, she creates illustrations for newspapers and magazines, book covers, hotel chains, and product advertising. Her work has appeared in the New Yorker, Time, Rolling Stone, Le Monde, the Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian, and the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. The Imaginary Beings are her current passion.

The basic concept is straightforward: a single figure—defined by head, arms, and feet—dressed in unusual objects and placed in a surreal setting. But the resulting images are both humorous and oddly archetypal and statuesque, like pop-culture totems.

Goodman takes photographs of everyday objects and landscapes, cuts them into pieces, and arranges them to “clothe” her characters in bizarre and beautiful outfits. She plays with cumbersome proportions, favors out-of-context facial expressions, and adds innocuous items like iPhones or coffee cups as if they were talismans.

Goodman’s creative process is open-ended, and she is often surprised by where her images end up. (All images courtesy of Johanna Goodman. The image on the right, above, is a collaboration with Rodger Stevens.)


Goodman started the Catalogue on a whim. “I do a lot of sewing and textile work, and I just could not ditch my scraps.” she says. “I originally had a vision of giant monumental figures made of all these scraps. That was fun, but after doing a lot of analog cut-and-paste I realized, ‘Why am I limiting myself to these things I happen to have in the studio?’ And I dove into digital imagery.”

For materials, Goodman uses a combination of her own photography and found images, mostly pulled from historical archives in libraries, in museums, or on public domain sites. “I’m very particular about where I get my imagery from; everything is cleared and public domain,” she says. “That limits you. For example, I try to get diversity into the images, which is kind of difficult as I’m searching through historical archives. If I’m looking for an Asian woman, often it’s a geisha that I get. That can be interesting, because it can add some sadness or life experience in the eyes, but that’s not always what I’m looking for.”

“I use a lot of my own photos and my own objects,” she continues. “That way I can really get what I want.” She shoots when she travels and at home, on roadsides, in junk yards, in gardens, and in parks. She raids vintage stores for textiles. “I even use ugly free stock sites sometimes,” she says.

Goodman sources her imagery from a combination of her own photography and historical archives. For example, to get the colorful rocks that many of her creations wear, she “went to the MIT Museum of Natural History and took tons of photos of the minerals they had catalogued there.” (All images courtesy of Johanna Goodman.)


With source materials in hand, she gets to work. “My creative process is just to start and improve,” says Goodman, who got her foundation in drawing and painting from Boston University’s School for the Arts, and a BFA in illustration from Parsons School of Design.

“I might have a concept or, say, a particular African sculpture or an Old Master painting in mind, but I don’t have an idea that I’m trying to arrive at,” she says. “My analysis comes after the fact, and the best thing is that it usually surprises me.” For example, after creating a pigeon-woman in Plate 203, Goodman was delighted to discover that she’d made her pigeon-toed. “I absolutely did not do that on purpose,” she says.

There is no technical wizardry to her collaging. “The way I work is like I am working with paper, but using Photoshop. It is so low tech. I think I use five tools: I cut and paste, move things around, make things bigger and smaller, and occasionally cut something out that’s distracting.  I really use it like paper. I feel I’m not so far away from the analog collage I did before,” she says.

“I usually start with the head and the feet and the hands, it’s very paper-doll-like that way,” she continues. “I do that first, so the fun and craziness comes next. It’s a lot of putting stuff down and repairing and improving—being responsive to external forces.”

Goodman sees her Catalogue as a collection of otherworldly fashion plates, inspired by sources as varied as the warm texture of fabric or the cold black of outer space. (All images courtesy of Johanna Goodman.)

She enjoys using formal elements to create flowing shapes, playing with color and texture, trying to make “so much busyness and motion” work together. One thing she never gets tired of is the juxtaposition of the collage elements and the pose of the Being she’s creating. “There’s this whole world of poses, and so often there is something about the way they are posed, like manikins or ice-skaters, that injects a little humor,” she says.

“I usually work on a few images at once, and the elements get traded back and forth, so they develop as families or thematically,” says Goodman. “The original plan often varies widely from where you end up.”

The vast majority of Goodman’s Imaginary Beings are women. Asked why, she pauses. “Probably because I’m a woman, it’s what comes naturally,” she says. “Also, I grew up reading fashion magazines, which are dominated by women, so it’s my default. These are basically fashion plates.”

Goodman thinks a moment. “And the truth is, when you look at images in fashion and pop culture—I’m sick of a lot of what I see. I really love making these women big and commanding of attention, making them timeless and not trendy. I feel like I’ve made a template for myself that I cannot exhaust.”

To see more of Johanna Goodman’s work, browse A Catalogue of Imaginary Beings, or check out her website or Instagram.

All images courtesy of Johanna Goodman.