Miles in Smiles

Third-generation artist Lonni Sue Johnson is on a path back from amnesia, thanks to mentoring and support from her sister and mother

The 1985 New Yorker cover by Lonni Sue Johnson shows an artist in an all-white loft, at an easel with a blank white canvas, looking out an elliptical window to a candy-colored skyline. Stacks of paintings, like buildings themselves within the room, show variations on the cityscape.

Achieving the New Yorker cover is the pinnacle of success for many artists. Johnson’s artwork has been there six times.

Her illustrations appeared regularly in The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and other major newspapers. She illustrated more than 50 books, many for children and three of which she’d written herself.

The Princeton native’s illustrations overflowed with happy symbols: kites, parachutes, toy-like planes, a sun, a crescent moon with a face, a ringed Saturn and purple mountains.  There are pianos and stringed instruments and musical notes. Manhattan office buildings and apartments are packed with little people busy at work, moving pianos or holding up the world.

Her numerous corporate clients also desired these humorous scenes, complex in detail yet rendered with childlike simplicity.

Scale is a thing to play with, and sometimes the little people are walking into a book twice their size or holding a house or a sailboat. In a work titled “The glaciers melt,” the Empire State Building, the Chrysler Building, the Statue of Liberty and the Brooklyn Bridge are three-quarters submerged, as  people in small boats navigate about their protruding tops.

There is whimsy not only in the use of color but in the stance of figures, the costumes they wear, an outsized shadow.

“My mother was always a major influence,” Johnson said in 1996. Margaret “Maggi” Kennard Johnson – also the daughter of an artist/art educator — gave Lonni Sue her very first art lessons. “I got my grounding in composition and design from her,” said Lonni Sue.

After earning a bachelor’s degree in fine arts from the School of Architecture and Design of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor in 1972, Lonni Sue taught art at Stuart Country Day School and met Anne Reeves, then executive director, Arts Council of Princeton. Reeves commissioned illustrations from Johnson, including the buttons for Curtain Calls, ACP’s annual New Year’s Eve event, for 14 years.

As her career as an illustrator took off, Johnson lived in Manhattan, where “I see people from my window… come and go with laundry bags and ladders… pushing baby carriages or being pulled by darting little dogs,” she wrote in her 1995 book, Planet News (Kodansha, Japan).

She observed the rush and push, the taxis and buses.

Once fax and e-mail made it possible, Johnson moved out of the city, first to Connecticut and later to a farm in upstate New York. There, she lived out her dream, with a horse and seven cats, running an organic dairy farm and flying her plane, a bright yellow 1946 Piper Cub. Flying gave her a bird’s eye view of the world – all those little people and buildings and planets could be put into a new perspective.

Her mother was welcome company. “I loved being her passenger,” says Maggi. “It never happened enough.”

“Every day is as full as possible of drawing and painting, digging in the garden, playing with my two striped cats, learning to fly, drinking tea… playing the viola… Each day’s details leap into my watercolor box to refresh it and come out somewhere in my pictures,” she wrote.

In December 2007, everything changed for Johnson, then 57. Viral encephalitis attacked both sides of her brain, damaging the hippocampus, a structure crucial for forming and storing new memories. An MRI of her brain looks like a slice of a lotus root, with gaping holes.

Johnson cannot recall much detail about her pre-illness life, nor remember what happened five minutes ago.

She has no recollection of a 10-year marriage that ended in divorce, nor of her father’s death more than two decades earlier — it had to be recounted to her at least 100 times.

A FAMILY STORY

On the last day of 2007, Maggi Johnson and her younger daughter, Aline, put their own lives on hold to help Lonni Sue regain hers.

Maggi, 93, is a renowned artist who has exhibited internationally and taught at the Museum of Modern Art in New York for more than 20 years. She studied with Josef Albers at Black Mountain College and at Pratt Institute. During the eight years she lived in Tokyo, she wrote a book on contemporary Japanese printmaking. Visitors to the Princeton Public Library are familiar with her layered textile wall sculpture in the Quiet Room.

Aline, a Juilliard-trained cellist who earned a bachelor’s degree in music at Princeton University, worked as a computer programmer/analyst for 20 years and, more recently, was working in the field of neuroscience.

Moving Lonni Sue from hospital to acute rehab to sub-acute rehab and nursing home, all while commuting 270 miles every week and grappling with her own emotions about her sister’s loss, Aline was also managing the logistics of doctors, therapists, finances, bookkeeping and, ultimately, selling the farm. “I had to step into her shoes to take over her enormously complex life,” says Aline, who had to figure out even such details as where her sister banked.

“While Aline was doing all that, I was lucky to be with Lonni Sue to help and encourage her,” says Maggi.

It took Lonni Sue a month to eat on her own. It took a month to walk again, and a full year of daily practice to learn to navigate from one end of a facility to another.

To talk again took a year. “It was like starting from ground zero,” says Aline. “She couldn’t speak nouns. She would talk and talk, but no noun would come.”

“She was cheerful throughout, and people wanted to help because she was so appreciative,” recounts Maggi. “We were lucky. She was like a wide-eyed child seeing everything for the first time.”

Even helping Lonni Sue relearn brushing her teeth presented a huge challenge. She balked, saying she was an adult and didn’t need help.

Eleven months after the onset of her sister’s illness, Aline went for a walk in Princeton and ran into her friend Amy Goldstein. Goldstein publishes puzzle books and gave some to Aline to give her sister.

