"I think she held each baby," Hestenes says. "The painting we have of hers in the Prayer Room is one in which she painted herself as a bride, and on the other side, she painted herself as an artist looking at herself as a bride, conflicted about getting married and having children," Hestenes says. "That's what she was going through when she did the performance." Johnson would end up donating the performance babies "for adoption" as a part of Hestenes' ongoing "Milk Project."

Another memorable performance, which Johnson mounted in 1994 both at the Icehouse and in Mexico City at X-Teresa, an alternative-art space housed in a 17th-century convent, involved a gigantic snail shell and sea salt. Joe Jankovsky, who went to Mexico City to photograph the performance, remembers that Johnson had "drone-y" organ music playing in the space and created a giant, meticulously laid-out spiral of sea salt. In the middle of the spiral was a large snail shell the artist had built. "She got inside the snail shell nude and very slowly crawled in circles through the salt spiral — she called the piece Shame."

Not to be discounted were Johnson's paintings on canvas. From early on, Johnson painted and described them in a biographical statement for stockart.com as being drawn from "deeply introspective soul-searching and emotional healing," paintings that "often portray the paradox of the fragile spirit surviving in an increasingly technological, structured world, and mankind's interconnectedness with nature." At one point in the mid-'90s, Johnson had work hanging at MARS Artspace in downtown Phoenix, Art One in Scottsdale, and Raw Gallery in Tucson.

After Johnson left Phoenix for Bisbee, a small arts-centered community in southeast Arizona that was a booming copper-mining town in the 19th and early 20th centuries, her canvases, which previously had been rendered in a softer palette, reflective of Johnson's perception of the harshness of urban life, started to come alive with eye-poppingly exuberant hues. Later paintings feature traditional Mexican folk dancers in colorful costumes that seemed to grow and completely fill the faces of her canvases.

After she began traveling to Bali, Johnson produced Balinese-themed paintings abounding with sensual Indonesian women and bright-eyed children in traditional garb engaged in an assortment of daily tasks and religious rituals. They were exhibited at Jane Hamilton Fine Art in Tucson last year in a one-woman show.

Everyone who's met Rose Johnson seems to have some sort of story to tell — about her unquenchable joie de vivre, her love of parades and partying, her charming zaniness, her almost obsessive work ethic, and her wildly various art forms.

Born October 2, 1960, in Coventry, England, a Detroit-like city about 95 miles northwest of London, Johnson was instantly set apart in Phoenix by her proper British accent, an oasis of perceived civility in a sea of Midwesternized Southwestern twang. The artist attended De Montfort University in Leicester, then known as Leicester Polytechnic, between 1979 and 1983, earning an honors degree in graphic design and illustration. From 1983 to 1986, Johnson got a taste of the public-art world when she held the position of muralist and community arts administrator for Leicester's SHAPE Community Arts Project — an experience that would eventually help her navigate Phoenix's nascent contemporary-art scene when she moved here in 1986.

Kim Blake, a friend for more than 20 years, remembers meeting Johnson in 1988 when she was a cocktail waitress at the second upstairs reincarnation of Chuy's on Mill Avenue in Tempe. According to Blake, that was the last "real" job Johnson ever had. After that, she turned her full-time attention to making art; she even made the rounds of craft fairs in town, selling not only her paintings but T-shirts and other household items emblazoned with her distinctive fantasy-based work.

New Times theater critic Robrt L. Pela recalls running into Johnson shortly after being introduced to her in the late 1980s at an annual park party in Phoenix's historic Coronado District. She was one of the art vendors plying her wares, selling canvases and hand-painted T-shirts and complained to Pela about getting flak from the art community for doing so. "'They seem to think it would be better if I just got a job as a waitress until my work caught on.' She said, 'I don't get it. What's wrong with people here?'" Pela says.

"I really thought she'd be gone in a year," says Pela. "For me, that was the thing that set her apart from the very beginning: She was not willing to work in the factory until she sold her first painting."

Despite her initial reservations, it didn't take long for the eminently likeable Johnson to become a firmly embedded fixture on the downtown arts scene and a frequent photographic favorite for several local artists. Artist-photographer Marilyn Szabo, another old friend of Johnson's, took the now-famous photo of Johnson reclining on the couch of her downtown studio dressed as a demure topless mermaid, around 1988. Szabo recollects that Mermaid and Cat took place at her studio at 128 East Taylor, next to Bill Callaway's Phoenix Forge, one afternoon while the two were hanging out and drinking wine. "Rose was always game for a photo session, and I saw that mermaid costume, so it was easy. I turned away and when I looked back, there was the cat lined up perfectly with Rose's eyes and the painting."

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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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