Lonni Sue Johnson, who grew up in Princeton, has made her mark as an artist both nationally and in her hometown. Her credits include cover illustrations for The New Yorker magazine and the artwork for the buttons for Curtain Calls, Princeton’s former family-friendly New Year’s Eve event. A mural by Johnson, painted in 1981, is on display at the Bank of America at 90 Nassau Street. Then a severe case of viral encephalitis turned her world upside down. On December 30, 2007, at the age of 57, she suffered damage to her brain that resulted in amnesia and aphasia (language loss). Although she came close to dying, she survived and has since had to relearn how to walk, to talk, and even to eat unaided.
Her family was devastated, including her sister, Aline Johnson, a computer programmer and analyst besides being a Juilliard-trained musician, and her mother, Margaret Kennard Johnson, also an artist. As the full extent of Johnson’s condition became evident during those first few days, both sister and mother promised each other that they would try to find a way to turn a tragedy into something that could help other people and maybe, in the process, further science as well.
Together with brain researchers at Johns Hopkins University, including Barbara Landau, vice provost and the former chair of the cognitive science department (who is married to Robert Landau of Landau’s on Nassau Street, for whom Johnson has illustrated several catalog covers), and Michael McCloskey, a professor in the department of cognitive science, they are doing just that. Remarkably, Johnson — who has received intensive art therapy from her mother — has begun to create art again, although very different from her work prior to her illness. Johnson and her “recovery art” are providing insights into the effects of amnesia and the roles played by language and memory in artistic expression.
Her “recovery art” is currently featured in an exhibit, “Puzzles of the Brain,” at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, on view through Sunday, December 11. On Sunday, October 2, a special lecture by McCloskey will take place at the museum.
Lonni Sue Johnson was born in 1950. Her grandmother was a portrait painter and college instructor, and her mother is well-known as an artist and accomplished printmaker who studied with Joseph Albers and taught for 23 years at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. Her father, now deceased, was a scientist and inventor for RCA and Corning Glass.
After attending Princeton High School (she was there at the same time as Barbara Landau) and studying at the University of Michigan, Johnson taught at Stuart Country Day School in Princeton from 1974 to 1976, before becoming a full-time professional illustrator. The Arts Council of Princeton, the Historical Society of Princeton, ETS, and Landau’s store were among her first clients. In 1981 her career took flight when The New Yorker used her artwork on its cover for the first time.
Before her illness Johnson lived a full life. (Long before her illness, she was married for 10 years.) She worked out of her renovated barn studio on a farm near Cooperstown in upstate New York. It was a joyful life shared with seven cats, a horse, and a herd of cows. She grew organic vegetables on the farm, which also had a small landing strip for a yellow two-seater airplane, her beloved 1946 Piper Cub. “Lonni Sue moved to Cooperstown because she wanted a grass strip for her airplane and increasingly loved the beauty and texture of nature there,” says her sister Aline.
Before her illness Johnson was known in her work for exquisite detail and humor. It connected with people on many levels, made them laugh, feel good about themselves, and delight in daily life. It often challenged the intellect and was inspired by her numerous interests: flying, cooking, gardening, playing music on her viola, history, reading, people, and ideas. She wrote and illustrated many books, and her work found its way into museum collections.
In the first 11 months of her recovery, Johnson had great difficulty initiating any activity. She suffered from severe persistent headaches. She could not draw a picture on her own. But with the help of her mother and sister, she slowly began to produce artwork again. And while she is still not fully recovered, her remarkable return to art has surprised her doctors and given Landau and McCloskey much to think about, offering the equivalent of a natural experiment from which to learn about the brain, language, and creativity.
“Lonni Sue was hospitalized right after Christmas on Sunday, December 30, 2007,” says Aline Johnson. “As soon as we heard, my mother and I drove there. Viral encephalitis rarely goes to the brain but in Lonni Sue’s case the effects were so severe that we were afraid she was going to die.”
Preferring to focus on the here and now, Aline and Margaret don’t talk in terms of long-term prognosis. Johnson has been treated in a series of facilities and the family is, understandably, protective of her, cognizant of the fact that she needs time to recover and that while she has come a long way, she has a long way still to go. They believe that privacy is crucial for her well-being and recovery. She is currently living in her mother’s Princeton area home.
