On Saturday, May 30 at 10:26 a.m. (Bali time; it was May 29 in Arizona), all hell broke loose when Aida Olsen, a friend in Bali, posted on Johnson's Facebook page the following message: "To all Rose Johnson friends . . . I'm Aida Olsen and my mom Ditha Olsen. Rose live with us in Bali. This morning we took Rose to hospital, because she collapse, cannot breath[e] and she told that her stomach is really pain. And the doctors said that Rose got stroke and she also got brain dead. Only her blood and heart still working." And later, "She's [in] coma now, and in very bad condition. Tonight her condition getting worse, also low blood pressure. Please pray for her. Hope she can pass this and getting more better. Regards, Aida and Ditha Olsen."

It didn't take long for this message to go viral among Rose Johnson's friends in Phoenix. Helen Hestenes put out the word that there would be a vigil for Johnson in the Icehouse beginning at 8 p.m., but by the time friends had gathered, it was learned that Rose Johnson had passed away early Monday morning, Bali time.

Later, an architect in Bali that Johnson had recently befriended, Carey Smoot, would post that he had called a cab early Saturday morning for Johnson to take her to the hospital: "When I was putting her in the Taxi after fainting 2x she grabbed my arm and said, 'I am going to die.' Of which I said no way and off we went which took awhile in the Denpasar traffic to the center of the city. She had lost her eyesight when she woke up that morning and also could not get any air . . ."

The Jakarta Post was the first English-language paper to report Rose Johnson's death that day, stating that, after being treated for two days at Sanglah General Hospital, the American artist had died early that day, apparently from drinking adulterated arak. At that point, Johnson was one of 23 fatalities — four of which were foreigners — in the preceding 10 days from the deadly alcohol, with 51 people having been treated overall. It was also noted that mixing alcohol with other ingredients is not uncommon in Bali. Mixing arak with methanol increases the drink's alcohol content, in some cases to toxic levels. Other sources labeled the buzz a drinker gets from this boosted home brew an "arak attack." Methanol is commonly used in Indonesia as lantern fuel (it's also a major ingredient in anti-freeze and paint stripper).

Though distilling arak in Bali is legal, people will often produce their own illegal versions of the traditional island drink in their backyards, with precious little government oversight to ensure the product's safety for consumption. Arak makers will sell their product from stalls on the street, and it's not uncommon for restaurants and bars to buy it for stock. Not only is arak a source of income for many economically strapped Balinese, it's also affordable booze for visitors and locals in a land where a drink containing imported liquor is prohibitively expensive. That's because the Indonesian government, which has kept the issue of methanol poisoning on the down-low, has slapped taxes of up to 400 percent on any imported liquor. Some say it's because of pressure from the country's Muslim fundamentalist constituency (though the majority of Balinese embrace a Hindu-based religion).

The Jakarta Post reported shortly after the deaths that Balinese police had arrested I Made Rai Sweca, owner of the UD Tri Hita Karya arak plant, and one of his employees, and had sealed the plant pending toxicological testing of the arak produced there. Investigators note that more than 100 parts per million of methanol is toxic, and any level above 200 parts per million can be fatal. The amount found in several of the victims' bodies was more than 300 or 400 parts per million. More recently, Beritabali.com, the online edition of an Indonesian-language newspaper, announced that a number of bottles of arak confiscated were as much as 30 percent methanol. The head of the forensic laboratory of the Bali Police, Muhidin, is quoted as saying there were three possible reasons for the contamination of arak: ignorance on the part of the seller, purposeful contamination to obtain higher profits, or sabotage by a business competitor.

At best, it's an odd situation, given that Bali is a huge tourist destination, especially for cash-strapped holiday-goers. Since this round of methanol poisoning has become the subject of worldwide attention, the Western Australian reported several days ago that the Indonesian government's response to the situation has been to have customs officials confiscate thousands of bottles of liquor from some of the holiday island's top hotels, restaurants and bars, claiming that the bottles purportedly have counterfeit tax labels. So much for government oversight.

Still reeling from the news, Johnson's Phoenix friends have a slew of unanswered questions: Where did Johnson get poisoned arak? Where had she been that Friday night? Who really took her to the hospital — Aida Olsen and her mother, or architect Carey Smoot, whom Johnson had known only several weeks, according to Olsen? If she was married, why was she living with Aida and Ditha Olsen? And what has happened to Johnson's Indonesian husband?

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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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