Puzzles of the Brain

Recovery art by Lonni Sue Johnson

By now, many are familiar with the story of Lonni Sue Johnson. A spate of media, from The New York Times and NPR, as well as local Princeton publications, wrote about the highly successful illustrator, with six New Yorker covers to her name and clients ranging from the Wall Street Journal and The New York Times to large corporations. The Princeton native suffered an attack of viral encephalitis in 2007 that left her with severe amnesia.

Lonni Sue’s mother, Margaret “Maggi” Kennard Johnson, noted artist and art educator, and sister, Aline Johnson, a Juilliard-trained cellist who studied music at Princeton University, helped Lonni Sue to regain much of what she lost, which included everything from the ability to eat, speak and brush her teeth, to the ability to lift a pen and let it do its magic.

In the fall, the media centered on Lonni Sue Johnson’s exhibit at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, Puzzles of the Brain: An Artists’ Journey Through Amnesia. Exploring the art and science of Ms. Johnson’s recovery, that exhibit has come home to Morven Museum, where it will be on view through June 3. Morven Curator of Exhibitions Elizabeth Allen has worked with Aline, co-curator, and Maggi to supplement the exhibit and include much of Lonni Sue’s earlier works, so the exhibit is now nearly double the size it was in Baltimore.

The museum’s three rooms are divided into pre-professional, professional and recovery art. Some of the early work comes from the collections of Robert Landau, who commissioned work for his Nassau Street store’s catalog, and Anne Reeves, who commissioned work for the Arts Council of Princeton, including the Curtain Calls buttons.

It is interesting to see certain motifs of her life that appear in all three stages of Ms. Johnson’s work: planets, stars, musical instruments, small planes and cats. As students, Lonni Sue and Aline performed with guest musicians in their home. Once Ms. Johnson achieved success as a commercial illustrator, she moved to a farm upstate New York where she had a 1946 yellow Piper Cub and air strip, an organic dairy farm and horses, and many cats, who kept her company.

After graduating from the University of Michigan with a bachelor’s degree in fine arts, Lonni Sue spent two years living at home, drawing, before teaching at the Arts Council of Princeton and Stuart Country Day School. “She told me she needed color and so taught herself watercolor, developing her own style,” says Maggi, 94.

“Her humor can be seen even in the early line drawings,” says Aline. “Meditative Environment,” a detailed line drawing of a bathroom, is one example. Over the years, Ms. Johnson honed that whimsical style.

Her 1970 “Dollar Bill Factory,” from the collection of Robert Landau, is a fanciful concept of how dollar bills are produced assembly line style: Birds in a cage go down a conveyor belt to go onto an eagle stamp, workers are snipping off the tops of pyramids, and a masked figure is chopping off presidential heads.

Interestingly, it was Mr. Landau’s wife, Barbara Landau, a neuroscientist at Johns Hopkins and high school classmate of Lonni Sue, who became interested in Lonni Sue’s memory loss and brought the case to Hopkins colleague Michael McCloskey. It was through Dr. McCloskey’s work that the exhibit at the Walters was initially developed.

“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.”

Among the earlier works on view is an invitation to a concert, with musicians seen through the brick walls of a building – Ms. Johnson was an amateur violist, and is still able to play.

With Lonni Sue, details matter. In her “Doors of Princeton,” done for a Landau’s catalog, there are sheep kissing under the mistletoe, a man shoveling snow outside a door, and through one open doorway we see the eight candles of a menorah.

“You get rewarded by continuing to look,” says Maggi.

One of Ms. Johnson’s early Princeton clients, Scott McVay, founding director of the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, commissioned her to do a cover for the foundation’s annual report. “For most folks, writing an annual report is a drudge or a drag,” Mr. McVay says in an e-mail exchange.  “For me it is a joyous undertaking.  I actually thought about it throughout the year, thinking about images and highlights – trying to line up artists and photographers for key events.”

The resulting cover shows a cyclist going uphill on a small planet, with artists, musicians and students acrobatically stacked above him.

“Lonni Sue’s wit, whimsy, imagination, and grace conveyed the spirit and enchantment of learning from books, others, and travels in nine sketches that scooted throughout the report,” continues Mr. McVay.

In 1982, Ms. Johnson was commissioned to create a fanciful Princeton map, featuring 55 businesses with 500 printed for each business. It tells the story of Princeton of a certain era, in magnificent detail. Shoes with roller skates become vehicles, transporting passengers along Nassau Street. Ballet dancers and a piano player are outside McCarter Theatre on an open-air stage. (Planners of the new University Arts District, take note!)

There is a record player atop the Princeton University Store and people are dancing on it. At Lahiere’s, once the premier dining establishment at the corner of Nassau and Witherspoon streets, little people are marching up the steps for roof-top dining.

On Carnegie Lake, a boater in a cracked canoe asks someone in a raft: Do you know of a good insurance company? Answers the man in the raft: “There are two on the map.” For Princeton Word Processing on Nassau Street, letters go into a tuba-shaped machine, and someone turns a crank to “process” the words.

There’s even a Princeton Packet truck, cruising along Faculty Road to make its deliveries.

Ms. Johnson, who performed in the Princeton University Orchestra while still in high school, signs her initials on Richardson Auditorium.

