She was raised in Oklahoma and has modeled in Europe and New York, but Chandra Johnson calls North Carolina home. The latest venture for the wife of famed NASCAR driver Jimmie Johnson and mother of two is SOCO Gallery. Named for Southern Comfort, the Charlotte, NC, gallery pays homage to two of Chandra’s favorite things: contemporary art and the South. We caught up with this gorgeous former model at her inviting gallery to talk photography, family and why she loves being a Southerner.
What was your path from the Midwest to North Carolina?
I grew up in Oklahoma and went to the University of Oklahoma. I moved to Europe to model, but came back to finish college and sort of put modeling on hold. Then I moved to New York once I graduated with my three best friends from college — two of them are still there, which is hilarious because I think I convinced them all to go. Then, of course, I came to Charlotte because of a man.
That man, of course, is six-time champion in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, Jimmie Johnson. How did you two meet?
We met through mutual friends when I was in New York, and just started dating when he would come to town. Jimmie was so sweet. We ended up getting married two-and-a-half years later. I moved to Lake Norman [just outside of Charlotte] with my suitcase after our honeymoon. From there, we moved to Charlotte — and we’re still in the house we bought as newlyweds. I was nervous going from New York to Charlotte, wondering if I would like it. I fell in love, though. I couldn’t believe how much I loved it.
What made you fall so hard?
The people. It’s a great place to raise a family, and we both have friends here. But it’s the charming people. They’re sophisticated and kind. I don’t know if you can go anywhere else in the world and find people like this.
What made you decide to open a gallery here?
Opening a gallery was never a goal of mine. I was really interested in artists first, and I wanted to bring these artists who I knew — or who I wanted to know — to Charlotte. It was all about bringing great art and artists to the city I love. I started with pop-up art shows, and it just snowballed from there. I call this the permanent pop-up. And it really does feel like a pop-up space because every exhibition is different. It feels like a new gallery with every exhibition.
How did you choose the name SOCO Gallery?
I wanted it to embody a feeling. The word I kept using was “comfortable.” And then it just spun from there. Southern Comfort. In my mind, I pictured a space that was Southern and refined, but had contemporary elements. And Southern Comfort shortened into SOCO had that feeling for me.
Any favorite artists for you?
I have too many favorite artists. I love so many. One I’m really excited about, though, is Liz Nielsen. She’s having a moment. People have really gotten behind her career, and it’s exciting to see where she’s going. We had a show with her a couple months ago that did phenomenal. As far as artists around the world, the one who really got me interested in art when I was younger was Irving Penn. He was the first to blur fashion and fine art. He moved my eye into fine art.
So was it your time as a model that created your love for art?
My love of photography definitely started there. And living in Europe, I was peeking into museums and going to see shows. It was a small love of art — just an interest. Over time, it grew. And once I started to really dive into it, I became addicted.
You travel quite a bit. How does that influence your eye for art?
Every time I travel, I learn something new and experience something different. I’m always trying to incorporate art into our travels. If we’re in New York, we’re obviously going to go to different galleries or museum shows. It’s been fun to travel and put business into it, as well. There’s always some artistic endeavor you can find in any city.
It’s been a busy year for you — what’s next?
I was not a working mother a year ago. So these days I ask a lot of questions to other working mothers, and I try to spend as much time as I can with my children. I think what’s next is really just focusing on both my family and the gallery and seeing where that unfolds.
Anything about you that you think people would be surprised to know?
I think people were surprised about [SOCO Gallery]. I think they were surprised that there was this whole other side to me that existed. For me, it’s been so much fun. I’m so excited that I get to have conversations about art every day. I think that when you’re passionate about something like that and can incorporate it into your life, it’s really wonderful.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?
The best advice was given to me by another mom. She said that one of the greatest things you can do for your child is to allow them to be themselves. I have repeated this often to myself, as a parent, to encourage my children to be who they are, not who I think they should be.
What are three things you can’t live without?
Coffee, my iPhone and music
Thank you to Chandra Johnson for spending time with us today. And a very gracious thanks to photographer Zaire Kacz for today’s stunning photos of Chandra. View her work in editorial, fashion and fine art photography on her website, zairekacz.com.