Inside the Outsider: Leroy Johnson
Leroy Johnson has lived on the edges of the art world for all his 80+ years.
Leroy Johnson (1937-2022) was an admired artist known for his paintings and mixed media works looking at life in urban Philadelphia.
Born in Philadelphia in 1937, Johnson studied drawing and ceramics at Philadelphia College and completed a master’s degree in human services at nearby Lincoln University. Described as an “outsider artist,” Johnson produced visceral, colorful, and abstract work that was inspired by African American folk art and touched on the political history of black Americans. A 2014 fellow at the Pew Center for Arts and Heritage, his work was exhibited at the Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens, Philadelphia Airport, Gloucester Country College, Tirza Yalon Kolton Ceramic Gallery (Tel Aviv, Israel), and the Camden County Historical Society, among other places.
Leroy Johnson says he committed to becoming an artist when he was just seven or eight years old. Now approaching 80, he’s never relented.
AJC: Were there times when you wanted to give up?
Leroy Johnson: What?
AJC: Give up painting, give up making sculptures, give up working?
Johnson: If you can emerge from the Johnson family to do what you want… If they didn’t stop you, then nothing can stop you, God bless ’em. So my mother and father, they loved me and supported me, but they certainly didn’t think that art was what I should do, and I certainly didn’t seem to be doing it in any rational way. I’m very fortunate and blessed and whatnot. I’m just lucky I’m obsessed and I work all the time.
But Johnson’s art has never been about reason or paying the bills. He’s a consummate outsider artist: self-taught, little-exhibited, and wholly dedicated to creating art just for the sake of it.
Johnson: Picasso said, “Make something beautiful. Destroy it. Do this many times.” Most of my work, one day when they x-ray those bad boys, they’ll see that there’s more layers under those suckers than a little bit. I like processes. That’s why I like my, this canvas I’m workin’ on now. I’ll take a razor blade, maybe scrape some sections out just so that there’s just like a thin layer there, then paint over, maybe paint the same thing back over it so it has some sort of little bounce. I like mixed media, so I’ll probably attack it, alter on it with oil stick and some other things. I’ll like, maybe glue some stuff on. I don’t know yet, which is what I like. It’s to not know and see what evolves. For me, art is about endless exploration.
Leroy Johnson’s visceral, colorful, and abstract mixed-media works document his personal surroundings and experiences. His 2016 piece Eyewitness memorializes Eastwick, the South Philadelphia neighborhood where he grew up.
Johnson: Everybody growing up in Eastwick loved Eastwick. If you look at the literature, Eastwick was probably the most diversified area in Philadelphia. I look back on it now and I realize that I had a childhood that few people have had. I had white and black friends and it was fields to play in. I had—the games we played would cover a mile or something, just racing through whatnot. The airport, when I was a child, when I remember, it was only, like, one story high or whatnot. We used to go there to watch the airplanes. I mean that’d be a date, you know, to go out there to watch the airplanes take off and land and stuff like that.
And that same airport would decades later commission Johnson to commemorate the Philadelphia of his memory with a series of paintings, drawings, collages, and small-scale dioramas.
Johnson: What I wanted to show was that there’s still a few houses out there. You sort of see how close I was to the feeling I got for this. What I was trying to do was—I told them was this: “Like a dream, my childhood memories, I wasn’t trying to be literal.” I was doing things that had feeling and emotion and touch. I respect the African-American vernacular art. In fact, I respect folk artists in general, white or black or red, green, or yellow, [who] use materials at hand and make in a really creative, really make something that’s outside the—
AJC: The norm.
Johnson: Yeah, yeah.
Today, Leroy Johnson remains committed to a relief he came to early in life.
Johnson: If you love reading and art, you’ll never be lonesome and you’ll never be bored. And those are important things to have in this life.