Maggi and Aline still giggle at these jokes, and one can imagine Lonni Sue’s amusement as she thought this up 30 years ago.

But it wasn’t all amusement – although the artist makes it look easy, it was hard work! Ms. Allen shows the process a commercial illustrator goes through in pre-Photoshop, pre-Adobe Illustrator and pre-InDesign days. On view are all the preparatory sketches showing the back and forth between artist and clients, developing ideas. Mr. Landau served as the mediator between Ms. Johnson and her clients.

Aline accompanied her sister while photographing all the stores, to be used as reference material. Ms. Johnson made numerous sketches that were placed under her watercolor paper on a light box.

“She doesn’t exactly follow the line,” says Maggi. “She gets the spontaneity. Then she uses watercolor for juicy colors. She was a perfectionist and could not make a mistake.”

For Prevention Magazine, to show the ups and downs of blood pressure, Ms. Johnson has a man with a red tie blowing in the wind on a cart that traverses a roller coaster of tubes. “Although an artist, she had to have the ability to go into the clients’ world and have an understanding of the field,” says Aline.

“She had a way of symbolizing an idea visually so people could understand it without its being so technical,” says Maggi.

“The child of her sees all that I might have known and refreshes me with the hope of seeing that world again,” writes one client, excerpted on the exhibit wall.

And the “child of her” illustrated countless children’s books, including The Story of Z. “One day, Z, unappreciated, walks off the alphabet.”

After her illness, Ms. Johnson did not recall that her father had died 19 years earlier. She could not remember that she’d once been married. And after she played the viola and returned it to its case, and her mother remarked how nice it had been to hear her play, Ms. Johnson asked, “Oh, did I play?”

The Recovery Art follows the fascinating process by which Ms. Johnson relearned to draw and develop language skills in her late 50s. That Johnson’s mother was a second-generation art educator made all the difference, as did her extraordinary patience and belief in her daughter’s abilities. This is a profound story of family taking care of family here, reversed from the usual mother-daughter relationship of two women this age. And that Maggi Johnson’s mind, and memory, are as sharp as can be is especially poignant.

Aline, who worked for many years as a computer programmer, had more recently been doing research in neuroscience. When Lonni Sue became ill, Aline had to step into her shoes and sell the farm, manage her sister’s business dealings, go through her artwork, all while helping her recover. “We also have to protect her privacy so she can continue her recovery,” says Aline, who is writing a book about her sister.

Ms. Johnson’s recovery was aided greatly when Aline was given some word puzzle books by a childhood friend to give to her sister. Lonni Sue used these puzzles to help her regain language, and also as a way to communicate with others. Through the puzzles, she began integrating artwork, and producing artwork independently. There was a one-and-a-half-year period where Ms. Johnson worked feverishly, producing hypergraphia – intensive writing of alphabet words – into the wee hours, typical of persons who suffer the brain damage she has. Her family estimates that if all these were placed in a pile, it would reach floor to ceiling, maybe higher.

But then, just as it stopped, the artwork came again, now in a faster, looser style. The artist was interested in puns – for example, she’d draw two people “drawing together.”

“There’s another meaning,” she’d point out. There would be a man and woman drawing the curtains together. But they were also drawing together after having been apart during the day. And, of course, Ms. Johnson was drawing them together.

“She just flows from one thought to the next, and art class is the place to do that,” says Eva Mantell, who taught Ms. Johnson in a program sponsored by the Arts Council of Princeton. “It’s beautiful to be around her when she has that moment of pure invention. She exists in that moment. She’s come so far – she’s off the charts in her abilities. As the year went on her work became more complex, with characters and narrative interwoven with layers of imagery. But she has so many struggles.”

Ms. Johnson has told Ms. Mantell “I used to have horses. I miss them so much. I used to have planes.”

“It is the story of her life told through her pen,” says Aline. “Now, art is her therapy. Her puzzle art helped her regain language and delve into her deep visual well to help her hold on to the present moment, which would otherwise vanish from her life.”

Puzzles of the Brain: An Artist’s Journey Through Amnesia is on view through June 3 at Morven Museum & Garden, 55 Stockton St., Princeton. Programs — Puzzles, a Pathway to Recovery: A Conversation with Amy Goldstein, Sunday, Feb. 26, 2 p.m., $8 members, $10 non-members, reservations required; Puzzles of the Brain: A Discussion of Art, Science and Memory, Saturday, March 31, 2 p.m. Free, seating is limited; doors open1:30 p.m., McCosh 50, Princeton University, with speakers Dr. Barbara Landau, Dick & Lydia Todd Professor Cognitive Science, Johns Hopkins University

Dr. Michael McCloskey, Professor of Cognitive Science & Neuroscience, Johns Hopkins University, 1978 Princeton Ph.D., Margaret Kennard Johnson, mother and fellow artist, Aline M. Johnson, Princeton class of ’77, sister and co-curator of the current.  For additional information visit www.morven.org or call 609-924-8144 x106

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This entry was posted in Art Therapy, Central NJ Art, Drawing, Museum exhibits and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Puzzles of the Brain

  1. bobjustin says:

    The magic of the human spirit to triumph, well presented.

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