This was a turning point for the amnesiac, who became fascinated with the puzzles. When she finished the book, she began creating her own puzzles. At the same time, her persistent headaches went away. Johnson did hundreds of puzzles, not because they were a fun way to pass the time, but  because it was finally a way for her to grasp her world.

The formerly avid reader could no longer sustain reading even a magazine article, because by the time she was several paragraphs in, she had forgotten the earlier paragraphs. But with puzzles, she can write down the words and it becomes a way to hold on to them.

Although Maggi and Aline had tried to get Lonni Sue to draw, even attempts at a line were at first unsuccessful. Working on the puzzles seemed to free her, and soon images of an apple and a pear appeared on the paper.

Maggi invented games to prompt her daughter to draw. In time, images of little people began to appear, and then smiling cats. Next came aerial views of a farm, a house, fields and trees, birds and planes and a flying person.

A PUZZLE OF THE BRAIN

Puzzles of the Brain: An Artist’s Journey Through Amnesia, an exhibit featuring Johnson’s before and after artwork, opened at the Walters Museum of Art in Baltimore and travels to Morven Museum & Garden in Princeton, January 26 through June 3, 2012. It explores the art and science of her recovery.

Aline, who has documented her sister’s artwork and her case, is the co-curator of the exhibit. In October, PNC sponsored two buses to the museum. “We know the Johnson family well, and it was a great opportunity to bring the Arts Council of Princeton and art lovers to see the show and hear the lecture ‘Return from Amnesia,’” says Chris Lokhammer, Director,  PNC Wealth Management in Princeton, after announcing the $2,500 Lonni Sue Johnson Fund for Arts Education at the Arts Council of Princeton.

“The Johnson family wishes this to be a forward-looking fund designed to ensure the continued role of the Arts Council in the creative life of our community,” says ACP Director of Fund Development Andrea Honore.

“Puzzles of the Brain” is not only the title of the exhibit at the Walters, but the cognitive challenge Johns Hopkins University scientists Michael McCloskey and Barbara Landau, a Princeton High School classmate of Lonni Sue, are studying. Despite her struggles with memory, six months into her recovery Lonni Sue picked up the viola and played for 45 minutes.

“For a good amateur who hadn’t played in a long while, she played well,” says Aline. The moment after the viola was placed back in its case, Maggi, thrilled by the good music and signs of recovery, said “How wonderful to hear you play the viola again.” Astonishment crossed Lonni Sue’s face as she said, “Oh, did I play?”

DRAWING TOGETHER

In the home where she grew up, Lonni Sue sits at the George Nakashima table the family has gathered around since architect and Princeton Magazine publisher J. Robert Hillier designed an addition to the house in the 1960s. New Yorker cartoonist Henry Martin and Princeton artist Tom George were family friends.

It was in this room that the two sisters, then in high school and college, played in string quartets with pianists and violinists who were also scientists. They played Beethoven, Bach, Brahms, Dvorak and Mozart. There would be conversations about science, history, literature, psychiatry and art. Guests would listen with cats in their laps – a scene right out of a Lonni Sue Johnson illustration.

“I like to have a cat and a dog in the picture,” she says while drawing a picture, “because when you have a cat and a dog, you have categories and doggone.”

She likes to make letters in the shape of people, and demonstrates with the letters A, R and T. “It’s fun to write words with art: smart, cart, part. Party has art.”

Lonni Sue reminisces about her Piper Cub. “I miss being a pilot. It gave me a point of view for painting. It was like dancing in the sky, with two feet to the rudders.”

Aline asks, “What is point of view?”

Johnson draws a bearded man napping with a book in his hand, and behind him is a house with a chimney to show horizontal point of view. Next she draws a sky with a plane over the barn, with mountains and a lake and the top of a sailboat. She adds a cat in the back seat, joyfully raising its paws.

She is gregarious, articulate, engaging, with an expansive vocabulary and her own perspective on the world. In her company, it’s easy to forget she has profound memory impairment.

“She would not have made this progress if it had not been for the heroic effort made by her family,” said Dr. McCloskey. “Although she remembers little about her life, she has never forgotten who she is.”

Johnson shows her collection of words containing the word “us.” They are organized alphabetically, and there are multiple entries for each letter. There is August and houses and illustrators. She will go back and create sentence fragments, such as “usefully useful.” But there will be no “onerous,” only cheerful words, she says.

Her careful selection of words has become a kind of art.

With some prodding, she sings her alphabet song. “All artists adore animals absolutely bringing beautiful blessings,” she croons. “Grinners gloriously giving hilarious happiness… journalists joyfully joining…” she sings for more than 10 minutes. The words flow, and as she comes up with the words she smiles and laughs.

Except for when she sings or plays viola, Johnson is drawing all the time. The people she draws are smiling, there are happy suns and moons and stars. Johnson is smiling as she draws, and Maggi is smiling as she watches her daughter regain the ability to draw.

“Art is a way of communicating with people in all languages,” Johnson says. “It’s a universal way to share your stories.”

These days, to do her own artwork, Maggi says she has to do it “around the edges of time, making sketches and more preplanning, rather than playing in the studio. I don’t want to give up a part of what keeps the spirit going, but Lonni Sue is our priority. I love to be with her because she’s always so positive.”

When Johnson hears Maggi and Aline discussing all they did to put her life back together, she comments, “I hope I can do something for you some day.”

“You do all the time, you help us by drawing something that makes us smile,” says Maggi.

“That’s important,” says Johnson, “because smile has mile in it.”

 This article originally appeared in Princeton Magazine.

Puzzles of the Brain: An Artist’s Journey through Amnesia will be on view at Morven Museum & Garden,  January 26 to June 3, 2012.

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