On November 3, The Cleveland Museum of Art opened an exhibition  featuring the work of William H. Johnson (1901–1970), one of the most pivotal figures in modern American art. Johnson, a native of Florence, South Carolina, is considered one of the state’s greatest artists. Developed by Baltimore’s James E. Lewis Museum of Art, Morgan State University and circulated by Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service, this special presentation offers a unique opportunity to share 20 works by Johnson with a broader audience. The Cleveland Museum of Art will feature two additional works from its own collection. We recently had the opportunity to talk to the artist’s nephew, Jim Johnson, who is now 76 years old. He still lives in Florence. He remembers as a young child meeting his uncle when the artist came to visit his grandmother’s house. He noticed him right away. When he saw the fair-skinned Johnson, he asked his grandmother about the “white man” at the door. She told him he was not and that he was his “Uncle Willie.” Florence was a major railroad hub, and it was the railway that took Johnson to cultivate his artistic talents. He left at 17 after graduating from high school to become a great artist. In New York, Johnson earned his diploma from the National Academy of Design, studying under Charles Hawthorne (1872–1930), who sponsored Johnson’s studies in France. While there, Johnson met Danish textile and ceramic artist Holcha Krake  (pictured here). They were married in Denmark and spent most of the 1930s in Scandinavia. Before he got married, Johnson visited Florence at which time he was given the chance to exhibit his work for one day at the local YMCA. View an archive clipping from the newspaper announcement . “It was hard for him to be successful here during segregation,” Johnson’s nephew said. “Nobody wanted to look at his paintings then because he was black.” Because interracial marriages were not accepted at that time in the South, Johnson did not return to Florence again until after his wife passed away. He returned home in 1944 to find solace in friends and family. Jim says that his uncle spent about three months painting pictures of people and places that he saw, “I think he was trying to reconnect to what he remembered,” He recalled, “He painted a picture of my sister and other members of the family.” Johnson’s portrait of his own mother, titled “Aunt Alice” painted during this visit, and it is featured in the Cleveland Museum of Art’s exhibition.
Aunt Alice, 1944. William H. Johnson (American, 1901–1970). Oil on compressed cardboard; 85.7 x 72.4 cm. Courtesy Morgan State University.
The city of Florence honored William H. Johnson with an historical marker in 2005. In April 2012, the United States Postal Service released a Forever Stamp  featuring Johnson's "Flowers." The Florence Museum  celebrated the issuing of the stamp, and Jim  (pictured here) was there for the party. William H. Johnson: An American Modern, an exhibition developed by Morgan State University and the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service, is made possible through the partial support of the Henry Luce Foundation, and the Morgan State University Foundation, Inc. Additional support for this exhibition was provided by the Ford Motor Company Fund. The Cleveland Museum of Art is generously funded by Cuyahoga County residents through Cuyahoga Arts and Culture. The Ohio Arts Council helped fund this exhibition with state tax dollars to encourage economic growth, educational excellence, and cultural enrichment for all Ohioans. -- Kesha Williams