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Olivia Tucker surrounded by her grandfather Len Johanson's paintings.EXPAND
Olivia Tucker surrounded by her grandfather Len Johanson's paintings.
Robrt L. Pela

Raiders of the Lost Art: Preserving Painter Len Johanson's Legacy

Olivia Tucker was surrounded by her dead grandfather’s paintings. She stood in his garage one day last week and talked about his life and a teaching career that inspired a lot of other people to create. After a while, she mentioned the secret he kept.

She said her grandfather was a fine arts teacher his whole life, mostly at Glendale Community College. “We knew that part, of course,” she said. “He’d have little shows at the college, but he always showed stuff like this.”

She pointed to a large geometric study of red and blue and green acrylic.

“You know, he was always working, and he was a good painter, but there wasn’t anything where we were mind-blown.”

After her grandmother died, the family wanted Johanson, who retired in 1988, to move closer. “My parents live up the street, and they moved him in here,” Tucker explained. “And he said to my dad, ‘Well, you need to go out to my art studio and get my stuff and bring it over here.’”

“My dad thought it was just, like, a handful of paintings and some art supplies,” Tucker said. “And he and my brother go to the studio, and they can’t open the door. There’s so much stuff behind the door it won’t open.”

Inside they found more than 1,000 completed paintings and collages. “No one knew what was in there,” Tucker said. “He had boarded up the windows so the sunlight wouldn’t affect the acrylic paint, and he just painted in there nonstop. It was literally every day after work.”

His granddaughter said Johanson had no interest in showing his work or becoming known as a painter. “He would finish a painting and then just put it into storage,” she said. “We never saw it. He didn’t have an agent, and he had no intention of selling anything.”

After his hoard was discovered, Tucker helped her grandfather organize and catalog his work. It took a while, she said with a little shrug.

“It was a total mess. Everything was stacked on the floor. Now, I have a system. My mom and I labeled all the canvases, and we cataloged everything. I can tell you which box each painting is in.”

Tucker launched a website and an Instagram account about Johanson’s work. “It was like pulling teeth to get him to let me post an image on Instagram,” she moaned. “He just really didn’t want anyone to see this stuff.”

She began sliding bright images from a neat stack. “You can see his work evolve. This is early stuff, all these architectural landscapes. This one’s called Seasonal Metamorphosis. He lived in Minnesota, and what he liked about Arizona was all the color, even if there was no winter or spring.”

Her favorite is one called The Russian Monk.

“It’s in here somewhere,” she said as she walked into the house. Every room was hung salon-style with Johanson’s work. “All of these on this wall that have a woman’s face in them? He called her The Goddess. She’s in everything. I tried to ask who she is based off of, but he didn’t really say. I like the shape of her face. Look, she’s in that other one over there, too. She’s everywhere.”

After her grandfather’s death in December, Tucker and her mother approached local art galleries about showing some of Johanson’s work. “I went to a bunch of ones in Scottsdale, but they just didn’t care at all,” she said with a sigh.

She showed a handful of the Goddess paintings at a recent First Friday event. “It was in some shitty warehouse, and people were like, ‘Get this stuff out of here!' It was an awful place, but they were the only gallery that responded.”

Tucker had better luck with the Tempe History Museum, which may do a Johanson retrospective. She’s keen on getting his work seen, but isn’t sure she wants to sell it.

“He just passed in December, so it’s kind of fresh and we’re still real sad. I guess we’ll have to sell some of the art, because what else are we going to do with it? We’re, like, easing into it by doing showings.”

Johanson might not have approved, Tucker admitted. “He genuinely was just painting for himself. I think he painted because it was like a secret. He knew he had his art in his back pocket, and it made him more calm and collected and happy.”

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