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Chandra Johnson focuses on SOCO Gallery

Charlotte philanthropist Chandra Johnson has created a pioneering pop-up gallery at the Mint Museum Uptown. Named SOCO Gallery, its first exhibit is “The Boombox Project,” featuring New York City-based photojournalist Lyle Owerko’s photos of 1970s- and 1980s-era boomboxes.

It runs Friday through Oct. 19.

Johnson and co-curator Perry Poole chose the photographs that will be on display in part of an unused space on the museum’s fifth floor. “There’s a door that looks like it goes into a broom closet, but when you open it you’re in this space that’s raw and lends itself to the exhibit’s urban feel,” Johnson says.

Owerko has visited Charlotte twice to work on the details, and he’ll attend a private party celebrating the exhibit. “Charlotte is one of America’s truly loveliest cities, and I think it’s one of its best-kept secrets,” he says. He said he’s impressed with Johnson’s “forward-thinking and entrepreneurism.”

Owerko began collecting and documenting boomboxes in 2001 after he stumbled on a mint condition late 1970s Victor JVC in Japan. He created a series around the boomboxes, which he photographs with a large-format Hasselblad camera. It inspired the 2010 book “The Boombox Project: the machines, the music and the urban underground” that includes contributions by musical artists Fab 5 Freddy, LL Cool J and Adam Yauch of the Beastie Boys. The book will be for sale at the museum, as will the photographs, which start at $500.

“It’s a fun project because it touches people on so many different levels – from their youth to the present,” Owerko says. “Some are surprised because they think of boomboxes as generic products that look similar.”

Johnson had seen the series when a mutual friend introduced her to Owerko in New York in 2012. They hit it off, and now she and her husband, NASCAR driver Jimmie Johnson, consider Owerko a friend.

“I loved how he made these urban artifacts each so interesting they’re like portraits,” she says. “And I’m a child of the 1980s, so these images have sentiment for me. I grew up in Oklahoma and I was a dancer. When we got a boombox, I could go out and do my routines in the front yard. It was such a big deal and so liberating.”

Johnson is an art collector of all mediums, including sculpture, drawings and paintings. But the former model has always been intrigued by photography, a love that began with seeing fashion photography by greats including Helmut Newton, Irving Penn and Richard Avedon.

In 2011, she hired N.C. photographer Missy McLamb to chronicle the 10 weeks her husband was vying for what he hoped would be his sixth straight win in the NASCAR Cup Series. The result was 15,000 photos in a behind-the-scenes look at a NASCAR family that were so powerful, the Johnsons self-published a book titled “Jimmie Johnson: On The Road.” Poole helped Johnson narrow the photos down to 64 images that were displayed at Hart Witzen Gallery in NoDa in a 2012 exhibit with the same name.

That exhibit gave her the idea of opening her own gallery devoted to emerging and established photographers that would also provide art education and community outreach. “I started to have this burning desire and it didn’t let up, it didn’t go away,” she says. “The ideas were getting so intense I started to have a clear vision. Once I knew I wanted to do it, I decided to not look back.”

She chose SOCO Gallery as the name in a nod to the saying “southern comfort” (not the liqueur, she jokes). Her goal is to have a permanent gallery space in 2015.

She says the hardest part will be finding the balance between her passion for the gallery and being a supportive wife and mother to her family that includes Genevieve, 4, and Lydia, 1.

“I have never run a gallery before but I’m figuring it out and I feel like I have found the right people to help me,” she says. “It’s exciting, but I’ve had to dig down deep and find the energy.”

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