Sean Johnson ’04 on Building Universal Skills in Fine Arts

How did Sean Johnson’s studies at URI land him in the tech industry after graduation? More specifically, Johnson works for Cash App as Customer Success Operations Manager. No, it wasn’t with a business degree. And no, it wasn’t a major in computer science or another STEM field. Sean Johnson ’04 graduated from URI’s College of Arts and Sciences with a B.F.A. in Studio Art. Many may find Johnson’s academic background surprising considering he now finds himself in tech. For Johnson, however, it isn’t much of a surprise at all. He that his B.F.A. gave him the emotional intelligence and critical thinking skills crucial to his success. “Critical thinking is so important as we are trying to progress as a society, and it allows us to dismantle different perspectives and take different approaches,” he says, adding that the study of art encourages one to “sit within yourself, observe what’s around you, analyze it and piece together the information that’s around you. It’s helped me excel in any job I’ve had.”

Johnson’s path to art sheds light on the importance of exploration as an undergraduate. Originally a computer science major, Johnson dabbled in photography courses and, with the encouragement of Professor Annu Palakunnathu Matthew, worked at the campus photo lab. Because of those experiences, Johnson not only graduated with a B.F.A, but also completed a graduate program in the same field and was a professor for ten years. Moving into tech he realized how familiar the job felt. “Setting people up with success, providing information, delivering it properly, it’s all the same stuff. Developing presentations because you have the eye of understanding,” he says. The message behind Johnson’s journey is reflective of the foundational nature of A&S. Postgraduate success is less about what you study, and more about how you can grow with your education and use what you study. “Think about how you can apply the skills and knowledge to other kinds of work, not even in the same field, just thinking about how stuff can overlap,” Johnson says.

It would be a mistake, however, to paint the picture that Johnson does not use his degree for artistic pursuits as well. Although art is not his main gig, Johnson is still quite active in the field. He says of his time in URI’s Studio Art program: “It gave me a really good foundation to understanding art, art history, and understanding the practice of being an artist.” Johnson’s art uses religious iconography to help people enter his work, which focuses largely on challenging conventions around gender. He says, “A lot of my work focuses on queer theory, gender identity, and looking at the intersection of those things.” More recently, his art explores death as a form of reincarnation. He currently has his work on display in the Newport Art Museum.

Learn more about Sean Johnson and see some of his work here. 

~Written by Sabrinna Fogarty, double major in political science and philosophy