EDITOR’S NOTE: Jim Johnson, 76, of Florence, is one of a few of William Johnson’s relatives who remembers him. Jim Johnson was a child when his uncle (1901-1970) returned to South Carolina in the final phase of his career as a painter. Jim Johnson recently spoke with reporter Robert Behre.
Q: What is your first memory of him?
A: “When he first came to visit us, my mother told me he was coming. There was a knock on the door, and I went to the door and there was this guy standing there, and I said, ‘Who do you want to see?’ He said, ‘I’m your uncle.’ So I turned to my mother and said, ‘There’s a man here who looks almost white and he says he’s my uncle.’ She said, ‘It is.’ He stayed with us a while and painted pictures and stuff. Then he went back home, back to New York, and that was the last we saw of him.”
Q: What do you remember from his paintings?
A: “He started doing religious pictures of Jesus hanging on the cross. His thing was, and you’ll see them in the museum, but all the (people in the) paintings and pictures were all black.
And the garments they wore looked like they were made from flour sacks. ... They were done with all the colors of our area down here.”
Q: What else do you remember?
A: “He also had the idiosyncrasy of enjoying the rain. We had a wooden, 6-foot fence around the house at that time, and if it rained, his main thing would be to run in the house, take off his clothes, get his bar of soap, stand in the back yard and have a bath. He just liked that fresh water, so that’s what he did. We had a complete fence around, so nobody could see him there.”
Q: Your uncle was born and grew up in Florence, then moved away at age 17. Do you know why he left and how he felt about his hometown?
A: “He wanted to get into art, and he wanted to travel. ... He made some local paintings here in Florence, and some of them were acceptable. ... There was a hotel in Florence down on one of our main streets, and somewhere down the line, as it started losing clientele, it became a house of ill repute in a way. ... He was painting that picture, and at that time, my grandmother was employed by the YMCA, and he was in that area a couple of blocks away from the YMCA. The local police came by and they wanted to stop him from painting this picture, so they detained him so he wouldn’t complete the painting. Later on, the secretary of the YMCA, my grandmother’s boss, went and got him out of jail. I think at that time, he made up his mind to move out of Florence and do what he wanted to do. ... Then he finally left. He came back to Florence one time to see us, and that was it. I never did see him again.”
Q: When your uncle died in 1970, most of his artwork was almost destroyed. What happened?
A: “When he died, they were going to send the paintings and all his stuff here to us, here, to my grandmother, but it came to Savannah, I believe it was. At the time, my grandmother was with the YMCA, and there was no way she could get the money to pay for the freight and stuff for delivery. So she decided to leave them there for a while. Then, they were going to destroy the paintings, but the Smithsonian got word of it, and they came down to get them.”
Q: What do you think he would say if he were able to attend the exhibition’s grand opening in Lake City?
A: “I think he would be very proud. All the family is.”
Q: While many celebrate and cherish his art today, he never was able to achieve much financial stability during his life and his final few decades were spent at Central Islip State Hospital on Long Island. Do you see him as a tragic figure?
A: “No, I don’t. I think he enjoyed everything he did, although he did get sick. At that time, we were going to try to get him back down here, but my grandmother couldn’t afford to take a trip to get him down here. But we all had a chance to have to see him when he was here.”