Rose Johnson: The Phoenix Arts Community Mourns One of Its Pioneers

Anyone who's traveled south on 16th Street past Thomas Road in the past 10 years has seen the fading mural that snakes along the side of the old Mercer Mortuary building. Painted by an artist named Rose Johnson in 1998, with the help of some school kids, the mural, called The Prayer of St. Francis, stars large, stylized heads of people of all colors and races crammed together. The hand of an unseen person waves a rainbow flag, while someone else flashes a peace sign and another releases a white dove of peace. Rife with unvarnished optimism, it's probably the most famous of Johnson's public murals in Phoenix.

The mortuary mural has taken on an ironic quality these days — ever since Johnson, well-known painter, muralist, performance artist, and critical part of the burgeoning downtown Phoenix art scene in the late 1980s and throughout the 1990s, died on the exotic tropical island of Bali at the end of May. She was 48. Along with 26 other unfortunate locals and tourists, she was the unwitting victim of a local distilled Balinese rice and palm sap brew called arak. The arak had been adulterated with methanol, also known as wood spirits, a highly poisonous form of alcohol used for industrial purposes, to boost its alcohol content.

At this point, no one knows for sure whether the deadly arak was intentionally laced with methanol or who added the lethal substance to the popular local drink, though Bali police have begun to investigate.

A small sampling of art work produced over the years by Rose Johnson
Marilyn Szabo
A small sampling of art work produced over the years by Rose Johnson
A small sampling of art work produced over the years by Rose Johnson
courtesy of Susan Sutton
A small sampling of art work produced over the years by Rose Johnson

It does not take much methanol to kill someone, and it isn't a fast or painless way to die. Usually imperceptible when mixed with ethanol, which is what makes alcoholic beverages intoxicating, methanol oxidizes into formaldehyde, the same stuff used in mortuaries to preserve bodies. This and other toxic by-products attack the optic nerve, causing, among other symptoms, blindness, abdominal distress, kidney failure, coma, and, eventually, shutdown of the respiratory system. Methanol poisoning was rampant in the 1920s in the United States, during Prohibition. And it still occurs in places like Indonesia, of which Bali is part, where imported liquor had been taxed up to 400 percent.

Death from methanol poisoning was a sad and ironic ending for Johnson, a much loved and peace-loving person. A sign of her legacy is her grieving family and friends around the world, especially in Phoenix and Bisbee. Along with a prodigious amount of art, she's also left a number of unanswered questions about her final days in Bali and the facts surrounding her death there.

Rose Johnson isn't the first artist to fall madly in love with Bali — nor will she be the last. As noted in Bali: The Last Paradise, a documentary film produced by Gulliver Media Australia and Silver Productions France, artists, musicians, intellectuals, and non-conformists discovered Bali in the 1920s in their search for an escape from the horrors of World War I. Subsequently, they would be followed by socialites and film stars such as Charlie Chaplin and Noël Coward, as well as camera crews for a silent film, Goona Goona (1932), that revolved around a fairy-tale romance between a Balinese prince and a lowly servant girl.

Rose Johnson discovered Bali about two years ago, when she watched a television documentary about it with some friends in Bisbee, says Alison Williams, a Bisbee friend and editor of Johnson's unpublished memoir about the artist's stay in Bali. "They all vowed to go there someday."

Apparently, after her first trip there, Johnson was completely smitten by the place, going back several times and subsequently producing a painting series devoted to Balinese life. For a large part of 2008, Johnson was back and forth to the longtime tourism mecca. She signed onto Facebook, the popular social-networking Web site, in February 2009. Through Facebook, she informed friends that she had gotten married in December and was living in Bali until June, when she would return to Bisbee and try to publish the book she was writing, "amongst other things." According to the Sierra Vista Herald/Bisbee Review, she had moved from Bisbee to Bali to marry and live with Imade Ardika, a Balinese man.

She then posted a picture of herself and Ardika, titled "Love Promise Ceremony July 17, 2008, Sanur Beach Bali" as well as another one of the couple in traditional Balinese attire, this one titled "Wedding Ceremony December 27 2008, Uluwatu Temple Bali." For many of her Phoenix friends, it was the first time they'd heard about Johnson's marriage. Kim Blake posted on February 26: "You married one of your paintings! Beautiful!"

