Verlena L. Johnson was born in Chicago and grew up in Madison and Beloit Wisconsin.
Verlena earned an M.A. from the University of Wisconsin - Madison in Afro-American Studies with an emphasis in Art History (thesis advisor: Freida High Tesfagiorgis). Her M.A. thesis “The Image Text Composite in the Art of Faith Ringgold: Form and Narrative” explores Ringgold's art using WJT Mitchell's Picture Theory to examine the meaning created by her combining images and text. It also examines one of Ringgold's story quilts "Picasso's Studio," as a meta-picture or a picture about pictures, specifically focusing on Black female subjectivity and Ringgold’s interrogation of Modernism and Primitivism.
She earned an M.F.A. from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago in Sculpture. Verlena's M.F.A. thesis project entitled “Witness to Whiteness, a multi-media puppet performance and video installation, explores the social construction of whiteness and maleness and her location within these constructs as an African American multiracial lesbian.
Verlena has also studied wood carving with Ghanaian Master Wood-carvers, Djam Vivie & Kwakou Gerai, as well as, at the Haystack Mountain School of Craft and Penland School of Craft.
She has exhibited her artwork in Chicago, New York City, Los Angeles, Oakland and beyond. Her artwork has appeared on the cover of the book Approaches to Teaching the Novels of Toni Morrison and the journal Sinister Wisdom.
Verlena has taught studio art and art history to children and adults in community centers and colleges. Verlena began teaching in 1992 and has taught on and off for the last 25 years. She has taught studio art, art history and cultural studies to children and adults in various contexts. Her community-based teaching includes Insight Arts and Gallery 37 (Chicago, IL). The Arts Council of Long Beach (Long Beach, CA), and the Poly Cal Down Town Center Summer Arts Academy, (Pomona, CA). Verlena has also taught African American art history and visual culture in Chicago, IL at The Art Institute of Chicago and Columbia College.
Additionally, Verlena has given numerous presentations and workshops on topics ranging from her artwork to racial/cultural identity.