Artist Roman Johnson

Reflections of an Artist: Emerson Burkhart is now open in our 3rd Floor Library Lobby and First Floor Spotlight Gallery. Emerson Burkhart (1905-1969) ruled the Columbus art scene during the 1950s and 1960s with his honest portraits and depictions of life in the city. While Burkhart was praised for his artistic skill, conflicts in his personal and professional life prevented him from receiving national attention. Reflections of an Artist: Emerson Burkhart displays never seen artwork by Burkhart, including the original sketches for the controversial mural Music.

On Saturday, February 28 at 2pm, Curator Emily Lang will be giving a talk about Burkhart’s best known protégée, Roman Johnson.

Courtesy of columbusmemory.org, Arnett Howard and Roman Johnson at Emerson Burkhart's home.

Courtesy of the Columbus Metropolitan Library, Arnett Howard and Roman Johnson at Emerson Burkhart’s home.

Roman Johnson was born Sept 4, 1917 and raised in Columbus, Ohio. Johnson was a sickly child and his mother encouraged him to draw while stuck in bed.[1] He married his wife Iona in the late 1930s and worked a variety of jobs to support them; they made their home in the King-Lincoln district. Johnson had initially started working under an artist by the name of Cletus Butler. Explaining his decision to go into art, “I do paintings in an effort to enhance or continue the culture of Black people. In the 40s and 50s when I visited the Museum of Modern Art, I never saw any art by or about Blacks. So I decided to do that.”[2]

Emerson Burkhart working on a self portrait, from the collections of the Ohio History Connection.

Emerson Burkhart working on a self portrait, from the collections of the Ohio History Connection.

Emerson Burkhart was well known for painting the residents and buildings of Old Towne East, King-Lincoln, and Woodland. Johnson described their first meeting, “My wife introduced us in 1941.  I came in from work one day, living in Poindexter Village at the time, and just as I walked in the door she said, “Did you see that white man painting on Mount Vernon Avenue?” I said, “No, I didn’t see him.” She said, “Turn around and go back and look in the alley behind the drugstore and there is a white man standing in the alley looking out on Mount Vernon Avenue and painting.  So, go and ask him who he is.”  I put my hat back on and went down to 20th and Mount Vernon and there was Burkhart down in the alley painting.”[3]

“I was still in my good clothes- a spectacular “zoot suit.” After watching Burkhart for a while, I started talking to him and finally asked him if he would teach me. Burkhart told me, “No! I’m a painter. Not a teacher. Besides you’ll never be an artist because you spend all your money on clothes. An artist has to spend money on paint and brushes. Art has to be his life.” [4]

After meeting Burkhart, Johnson stopped working with Butler and studied exclusively with Burkhart for five years. The artists could often be seen on sidewalks, painting side by side. One of Burkhart’s best known pieces, The Confused Process of Becoming, in the collections of the Columbus Museum of Art, is a portrait of Johnson. It took Burkhart 54 sessions to paint the portrait. In addition, Burkhart also painted Johnson’s mother, which became another one of his best known pieces, The Matriarch.

In 1946, Johnson traveled to New York to study at the Art Students League where he spent ten years, studying with artist Edwin Dickenson. He spent a year in Paris on the Scarburne Scholarship, writing his wife a letter every single day, before returning to Columbus. While in New York, Johnson studied under Edwin Dickinson and Ernest Fiene, and exhibited works at the Whitney Museum of American Art and the National Academy of Design.

Courtesy columbusmemory.org, Ursel White Lewis.

Courtesy of the Columbus Metropolitan Library, Ursel White Lewis.

After Johnson moved back to Columbus, he struggled to find his place in the local arts scene. Ursel White Lewis changed Johnson’s fortunes dramatically in Ohio. Born in Oklahoma City in 1913, “Lady Lewis” (as she was called) came to Columbus with her ailing mother in 1941. In 1943, she married Howard W. Lewis, who worked in the chemistry department at the Ohio State University. Lewis began collecting art by African Americans in Columbus. Though she was not wealthy, Lewis explained, “Many pieces I bought, a few were given to me.  Sometimes, if I couldn’t afford a piece, I’d wait until I could, or I’d buy something I could afford.  I’d never ask an artist to lower a price for me or give me anything.”[5] Lewis soon began buying pieces from Johnson, becoming one of his largest supporters over the years. She commissioned several pieces from him, including one of his most famous pieces, a portrait of Isabelle Ridgeway.

Courtesy of the Columbus Metropolitan Library, exhibit brochure from 1980 at Franklin University that feature four Roman Johnson pieces.

Courtesy of the Columbus Metropolitan Library, exhibit brochure from 1980 at Franklin University that feature four Roman Johnson pieces.

Johnson became a mentor in his own right by the 1970s. He taught painting for the Red Cross, the Veteran’s Administration, and gave private lessons to students from his own neighborhood. Columbus artist Aminah Robinson met Johnson as a child, “Roman inspired me to go out to the street to draw, which I continue to do today. One day it was snowing, and Roman and I said, “Let’s go out and draw.” We went out in the car to the church at Fifth and Rich, where a long line of homeless people waited to get box lunches. We just sat in the car and drew. I drew on several sheets of homemade paper, and when I got home I sewed the pieces together.”[6]

Johnson continued to gain popularity in Central Ohio, showing at galleries and institutions like the Columbus Museum of Art and the Riffe Gallery. Johnson received an Honorary Doctorate of Arts Degree from Ohio Dominican College in 1998, and in 2003 was bestowed with the Ohio Governor’s Award for the Arts. Dr. Roman E. Johnson died Oct 24, 2005.

Johnson continues to influence Columbus artists today. Did you ever meet Roman Johnson?

Emily Lang, History Curator

[1] “African American Fine Art Auction.” Issuu. December 6, 2014. Accessed January 29, 2015. http://issuu.com/msmodular72/docs/12_06_14_a

[2] “African American Fine Art Auction.” Issuu. December 6, 2014. Accessed January 29, 2015. http://issuu.com/msmodular72/docs/12_06_14_a

[3] “Roman Johnson Speaks of His Life and Art – Nidmag.com.” Nidmag.com. February 23, 2003. Accessed January 2, 2015. http://nidmag.com/roman-johnson-speaks-life-art.

[4] Hall, Michael D. Emerson Burkhart: An Ohio Painter’s Song of Himself. Scala Publishers, London, 2009. Page 109.

[5] “CSCC Library’s Art Collection: Ursel White Lewis.” CSCC Library. Accessed January 29, 2015. http://library.cscc.edu/c.php?g=126555&p=828443.

[6] Robinson, Lynn. “Aminah Brenda Lynn Robinson: Ongoing Catalogue of Art and Exhibitions.” Box Lunch-Fifth & Rich Streets, Columbus, Ohio. Accessed January 29, 2015. http://database.aminahsworld.org/works/366.

[7]  “Roman Johnson Speaks of His Life and Art – Nidmag.com.” Nidmag.com. February 23, 2003. Accessed January 2, 2015. http://nidmag.com/roman-johnson-speaks-life-art.

This entry was posted in collections. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s