Alison Williams, who was in touch with Johnson while the artist was writing her book, remains tight-lipped, saying she's reluctant to divulge personal details at this point. She feels Johnson's parents need to read the book manuscript first before she discusses anything about Johnson. An art director for years in the New York publishing business, Williams was Johnson's editor and had scheduled a phone conversation with Johnson, but the artist never called; the next she heard, Johnson was dead. As far as she knows, Williams says, she's the only one to have read Johnson's manuscript, which she insists will be published.

At first, Williams refused to talk about Johnson's marriage. Eventually, she said it was a traditional Balinese wedding ceremony but not a legal marriage. Helen Hestenes spoke with Leo Parra, Johnson's ex-boyfriend who was housesitting for her in Bisbee and was in contact with her on a regular basis, about the situation. Parra told her that Rose was having problems with the guy she married. Apparently, Imade Ardika already had another wife and kids. No one knows at this point whether she knew this at the time she married him.

If Marc Chagall, Pablo Picasso, and Henri Rousseau had gotten together to create a love child, it would have been Rose Johnson, stylistically speaking. And it's a real toss-up as to which style of her art was most popular. She's probably best known for her public art murals and mural projects, many of which still exist. An early mural, created in 1992 on the side of a trailer displayed at what was then CRASHarts at the Icehouse, was also used for a performance by Michelle Coté, who mounted the trailer and danced on it in a tutu. Joe Jankovsky, who photographed the trailer mural-cum-performance, remembers that Johnson painted it in direct response to the death of her boyfriend, Tony Gowen, who had died of a heroin overdose. Executed in a Picasso-esque, Guernica-style tableau, the mural spotlighted a starry-eyed female entwined with a male from whose arm sticks a syringe.

"David Therrien [former husband of Helen Hestenes and then co-owner of the Icehouse] had to tell Rose that Tony died," says Jankovsky. "Rose and Tony were boyfriend/girlfriend, really big for her." Therrien, in a Facebook post after Johnson's death, writes: "The first time I met Rose was sad, tragic. I had gotten a call from Tony's mother. She didn't know who else to call. I had to go to Rose's house and tell her that Tony — maybe the love of her life — had died. It was the first time I ever met Rose. She hit me, told me that I lied. We cried together. We held each other. We became friends."

From 1995 to '96, Johnson went on to create, among others, an 83-foot-by-13-foot mural at University Drive and College Avenue, for the city of Tempe and Tempe Municipal Arts Commission. Her most recognized — and still extant — one, Prayer of Saint Francis, decorates the Mercer Mortuary building. Unfortunately, a wild and wonderful mural Johnson created, titled Jazz Zen at the Sub Station (1998), a hangout for ASU art students in the late '90s across the street from the school's art department building, has been painted over and lost to local art history. That same year, Johnson painted a mural for the city of Casa Grande at Fourth Street and Florence. The city restored and re-dedicated the mural in 2004.

After moving to Bisbee in 1998, Johnson was commissioned to paint several public murals, including one featured prominently in Sunset Magazine, titled Sleepwalking. The owners of Bisbee's 1930s-era Jonquil Motel provided Johnson with a copy of a 1928 poem, Romance Sonámbulo, (literally, "sleepwalking romance") by Spanish poet Federico García Lorca. The poem inspired her to create a massive 60-foot-by-15-foot, lusciously colored dreamscape that sprawls across the entire side of the motel.

She also talked the city into allowing her to paint The Peace Wall, a Mexican-flavored mural on a concrete wall adjacent to Bisbee's Castle Rock in Tombstone Canyon — a favorite site for taggers to spray-paint a gigantic white peace sign (see a photograph of The Peace Wall at

But it's Johnson's performance work that many, including Helen Hestenes, consider her most outstanding output. "Rose was the first performance artist from Arizona to do a performance/installation in the Icehouse," Hestenes says. "She was a strong supporter of the Icehouse, a community activist and a lover of people."

One of her most powerful performance/installation pieces, according to Hestenes, was one informed by Johnson's working with babies born addicted to heroin. In the Closet, a defunct exhibition space at the Icehouse, Johnson had cast a baby and made a series of them painted with veins, which she laid out on the room's floor-to-ceiling shelves.

"She then suspended hypodermic needles in the air, as if they were floating," Hestenes recalls. "Her point of the piece was: Learn that this is what will happen to your baby if you do drugs while pregnant." Later, Johnson repainted the babies powder-white, put them in a circle, and stood in the middle dressed in a white slip.

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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:

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


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


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.


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