BILL LOHMANN Richmond Times Dispatch
Seeing video of a cellist performing amid the ruins of Kharkiv, Ukraine last March to raise funds for humanitarian aid and the reconstruction of his hometown moved Robert Johnson.
That Virginia PainterHe, who was then teaching at an art school in Arizona, told a student the next day how sad the scene made him and how he wished “there was something we could do as visual artists to help these people.” A few days later, Johnson read about a print being auctioned for a remarkable sum, and the idea of auctioning art to support Ukraine clicked.
One of his students had a connection with auction houses and the effort was ongoing. The virtual auction, titled American Artists for Children of Ukraine, featuring works by Johnson and nearly three dozen other American artists, ended September 28. The proceeds benefited Ohmatdy, the largest children’s hospital in Ukraine. Details can be found here bid square.
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I’m not just telling you this because it was for a good cause, but because Johnson has an interesting history and connection to Richmond.
He grew up in Hopewell in the 1950s, where he was a football star (and was also named Hopewell’s Outstanding Youth Citizen in 1959). He received a scholarship to Duke University, where he was part of three Atlantic Coast Conference championship teams and was a freshman when the Blue Devils won the 1961 Cotton Bowl against Arkansas. (“The most boring cotton bowl game in history,” he says, laughing. “7-6.”) He also earned his bachelor’s and law degrees at Duke.
He returned to Virginia to practice law and worked for a time in the Richmond Attorney General’s office in the early 1970s (while Andrew Miller was Attorney General), where he was also co-captain of Richmond Rugby Club. But his passion for art always lurked nearby.
Johnson drew and painted as a young child, much like his older brother Ben, who later received a Fulbright scholarship to Italy to study art conservation (Ben later became an art conservator and principal founder of the Conservation Center at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art), and by since then, “Robert had this fixation on coming to Europe at some point,” he said.
Johnson, who was called Bob when he played football, had loved playing sports, but it didn’t leave him much time to do anything his brother had done. Until he was older.
While working for the Attorney General’s Office, he heard about an opportunity to work for an American university in Germany. He jumped at it.
“My colleagues were amazed but very accommodating, and they gave me a very nice farewell dinner,” he recalled.
He spent two years at university which allowed him to teach, travel around Europe and see a lot of art. He returned to Virginia, opened a small law practice in Northern Virginia and also devoted himself to his art, which required some time pressure.
“I would get up early and paint in the morning before I went to the office,” he said, “and in the evenings I would work on my drawing.”
He took art classes at local colleges and sought advice from one of his teachers at George Washington University, an artist named Frank Wright.
“I took my drawings to his studio in Washington for a critique,” Johnson recalled. “He looked at her and was silent, but I could see that he was nodding his head positively. As I left, I said, ‘Frank, can I really be a real artist, like the art in galleries and museums?’ And he said, “You’ll never know until the art is at your best: your best time, your energy, your focus.”
“And at that point, I decided I was going to pursue it as a full-time career.”
This was in the mid-1980s, and after passing his law practice on to his partner, he became a full-time law firm his art.
“It was very uncertain at the time, but I was in a relationship with someone who became my wife, and she was also an artist,” he said of his wife, Virginia Price Johnson. “I think she was willing to go through any kind of financial uncertainty with me. But it didn’t work that way.”
He enrolled in classes at the Art Students League of New York, commuting from Virginia and finding inspiration and camaraderie among the teachers and other students. Within a few years he was exhibiting his work, winning prizes, and earning a living.
“I was deeply surprised by that,” he said. “It was very gratifying for me to be able to make a living as an artist, which I’ve been doing ever since.”
He still retains his license to practice law but has not practiced since the 1980s.
Johnson and his wife divided their time between Northern Virginia (Vienna) and Taos, NM. He was on his way back to Taos from a few days in Sedona, Arizona, where they were painting for Virginia’s birthday, when we called.
Johnson’s painting covers a wide spectrum: flowers, still lifes, landscapes, portraits, animals.
About 20 years ago he had a successful show of mostly still lifes in a Santa Fe gallery – but he grew tired of still lifes.
“When I was at Hopewell we had all kinds of animals – pigs, chickens and 125 beehives,” he said. “My job was to take care of the chickens, so I decided to draw a chicken. I called the gallery and asked if they would like a picture of a chicken. Then there was a long silence: ‘Send it if you must.’”
He did, and it turns out people loved chicken pictures, he said. The gallery quickly sold the chicken painting, and the next thing Johnson heard from the gallery was, “When can you send me another one?”
“It was very gratifying,” he said.