Helen Hestenes, a friend of 20 years and owner of Phoenix's Icehouse, who visited Johnson a number of times after her move to Bisbee from Phoenix in 1998, notes that Johnson had a series of separate lives that really didn't intersect with one another: "She had a Bisbee world, a Phoenix world of three worlds — commercial, neighborhood friends and art friends — and then her Bali world."

This spring, Johnson worked on her memoir of life in Bali; at one point, she noted, "I am at the internet cafe in Sanur, a block away from the beach. My book will wrap up on chapter 52. I am working on chapter 36 now! So now you know where I am, but bet you can't find me! . . ." On May 17, she posted the announcement that "[r]aw text is finished!" and on May 23, Johnson wrote that she had "only two more weeks left in Bali" before she would return to Bisbee to work on getting her book published.

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8 comments
Andy_Warstar
Andy_Warstar

I was friends with Rose in 1998-2000. Lots of conversation over cups of tea, discussing how to make it as an artist. She was my greatest inspiration as a painter. Today on the anniversary of her passing, I've made the Rose Johnson Facebook fan page. 

LIKE it here: https://www.facebook.com/bisbeerosejohnson

R.I.P. Rose Johnson - We love you!!!! xoxo

Colleen
Colleen

My heart hurts...Rose and I were waitresses together in the early 80's. She had just moved to the Southwest. She loved the beauty and dynamics of the desert.

Once, when she was short on rent money, I gave her $60.00 or $80.00 and told her instead of paying me back, make me a piece of art that represents "me". She came up with a piece called "The Runner", her first commissioned piece. I have it hanging in my living room to this day.

The world has suffered a great loss.

Love and Peace Colleen Geary Wooten

april a
april a

Mike, the painting of us playing Scrabble is here in our cabin in Santa Fe. It is a painting of Robert Anderson, David Lewis, Kevin Henderson and me playing Scrabble in the backyard at The House studios. We would play Scrabble until dawn almost every night. Those memories are precious and Rose captured the essence perfectly in that painting. We all love and miss her so much, it is unbearable.

jeff c cook
jeff c cook

I was 19 and decided to move out from my parents in the suburbs to downtown, I chose an apartment that was next to Rose, also Gerald Hawk and Steve Yazzie, and the Metropophobobia what a great time...The Owner at the NEWSROOM would never card the girls I would bring in there...I helped rose with lighting, and sound design for her installations, and I worked on several mentioned and many others, she called me once to her studio and as I sat on the couch she pulled out over a hundred canvasses we talked about them and she told me to pick out any one that I wanted...She gave me shelter later when I was in love and on the run...and even later living in Bisbee...she wanted a child...I loved her

Mariane
Mariane

Marilyn Szabo will host a tribute to Rose Johnson with photographs of her tonight and tomorrow night at Daughters of the Frozen North Gallery at 511 E. Roosevelt from 6-10 pm.

Rick Moffett
Rick Moffett

It was very sad to read of Rose Johnson's passing. She touched and will continue to influence the lives of others daily. In my own experience, I see her work each day as I drive into the parking lot of my workplace. I remember the weeks she spent painting a mural at the elementary school where I teach. She was such a warm, social person who took time to answer questions from the school children, parents and staff. At the time, my youngest daughter was a student at the school and upon learning that Rose was unveiling her mural at Jazz Zen, we went as a family to celebrate her work. It was a lovely evening of jazz, art and community. Each time I drive by the now painted over mural, I marvel in disgust about the insensitivity of a person who covered priceless, original joy and beauty with earth tone du jour. The you for the fine article celebrating Rose's life.

Mike Wells
Mike Wells

Sad, so sad... I've been a fan of her work since the mid 90's when a friend told me about her. I've always been able to spot her stuff a mile away, and I was excited when I was down in Bisbee for the 4th and saw the mural on the Jonquill, as well as the 'Peace Wall', it all just fit perfectly there. I never met Rose myself, but I had a friend that used to live across the alley from her, and she got to know Rose very well. My friend and her roomates would always hang out in their back yard and play Scrabble, and Rose did a painting for them of just that, It was a great painting. I wonder what it's worth now?

Too bad, a truly unique artist whose stuff you really can't pigeon hole into any set description. It's a little like this and a little like that, but nothing concrete.

Kathleen D. Cone
Kathleen D. Cone

Wonderful article. It's good to get to know Rose, for the first time and very sad for her loss.

Kathy

 
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