Rose Johnson: The Phoenix Arts Community Mourns One of Its Pioneers

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Anyone who's traveled south on 16th Street past Thomas Road in the past 10 years has seen the fading mural that snakes along the side of the old Mercer Mortuary building. Painted by an artist named Rose Johnson in 1998, with the help of some school kids, the mural, called The Prayer of St. Francis, stars large, stylized heads of people of all colors and races crammed together. The hand of an unseen person waves a rainbow flag, while someone else flashes a peace sign and another releases a white dove of peace. Rife with unvarnished optimism, it's probably the most famous of Johnson's public murals in Phoenix.

The mortuary mural has taken on an ironic quality these days — ever since Johnson, well-known painter, muralist, performance artist, and critical part of the burgeoning downtown Phoenix art scene in the late 1980s and throughout the 1990s, died on the exotic tropical island of Bali at the end of May. She was 48. Along with 26 other unfortunate locals and tourists, she was the unwitting victim of a local distilled Balinese rice and palm sap brew called arak. The arak had been adulterated with methanol, also known as wood spirits, a highly poisonous form of alcohol used for industrial purposes, to boost its alcohol content.

At this point, no one knows for sure whether the deadly arak was intentionally laced with methanol or who added the lethal substance to the popular local drink, though Bali police have begun to investigate.


Rose Johnson

It does not take much methanol to kill someone, and it isn't a fast or painless way to die. Usually imperceptible when mixed with ethanol, which is what makes alcoholic beverages intoxicating, methanol oxidizes into formaldehyde, the same stuff used in mortuaries to preserve bodies. This and other toxic by-products attack the optic nerve, causing, among other symptoms, blindness, abdominal distress, kidney failure, coma, and, eventually, shutdown of the respiratory system. Methanol poisoning was rampant in the 1920s in the United States, during Prohibition. And it still occurs in places like Indonesia, of which Bali is part, where imported liquor had been taxed up to 400 percent.

Death from methanol poisoning was a sad and ironic ending for Johnson, a much loved and peace-loving person. A sign of her legacy is her grieving family and friends around the world, especially in Phoenix and Bisbee. Along with a prodigious amount of art, she's also left a number of unanswered questions about her final days in Bali and the facts surrounding her death there.

Rose Johnson isn't the first artist to fall madly in love with Bali — nor will she be the last. As noted in Bali: The Last Paradise, a documentary film produced by Gulliver Media Australia and Silver Productions France, artists, musicians, intellectuals, and non-conformists discovered Bali in the 1920s in their search for an escape from the horrors of World War I. Subsequently, they would be followed by socialites and film stars such as Charlie Chaplin and Noël Coward, as well as camera crews for a silent film, Goona Goona (1932), that revolved around a fairy-tale romance between a Balinese prince and a lowly servant girl.

Rose Johnson discovered Bali about two years ago, when she watched a television documentary about it with some friends in Bisbee, says Alison Williams, a Bisbee friend and editor of Johnson's unpublished memoir about the artist's stay in Bali. "They all vowed to go there someday."

Apparently, after her first trip there, Johnson was completely smitten by the place, going back several times and subsequently producing a painting series devoted to Balinese life. For a large part of 2008, Johnson was back and forth to the longtime tourism mecca. She signed onto Facebook, the popular social-networking Web site, in February 2009. Through Facebook, she informed friends that she had gotten married in December and was living in Bali until June, when she would return to Bisbee and try to publish the book she was writing, "amongst other things." According to the Sierra Vista Herald/Bisbee Review, she had moved from Bisbee to Bali to marry and live with Imade Ardika, a Balinese man.

She then posted a picture of herself and Ardika, titled "Love Promise Ceremony July 17, 2008, Sanur Beach Bali" as well as another one of the couple in traditional Balinese attire, this one titled "Wedding Ceremony December 27 2008, Uluwatu Temple Bali." For many of her Phoenix friends, it was the first time they'd heard about Johnson's marriage. Kim Blake posted on February 26: "You married one of your paintings! Beautiful!"

Helen Hestenes, a friend of 20 years and owner of Phoenix's Icehouse, who visited Johnson a number of times after her move to Bisbee from Phoenix in 1998, notes that Johnson had a series of separate lives that really didn't intersect with one another: "She had a Bisbee world, a Phoenix world of three worlds — commercial, neighborhood friends and art friends — and then her Bali world."

This spring, Johnson worked on her memoir of life in Bali; at one point, she noted, "I am at the internet cafe in Sanur, a block away from the beach. My book will wrap up on chapter 52. I am working on chapter 36 now! So now you know where I am, but bet you can't find me! . . ." On May 17, she posted the announcement that "[r]aw text is finished!" and on May 23, Johnson wrote that she had "only two more weeks left in Bali" before she would return to Bisbee to work on getting her book published.

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?

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 www.roadtripamerica.com/murals/murals.htm).

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.

"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."

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.

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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