Today I wanted to spotlight African-American artist William H. Johnson (1901-1970). William H. Johnson was born in the segregated South, and as a child practiced his art by drawing the comics from the newspaper. He left for New York at age 17–working multiple jobs simultaneously to save for art school. He attended the prestigious National Academy of Design. After graduation, a mentor arranged for him to study art in Europe.
After returning to America to establish himself as an American artist, the prejudice against black artists convinced him to again return to Europe.
He returned to America a few years later and joined the Works Progress Administration (WPA) Federal Art Project and became an instructor at the Harlem Community Arts Center. He and his wife belonged to a group of artists, writers and musicians, and with the WPA helping to provide financial support, black artists began to see success.
Johnson’s exhibits were successful, but just as he was beginning to be celebrated as an artist, a fire in his studio destroyed all of his supplies and most of his work. Tragedy struck again, and within two years his wife died of cancer—and this left Johnson overwhelmed by grief. Sadly, over time he became more and more unstable, and was diagnosed with mental illness. Tragically, he lived out the remainder of his life, (23 years) in an institution, where he died in 1970.
As with many artists, his artwork wasn’t fully appreciated during his lifetime—but is now part of many collections in Europe and America. The Smithsonian American Art Museum holds the largest and most complete collection of his work. His art tells the story of his life, folk art with a modern twist.
William Johnson’s life was not an easy one—in fact it was full of heartache, but thanks to his art, his story is not over. I chose to highlight his picture of a group of girls playing London Bridge, because it reminded me of my time on the playground playing similar games with my girlfriends, and it brought back some wonderful memories of my time in school back in the day. And I think that is exactly what art is supposed to do.