The congregation of Reverend Elder Bishop Anderson Johnson numbered in the thousands, but they were virtually all painted by the preacher himself and most hung by threads from the ceiling instead of sitting in pews. Surrounded by crime, blight, drugs and wig shops, he lived a quiet life on Ivy Street in Newport News, VA following a long career of selfless ministry.
I am only now beginning to appreciate, some 15 years after my first visit, how special was his gift and talent. Within the door of his church and home a dark cave of religious passion entirely of his own making awaited. Completely surrounded by his own paintings of "followers" he performed on guitar, pedal steel and piano, hidden within the walls and largely for himself. I was surprised years later to find he had recorded commercially. Despite many conversations about his life, service and mission, he never mentioned his gospel steel guitar recordings made by Henry Stone in Florida in the late 1950's released on the Glory and Angel Labels. I understand there has been a resurgence of steel guitar gospel players in Florida since, I suspect the roots of this movement were planted by Reverend Johnson. One has recently been posted on YouTube, using one of my photographs, so I am taking the time to repost this entry from Dull Tool Dim Bulb.
Reverend Johnson passed away near poverty, but at least one painting was added to the Smithsonian American Art Museum in 1998. He once told me, in all seriousness, the reason he painted so many portraits was that he hoped to find work as a courtroom artist. The house he transformed was destroyed by urban renewal (which in this case was needed, believe me) Portions of the environment also remain in historic preservation museum projects in Virginia and in private collections. There is a beautiful essay about his life on the website of the Middle Passage Project run by the College of William and Mary. Some of Mr. Johnson's recordings have been reissued, one appears on the Dust-To-Digital "Goodbye, Babylon" box set of 2003
Original 35mm photographs 1993-1995 collection Jim Linderman
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