‘Beloved Legend’: Leroy Johnson, an Inventive and Prolific Philadelphia Artist, Has Died – The Philadelphia Inquirer | Candle Made Easy

Leroy Johnson, 85, a tireless artist who has worked in a variety of mediums since the early days of the Black Arts movement in the 1960s and continues to this day, died Friday, July 8, in Philadelphia, a city which fascinated him endlessly.

Friends said the cause was lung cancer.

“This is a significant loss,” said Mr. Johnson’s longtime friend and fellow artist Candy Depew, known professionally as Candy Coated.

“He had a definitely unique vision,” said William Valerio, director and CEO of the Woodmere Art Museum. “His theme is the city of Philadelphia and its history and all that flows through that history.”

“His art doesn’t sit passively, waiting for people to take an interest in it,” Valerio said. “It reaches you. He is probably best known for these boxy house sculptures, which are so much about the city of Philadelphia, but also about the history of African American life that runs through the life of the city.”

Depew met Mr. Johnson about 20 years ago through their collaboration with Clay Studio in Old City.

“He and I met at Clay Studio as resident artists,” she said. “We also did classes and there was a Clay Mobile, an outreach program that went into schools and community centers in Philadelphia and reached kids who wouldn’t normally get a chance to work with art.”

Mr. Johnson made such an impression as a teacher that decades later, adults stopped him in the street to say he had given them their first taste of art in kindergarten, she said.

“He was a social worker for a long time — his business was people,” Depew said. “He was just a really magical guy who helped a lot of people because he could relate to them. Just a kind, kind person, an excellent artist, a voracious reader. He worked every day up until his time in the hospice.”

Genevieve Carminati, a writer and poet, said she first met Mr Johnson 50 years ago when they were working in an alternative school.

“He was like a deputy principal and a counselor at the school, and I was teaching,” she recalls. “These were inner-city schools for children with learning disabilities. He was always teaching all kinds of programs for kids with all kinds of challenges.”

Mr. Johnson told her that as a young boy he was inspired to become an artist.

“He told an interesting story from his childhood,” she said. “When he was maybe 8 years old, even at that age he was quite an avid reader. He read black boy by Richard Wright and he asked his mother who wrote that book. And on the term of the day she said, ‘A colored guy wrote it.’ And then he said he heard the voice of God saying, ‘And you will be an artist.’”

It was an exciting moment for the young child, she said. For one thing, he knew that being an artist was “his mission”. But Wright’s performance also told him “it would be possible for him, as an African American, to do something like that”.

The point of the story, she said, was that Mr. Johnson was aware of “prejudice against him” from an early age.

“But also,” she added, “it was a tremendous responsibility and honor to be an artist.”

An accomplished painter, draftsman, sculptor and ceramic artist, Mr Johnson spent five years as a resident artist at Clay Studio in the early 2000s.

“His work was very urban-centric—the city of Philadelphia, but also cities in general as faces of life and energy, imagination and emotion,” said Jennifer Zwilling, curator and director of artist programs at Clay Studio. Mr. Johnson, she said, is “a popular legend” among artists associated with the studio.

“He came in and everyone said, ‘Hey, look who’s here,’ and everyone gathered,” she said.

Mr. Johnson was born in Philadelphia and grew up in the Eastwick area of ​​the city. He attended courses at the Fleisher Art Memorial and studied at the Philadelphia College of Art (now the University of the Arts). He then earned a master’s degree in human services from Lincoln University.

From the late 1960s he exhibited extensively, including at the Magic Gardens in Philadelphia; Ceramics Gallery Tirzah Yalon Kolton in Tel Aviv; Gloucester County College; the University of Pennsylvania; and the Museum of Contemporary Crafts in Pittsburgh.

Over the years he has received grants from the Mid Atlantic Arts Foundation, the Independence Foundation and the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts. In 2014 he was named a Pew Fellow in the Arts.

In 2019 he was a resident at the Barnes Foundation. His most recent residency was at the Center for Emerging Visual Artists in Philadelphia, where he worked until January of this year.

“It was actually a great experience for us just to work and it’s such a profound experience for me personally,” said Genevieve Coutroubis, Executive Artistic Director of CFEVA. “He worked in our studio, in our gallery, and had his artwork there, did work, and interacted with the public in that space. So it was really an important, a profound experience for everyone.”

Karen Warrington, a decades-long journalist, filmmaker, activist and observer of cultural Philadelphia, had known Mr. Johnson since the 1960s.

“His energy, his love of art and his view of the world, which I believe has presented as a respected public artist, has just never waned over the years,” she said. “I’d known him for so long and he still had all of this energy and joy in sharing his vision of what he was seeing, especially urban Philadelphia.”

Mr. Johnson often described himself as an activist or “activist-artist.” He doesn’t see art as separate from life or politics, he said, especially black life and politics.

“The only voice we have now because of the Supreme Court is art,” Mr. Johnson once said. “Art is one of the few places where minorities, disempowered people, have an opportunity to speak out. … We should respect and enjoy our diversity and preserve our unique customs and share them without fear and hostility.”

Mr. Johnson is survived by one sister, Elaine Johnson of Philadelphia.

A funeral is scheduled for Friday, July 15 at 1 p.m. at the Laurel Hill Funeral Home, 225 Belmont Ave., Bala Cynwyd. In lieu of flowers, the family accepts donations for good deeds or contributions to the Fleisher Art Memorial.

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