Because art had been at the core of Johnson’s life and work, indeed at the very beginning since the age of two, both her mother and sister were desperate to see Johnson return to art after the trauma of her illness. But she could barely hold a pencil. During the first year she made great strides. Words began to return. She pored over a dictionary and began capturing words and letters of the alphabet. She would make up and sing alphabet songs. Every small step was a triumph, but there was no art, only words.
“Ever since her illness our lives have been focused on Lonni Sue,” says Aline. “I had to step into my sister’s previous life, to handle mountains of paperwork as well as the logistics of her current life. My mother is now a mother and mentor to Lonni Sue for the second time, working with her and stretching her abilities.”
At first Johnson’s speech included no nouns and sounded like some other language. Then one day a small advance came when the artist pointed outside the window and said her first noun, “birds.” Recalls Aline: “It was a long time coming, but it was wonderful.”
Eleven months after her illness came another turning point. Aline Johnson’s friend, Amy Goldstein, a professional puzzle writer, gave her three of her own word search books for her sister, hoping they would provide some fun. The goal in these word search puzzles was to find words from a given list among a grid of vowels and consonants. The words might be arranged in a line up or down, from left to right, or diagonally. Johnson loved them. She worked at them non-stop.
This was around the time that her severe headaches were beginning to abate and Johnson reported that working on the puzzles helped clear her mind. Her family was thrilled — but still there was no art. When she came close to the end of the series of books, around November, 2008, Johnson was clearly worried. “What am I going to do?” she asked urgently. Her mother promised to find more puzzle books but they came a day late — and serendipitously so. Johnson had finished the last puzzle. And then, a surprising thing happened. She began creating her own puzzles. First she made a list of the names of colors (which she had had to relearn), and she put the letters into a grid. Then she did the same with the names of shapes that she also had painstakingly relearned.
But still no art.
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.”
This was the breakthrough moment that had been longed for during months of patient work. After drawing simple shapes for her daughter to copy, Margaret Kennard Johnson began drawing wiggly lines and asking her daughter to finish the drawing — she might complete the line with a drawing of a cat or a part of cat. Once Margaret drew three short wiggles, and her daughter turned them into twigs carried by a bird in its beak.
Eventually Johnson started drawing little people, reminiscent of her pre-trauma artwork. This was an exciting moment for her sister and mother, who had no way of knowing whether Johnson still possessed any of her artistic abilities. As Aline explains, “for Lonni Sue, creating puzzles is not just a hobby; it’s an accommodation to her extreme memory loss. As the present moment moves forward in time, the prior moment vanishes from memory. Lonni Sue has to write and draw to capture that present moment. Taking away her paper and pencil would be like asking someone to stop thinking.”
Because she has little recollection of her past, the individual words Johnson has rediscovered have become treasures to be held onto. In an attempt to remember them, she would write the entire alphabet out on a page and then list all of the words she knows beginning with each letter. These pages became the place where she could not only grasp words but the world around her. “She has lost so much of her own autobiography and even of what just happened, that her mind is occupied by the relationships between words and bunches of letters,” Aline says. “Gradually her world is expanding.”
Even so, almost all of Johnson’s current drawings remain unfinished. She intends to go back to them but then another idea presents itself and she starts on something new, continually pulled forward by the rapid race of her thoughts.
Clearly, there is a world of difference between the artwork that Johnson is currently engaged in and the work she created formerly as a professional illustrator, work that involved business activities and cutting-edge computer technology. Rather than the work of a professional meeting her clients’ needs, Johnson’s puzzles are a sort of jungle gym she is using to exercise and stretch her mental capabilities. At one time, she became so focused on words and letters and so driven to create puzzles that she continued on into the night, driving herself to exhaustion. Her puzzles are a sort of self-therapy, helping her to regain her art and her vocabulary and enabling her to think and to relate to other people.
On a visit to her mother’s home, I decide to bring Johnson a small bunch of flowers from my garden. She is immediately caught up in the word “flower.” She tells me that she had a cat named Flo, the first three letters of the word, and that “flow” is also a word. It’s as if her thoughts come in a constant stream and she is caught up in their flow. She is seated at the dining room table working on a puzzle of her own devising. On the table are several neatly arranged piles of labeled file folders containing paper, drawings, grids, and word puzzles.
