Longform

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

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.

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."

KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Kathleen Vanesian