Sunday, November 11, 2012

Self-Taught Southern Artist Anderson Johnson 1915-1998

The son of a sharecropper, 8-year-old Anderson Johnson had a “vision of angels.” Soon he began to read the Bible & to preach. He “taught himself to sing and play music in a highly personal deeply passionate style.” Baptized by Bishop C.M. “Sweet Daddy” Grace, the teen became an attraction on the revival circuit. He also began to draw. When he fell ill in the early 1970's, he broke with Bishop Grace, returned to his native Virginia, where he spent more than 20 years transforming his two-story home into a "faith mission" decorated from floor to ceiling with portraits & visionary images. He conducted lively church services to a small gathering of devotees at his Faith Mission every Sunday; these weekly gatherings were impassioned outpourings of religious zeal, with Reverend Johnson preaching, singing, & playing various instruments.  To help support his mission, he began to paint portraits for sale. He often used the ladies who attended his services for his portrait subjects.

“I was born in June 1, 1915, 70 miles outside of Richmond, out in the country on the farm. My mother’s friend had a guitar and I took an interest in music at the age of six years old. They would not let me play it but I would go by and hit the strings. After I started preaching at 8, I came down here to Newport News. I used to shine shoes in front of a barber shop, that is when I made enough money to buy my first guitar. I sat down and played and made so much noise that my mother ran me out of the room and I had to go and hide someplace to play. I have been in church all of my life. I started preaching at 8 and before that I heard my mother praying and crying and I would get right behind her and start praying. I never drank or smoked in my life. I traveled all over the United States with the church. I believe in the Holiness. I base my preaching on Hebrew 12:14. To follow peace with all men and holiness without which no man can see the Lord. This is what I base my faith on. I never tried to build churches, I try to build my faith. That is what has gotten me through, my faith. I have never been in trouble in my life, because my faith has kept me going.”

In 1995, the Faith Mission was condemned, and Johnson moved to an apartment, where he continued to adorn any flat surface he could find with house paint. When he died in 1998, the Virginian-Pilot reported, "Walking into Anderson Johnson's old Faith Mission was like leaving the land of black and white and stepping into a world of living color. The vivid primitive paintings he nailed across the wall of his second-floor porch gave one a hint of the experience. So did the wildly decorated columns, moldings and railings. But nothing - not even the old preacher's friendly smile and animated words of welcome - could prepare one for the explosion of visual energy found inside his bright red door.

"Spread out across the walls were literally hundreds of paintings - all mounted edge to edge and extending from floor to ceiling. There were portraits, landscapes, figures, birds, biblical inscriptions and visionary scenes - all produced by a self-taught hand driven by inspiration. Standing in the midst of it all - with dozens and dozens of small, ceiling-mounted labels spinning out the words "Love-Joy, Love-Joy, Love-Joy'' over his head - was a man whose faith and talent combined to create something genuinely special...

"Born in rural Lunenburg County, Johnson was just an 8-year-old boy hoeing weeds in a cornfield when he was struck by what he later described as "a vision of angels." Soon afterward he began to preach...eventually so many people began paying attention, that he served several small churches and became an attraction on the revival circuit.

"By 14, the boy marvel had taught himself to sing and play music in highly personal, deeply passionate style. He also learned to draw in a way that stunned those who watched. "I could put crayons in both my hands, my teeth and my feet if I wanted to - and I could do three drawings at one time,'' Johnson said in a recent interview. "People would come to see that. It would draw a crowd.''

"Still, it wasn't until many years later, after a nomadic career spent in mostly small churches and fervent street-corner preaching, that Johnson began to paint with what he called "the gift of second sight.'' Stricken by a crippling illness in the mid-1980s, he returned to what had been his mother's home in Newport News, where he experienced what he believed to be a miraculous recovery.

"Though he continued to suffer from an awkward limp, he regained enough mobility to convert the first floor of his Ivy Avenue house into a chapel he called the Faith Mission. Then he turned away from the simple crayon and chalk drawings of his youth and took up painting in oil. Brushing cheap pigments on salvaged pieces of plywood and cardboard, Johnson began creating primitive symbolic landscapes and naive portraits of such figures as Christ, Lincoln and Washington.

"Sometimes he woke up in the middle of the night, he said, and painted until dawn. He started nailing the paintings to the wall of his second-floor porch, he said, after the Lord told him to do it. Then he began covering the walls inside the mission...

"Richard Miller, then a curator at the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Center in Williamsburg, visited the chapel... "It was just so unexpected and wonderful,'' Miller said... "He literally lived in the midst of his art. His home was a work of art. This was a guy who was really on to something - and he was taking it as far as he could go.''

"Artist James Warwick Jones was another in a growing stream of pilgrims who began making visits to Johnson's mission... "It was just a wonderful experience - especially because you could see everything in context,'' he recalled... "It was filled wall to wall and floor to ceiling with paintings. It was a special place..."

Detail of Anderson Johnson's room above the Faith Mission

"Former Peninsula Fine Arts Center curator Deborah McLeod, who helped lead a successful effort to save the murals inside Johnson's ramshackle mission, when the site fell into the path of a city redevelopment project... said... "He always talked about his artwork being part of his mission. He was just being a preacher all along."

Anderson Johnson painting in his room above Faith Mission

"Artist and shipyard worker Claude O'Brien Jones III...originally came to see Johnson's art. Yet over the years he began to feel the effect of the minister's message about life and God. "He was more a preacher to me than anyone else in my life. He didn't talk down to me - he talked on my level,'' Jones said..."Every time I went to visit him he gave me something to take away. He really opened my eyes up."

Anderson Johnson's room above the Faith Mission

Another view of Anderson Johnson's room.