Johnson is clearly comfortable talking and exploring language. “Flying is like dancing in the sky,” she tells me. It’s like beauty, like playing the viola, which she does, sight reading works by Bach and performing a piece written especially for her by Princeton composer Rita Asch. She also sings: on the spot she makes up an alphabet song, relishing the sound of each word and giggling as perfect pairings present themselves: “humorously hilarious; joyfully jolly; lovingly leading laughter leading light; marvelously moving music movement; sweet smiling satisfactions spectacularly; wonderful wording wishfulness.”
There was a time when Johnson sang constantly. Aline recalls an incident about a year and a half ago, when Lonni Sue visited the supermarket McCaffrey’s in Princeton with her mother, and there was an impromptu concert of sorts. “My mother had said, ‘Now remember Lonni Sue, no singing’ but when they arrived in the store the man behind the seafood counter was singing. Lonni Sue couldn’t resist joining in and a crowd gathered as they sang back and forth. Eventually my mother had to sing Lonni Sue out of the store to the applause of the good-natured crowd.”
At one point during my visit Aline asks her sister why art is so important. “It’s a language that can be read by anyone all over the world and is a way of expression that gives you everything at once, it encloses meaning like a cup,” Johnson says.
Barbara Landau learned of Johnson’s remarkable story about two years ago after a chance meeting between Aline Johnson and Barbara’s husband, Robert. When she heard about Johnson’s trauma, she was eager to help.
Barbara Landau usually works with young children, and although much of her research concerns the mechanisms of normal development, she is interested in unusual cases that shed light on normal development and cognition.
“Lonni Sue’s illness left permanent damage to her hippocampus, an area that we know to be very important for memory of ongoing events and personal experiences,” says Landau, who met with the artist after discussing her case with Johns Hopkins colleague Michael McCloskey and deciding on a set of tests for measuring cognitive function. One of these is the Rey-Osterreith design, in which people are shown a moderately complex geometric figure and asked to copy it when it is in view and then again after it has been turned over so they cannot see the design (but have just copied it).
“Lonni Sue copied the figure almost perfectly when it was in view, but remembered almost nothing of the design once it had been turned over. Ten minutes later she did not remember having copied any figure,” Landau reported. On the basis of that test, Landau and McCloskey knew that Lonni Sue had a severely impaired memory. A standard vocabulary test for adults, however, showed Lonni Sue scoring above average for normal adults. It was clear there was a striking difference between her memory for events and her stored memory for words.
McCloskey, who is known for work on adults with brain damage, is collaborating with Landau on a research project to study Johnson and her artwork to unlock the secrets of the creative brain. “One of the surprising things is that some of the areas on the left side of Lonni Sue’s brain that have been damaged are thought by some researchers to be crucial for word knowledge, and it may be that they are not,” says McCloskey. “Tests show that Lonni Sue’s memory for the past has been severely affected by her illness. We also tested Lonni Sue’s ability to form new memories. For example, in one test we showed her 50 words, one at a time. Then we tested her memory by showing her pairs of words, each of which included a word from the list, and a word we had not shown her. Her job was to say which word in each pair was the one she had been shown earlier. Similarly, she was shown 50 unfamiliar faces one at a time, and tested in the same way. Even though each test was given immediately after the list of words or faces, Lonni Sue showed no ability to remember what she had seen, indicating that she has great difficulty in forming new memories.
“This difficulty is also revealed in other ways,” McCloskey continues. “For example, according to Lonni Sue’s mother and sister, she had to be told repeatedly — perhaps more than 100 times — before she was able to learn that her father had died some years ago.”
The research scientists’ tests reveal a dramatic contrast between devastating impairments of memory and preserved language and spatial abilities, signaling perhaps that it is no accident that much of Johnson’s recovery art involves the arrangement of words into spatial patterns. “Lonni Sue is making good use of what she has left in creating her art,” says McCloskey.
