Kim Blake tells another story about Johnson's mermaid period, during which Blake pushed Johnson — decked out in her mermaid attire, a Lady Godiva wig, and not much else — down the street to a local watering hole called the News Room, where she entertained patrons drinking and playing pool that night.

In typical starving-artist fashion, Joe Jankovsky traded photography for art with Johnson in those days. Jankovsky recalls that Johnson loved to be photographed, saying she was particularly enthusiastic. He also remembers being with Robert Sentinery, now owner/editor of Java Magazine, when they first spotted Rose: "We were both painters then and we saw this gal come along [near ASU] and she was just beautiful. She had every chance of failing that we did. We went on to other things, but she just had this incredible work drive. She was so prolific."

New Times quickly discovered Johnson's considerable talent for editorial illustration and used her on a regular basis during the late '80s and '90s; illustration assignments from other publications, including the state's iconic Arizona Highways, followed. She also did design work for Scottsdale Center for the Arts, the Phoenix Symphony, and St. Joseph's Hospital and Medical Center. Johnson was generous with her time and talent, donating design work to innumerable local groups, including Free Arts for Abused Children, Empathy Bowls to Feed the Hungry, and Actors Theatre. Johnson would continue to give freely of her talent to whatever community she happened to be in at the time. In Bisbee, she was one of the artists who showed at Belleza Gallery, owned by a nationally recognized non-profit organization, Renaissance House, formerly known as the Women's Transition Project. Net proceeds from the sale of her work went, and continue to go, to funding a substance abuse treatment program for Arizona's homeless women and their children. Substance abuse and its deadly consequences were recurrent theme in Johnson's work.

courtesy of Joe Jankovsky
courtesy of Joe Jankovsky
courtesy of Joe Jankovsky
courtesy of Joe Jankovsky
Jamie Peachey
courtesy of Joe Jankovsky
courtesy of Terry Wolf
courtesy of Terry Wolf
courtesy of Terry Wolf
Rose Johnson, circa 1993.
Joe Jankovsky
Rose Johnson, circa 1993.
Johnson in a mermaid costume in her Phoenix studio, circa 1988.
Marilyn Szabo
Johnson in a mermaid costume in her Phoenix studio, circa 1988.
Johnson posing as one of the “Girls of Brewery Gulch,” for a calendar of the same name.
Terry Wolf
Johnson posing as one of the “Girls of Brewery Gulch,” for a calendar of the same name.
Jazz Zen at The Sub Stop in Tempe.
Joe Jankovsky
Jazz Zen at The Sub Stop in Tempe.
Johnson preparing for her Shame performance in 1994 at X-Teresa in Mexico City.
Joe Jankovsky
Johnson preparing for her Shame performance in 1994 at X-Teresa in Mexico City.
Joe Jankovsky
The snail shell that a nude Johnson crawled out of during her Mexico City performance.
Joe Jankovsky
The snail shell that a nude Johnson crawled out of during her Mexico City performance.
The Prayer of St. Francis, a mural on the Mercer Mortuary building on 16th Street near Thomas Road.
Jamie Peachey
The Prayer of St. Francis, a mural on the Mercer Mortuary building on 16th Street near Thomas Road.
 Sleepwalking, a mural on the Jonquil Motel in Bisbee.
courtesy of Jonquil Motel
Sleepwalking, a mural on the Jonquil Motel in Bisbee.
Terry Wolf’s portrait of Johnson.
courtesy of Terry Wolf
Terry Wolf’s portrait of Johnson.
Final Moment
courtesy of Marilyn Szabo
Final Moment
A portrait of Johnson by Marilyn Szabo.
courtesy of Marilyn Szabo
A portrait of Johnson by Marilyn Szabo.
Rose with Red Gun, from the MARS Artspace performance; a
courtesy of Marilyn Szabo
Rose with Red Gun, from the MARS Artspace performance; a
courtesy of Marilyn Szabo
This Balinese wedding photo of Johnson and Imade Ardika was posted on Facebook in February 2009.
This Balinese wedding photo of Johnson and Imade Ardika was posted on Facebook in February 2009.
Johnson at work in Mexico in 1994.
Joe Jankovsky
Johnson at work in Mexico in 1994.

Before her sudden death, the artist had set in motion the Rose Johnson Foundation, according to a Facebook post by Terry Wolf, a Bisbee singer, songwriter, photographer and friend of Johnson's who had photographed the artist extensively during her Bisbee days. Wolf says the foundation will promote her art and prints, her unpublished memoir, and a book on her complete works and biography. Wolf says 80 percents of the proceeds will go to charity — mostly animal rights groups, about which Johnson was passionate.


It's a Tuesday evening at the Firehouse, an artist's co-op on First Street in downtown Phoenix, and unseasonably balmy. Artist Suzanne Falk has called a meeting for prospective mermaids, who will perform a welcoming ritual for Rose Johnson's spirit at her memorial celebration to be held at 10 p.m. June 20 at the Icehouse. Ideas for costumes, headdresses, and makeup on a shoestring budget are bandied about the circle of women who have volunteered to don glittery mermaid dress and welcome Rose with "magic thoughts."

The meeting eventually ends with the lighting of incense and prayerful chanting in Japanese by a monk who will officiate on the night of the celebration.

Somehow, you just know Rose Johnson would love the spectacle being created in her honor.

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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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