Some readers may recall the feature story U.S. 1 ran back on September 21, 2011, reporting on the remarkable life of illustrator Lonni Sue Johnson, whose whimsical art work had gained attention both nationally and in her hometown.
Johnson grew up in Princeton and then did cover illustrations for the New Yorker magazine as well as designs for national consumer brands. In her hometown she painted a mural at the Bank of America office at 90 Nassau Street, and also illustrated the catalogs that promoted the Icelandic woolens of Landau’s clothing store. Then in December, 2007, at the age of 57, Johnson contracted encephalitis that caused amnesia and aphasia (language loss).
Lonni Sue lived near Cooperstown in upstate New York at the time of her illness, but moved back to Princeton, where her mother and sister live. With the help of her mother, Margaret Kennard Johnson (also an artist and now in her 90s), and younger sister, Aline, a computer programmer, she relearned how to walk, talk, and even eat unaided. But at first the drawing seemed to have vanished along with the rest of her long-term memory.
It took months for even a glimpse of her art to return. In the year after the onset of the illness, Amy Goldstein, a family friend and professional puzzle writer, gave Lonni Sue some word search books. Johnson reported that working on the puzzles helped clear her mind. Around November, 2008, Johnson had finished working on the puzzle books and — to the family’s astonishment — began creating her own puzzles. Then one day when she was working on her 13th puzzle, Johnson drew a tiny apple in the corner of one of the boxes of the grid into which she had arranged her letters. She drew a tiny pear in another. “This was a momentous cause for celebration,” says Aline. “Her entire life has been about art, and we were so happy to see her regain that aspect of herself.”
About that time Aline described Lonni Sue’s amnesia to her former client Robert Landau, the clothier, who in turn mentioned the turn of events to his wife, Barbara, a cognitive scientist at Johns Hopkins. Barbara Landau in turn brought Lonni Sue’s case to the attention of another researcher at Johns Hopkins, Michael McCloskey, a professor in the department of cognitive science who studies adults with brain damage. Their initial research led to an art exhibit at the Walters Art Museum accompanied by a scientific lecture — all noted in the original U.S. 1 article.
Now, as the March 30 issue of the New Yorker reports, the research into Lonni Sue’s brain is continuing at Princeton University, where Professor Nicholas Turk-Browne, a cognitive neuroscientist, is using an fMRI scanner, a device that displays a representation of a person’s mental activity in real time. “Johnson is the first person with profound amnesia to be examined extensively with an fMRI,” said the 12-page New Yorker account. “Several papers have been published about Johnson, and the researchers say she could fuel at least a dozen more.”
Johnson’s art work, including her covers for the New Yorker, can be found at the magazine’s website, www.newyorker.com.