Leroy Johnson, 85, a tireless artist who worked in a variety of media from the start of the Black Arts Movement in the 1960s and up to the present day, died on Friday July 8 in Philadelphia, a city he never ceased to fascinate. . .
Friends said the cause was lung cancer.
“It’s a substantial loss,” said Mr Johnson’s longtime friend and fellow artist, Candy Depew, known professionally as Candy Coated.
“He had a really unique vision,” said William Valerio, director and CEO of the Woodmere Art Museum. “Its subject is the city of Philadelphia and its history and everything that flows through that history.”
“His art doesn’t sit passively and wait for you to take an interest,” Valerio said. “It joins you. He is probably best known for these box-shaped house sculptures that speak so much of the city of Philadelphia, but also of the history of African-American life as it cuts through city life.
Depew met Mr Johnson around 20 years ago through their mutual involvement with the Clay Studio in Old Town.
“He and I met at Clay Studio as resident artists,” she said. “We also did classes and there was a Clay Mobile which was an outreach program that went to schools and community centers in Philadelphia, reaching out to kids who wouldn’t normally get the chance to work. with art.”
Mr Johnson made such an impression as a teacher that decades later adults would stop him on the street to tell him he had given them their first taste of art in kindergarten, he said. she declared.
“He was a social worker for a long time — his business was people,” Depew said. “He was just a real magical guy who helped a lot of people because he was able to relate to them. Just a nice, friendly person, a great artist, a voracious reader. He kept working every days even until he is in palliative care.
Genevieve Carminati, a writer and poet, said she first met Mr Johnson 50 years ago when they worked at an alternative school.
“He was like a vice principal and counselor at school and I was teaching,” she recalled. “These were inner-city schools for children with learning difficulties. He has always taught in all kinds of children’s programs with all kinds of challenges.
Mr Johnson told him he had been inspired to be an artist as a young boy.
“He told an interesting story from his childhood,” she said. “When he was maybe about 8 years old, he was, even at that age, a pretty diligent reader. He reads black boy by Richard Wright and he asked his mother who wrote that book. And using the term of the day, she said, “A colored man wrote it.” And then he said, he heard the voice of God say, ‘And you’ll be an artist.'”
It was an uplifting moment for the little child, she said. On the one hand, he knew that being an artist was “his mission”. But also, Wright’s accomplishment told him “that it would be possible for him, as an African-American, to do something like that.”
The point of the story, she said, was that Mr Johnson was aware from an early age of the “prejudices against him”.
“But also,” she added, “that it was a huge responsibility and an honor to be able to be an artist.”
Mr. Johnson, an accomplished painter, draftsman and sculptor, as well as a ceramicist, spent five years as artist-in-residence at Clay Studio in the early 2000s.
“His work was very much about the city as a subject – the city of Philadelphia but also cities in general as the faces of life, energy, imagination and emotion,” said Jennifer Zwilling, Curator and Director of Artist Programs at Clay Studio. Mr Johnson, she said, was “a beloved legend” among artists involved with the studio.
“He would come in and everyone would be like, ‘Hey, look who’s there’ and everyone would gather together,” she said.
Mr. Johnson was born in Philadelphia and grew up in the city’s Eastwick neighborhood. He took classes at the Fleisher Art Memorial and studied at the Philadelphia College of Art (now the University of the Arts). He went on to earn a master’s degree in social work from Lincoln University.
Beginning in the late 1960s, he exhibited extensively, in venues such as the Magic Gardens in Philadelphia; the Tirza Yalon Kolton ceramics gallery in Tel Aviv; Gloucester County College; the University of Pennsylvania; and the Museum of Contemporary Crafts in Pittsburgh.
Over the years he has received grants from the Mid Atlantic Arts Foundation, the Independence Foundation and the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts. And in 2014 he was named a Pew Fellow in the Arts.
In 2019 he was a resident at the Barnes Foundation. His most recent residency was at the Center for Emerging Visual Artists in Philadelphia, where he worked until January of this year.
“It was a great experience for us, actually, just to work and it’s such a profound experience for me personally,” said Geneviève Coutroubis, Executive Artistic Director of CFEVA. “He worked in our studio, in our gallery, and had his artwork there, and worked and connected with the public in that space. So it was really an important and profound experience for everyone.
Karen Warrington, a Philadelphia journalist, filmmaker, activist and cultural watcher for decades, had known Mr Johnson since the 1960s.
“His energy, his love of art and his view of the world, which he presented, I think, as an esteemed public artist has never waned in all these years,” she said. “I had known him for so long and he always had all this energy and joy to share his vision of what he was seeing, especially the city of Philadelphia.”
Mr Johnson has often described himself as an activist or an ‘artist-activist’. He did not see art separate from life or politics, he said, especially black life and politics.
“The only voice we have now, because of the Supreme Court, is art,” Mr Johnson once said. “Art is one of the few places where minorities, poor people can have the chance to express themselves. … We must respect and appreciate our diversity and preserve our unique customs and share them without fear or hostility.
Mr Johnson is survived by one sister, Elaine Johnson of Philadelphia.
A funeral is scheduled for 1 p.m. Friday, July 15 at Laurel Hill Funeral Home, 225 Belmont Ave., Bala Cynwyd. The family will accept donations of good deeds or contributions to the Fleisher Art Memorial in lieu of flowers.