After seeing the portfolio of Johnson’s post-trauma recovery art that Margaret Kennard Johnson and Aline Johnson had carefully compiled, Barbara Landau was inspired by the idea of an art exhibition. The perfect opportunity presented itself last October, when Landau was at a Science and the Arts meeting in Baltimore, a collaboration of Johns Hopkins University and a number of local museums. There she met Gary Vikan, director of the Walters Art Museum, who had already held an exhibition on art and the brain focusing on how the brain represents shapes and why we find some more esthetically pleasing than others. It occurred to Landau that Johnson’s portfolio represented a fascinating synergy between science and art. After discussing it with the Johnson family and showing Vikan the artwork, the exhibition, “Puzzles of the Brain: An Artist’s Journey through Amnesia,” got underway.
Johnson’s work as a successful illustrator was characterized by cleverness and wit with layers of detail. Her recovery art is word-based. Why? According to Landau, part of the reason might be that she lost a great deal because of her amnesia and had to draw upon what remained — her vocabulary.
With such severe memory loss, Johnson’s facility with words poses fascinating questions about the nature of imagination, creativity, and the brain. “If we think creativity has to be rooted in what we know about ourselves or what we remember about ourselves, that clearly is not the case,” says Landau.
Margaret Kennard Johnson had been keeping a dated log of her daughter’s recovery art ever since the idea was suggested by one of Johnson’s first doctors. “It was a wonderful idea because it gave us something to focus on amidst all the chaos,” says Aline. “Her art has been an important window into what is going on in her mind, what changes and what remains.”
The approximately 25 pieces of artwork in “Puzzles of the Brain” reveal that what remains is Johnson’s innate cheerfulness and whimsy; her innate good nature. “Clearly the pre and post-trauma work is from the same hand, and we’ve also seen the reappearance of some of the same characters, a mischievous cat for example, and horses, and images such as sun, moon, clouds, and stars,” says Aline. “It’s as though her puzzles help draw out images from deep inside of her.”
One telling example of the artist’s new work in the exhibition shows a smiling woman reaching upwards towards drawn figures of a kite, a pear, a tiger, cups, moon, stars, baseball, a bow, and a shining sun, against a background of alphabet letters with cloud-like collections of word arrangements. It is impossible not to see this as portraying the artist herself in the process of recovery as she reaches for words and images in a world comprising them. Like her pre-trauma artwork, her recovery art is full of joy.
Both Aline and Margaret say they “hope that the exhibit will continue to have a life after the Walters.”
While Johnson no longer has available many of the sources of inspiration she used to have and other artists have to draw upon for their art — personal memories, knowledge of current and historical events, and the like — her creativity is tapping into other sources. “While her recovery art points to the importance of memory as a source of inspiration, it also suggests that the creative spark, the artistic sensibility is separate from and not dependent upon the sorts of memory that Lonni Sue has lost,” says McCloskey.
“It’s extremely likely that Lonni Sue’s pursuit of her art, with her mother’s help and encouragement, has been very important in her recovery,” he continues. “The conventional wisdom is that recovery from brain damage occurs almost entirely within the first year, with little change thereafter.”
Several years before Johnson got ill, Aline took several classes in psychology and neuroscience and worked in a neuroscience lab, little knowing that her background in art and science would stand her in good stead. She is constantly probing Lonni Sue for clues as to what is going on with her, information that she can then pass along to the scientists.
“We are all working to help Lonni Sue get well,” she says. “So many people from all walks of life have and continue to help us: friends, doctors, nurses, aides, artists, farmers, business people, coworkers. In settling her affairs, selling her farm, for example, I made physical contact with every aspect of her life, touching each and every one of her possessions and meeting her friends and business associates. I have come to know her and appreciate her life in a deeper way than ever before.”
“Puzzles of the Brain: An Artist’s Journey through Amnesia,” the Walters Art Museum, 600 North Charles Street, Baltimore. Organized in conjunction with the museum and the cognitive science department of the Zanvyl Krieger School of Arts and Sciences at Johns Hopkins University. The exhibit features some 25 pieces of Lonni Sue Johnson’s pre- and post-trauma art. On view through Sunday, December 11. Hours: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Symposium, Sunday, October 2, with cognitive science professor Michael McCloskey of Johns Hopkins University. 410-547-9000 or www.thewalters.org.
For more information on the artist visit http://lonnisuejohnson.wordpress.com