Our September 21, 2011, cover story told the story of Lonni Sue Johnson, a highly successful artist based in Princeton who, in late 2007, suddenly contracted viral encephalitis, an infection that led to severe brain damage. As a consequence, Johnson developed profound amnesia, aphasia (language loss), and suffered a complete loss of artistic productivity. However, over the course of the following four years, she defied science.
Ten months after her illness, Johnson had a breakthrough, when friend and professional puzzle-writer Amy Goldstein gave her three puzzle books. These puzzles required Lonni Sue to search for words from a list, hidden in a grid of letters. Within a few weeks, Lonni Sue began to make her own word-search puzzles. Since her illness, it was the first time she could work at her desk, on her own. Soon, her art began to appear in her puzzles — as pictures and even as experimental shapes of the grids themselves. “Clothes that Hang up in the Closet” is a drawing of a hanger with an embedded grid, which includes words about clothing; a drawing of a pair of pants includes words for each part of the garment.
Through intensive encouragement and art therapy by her mother, accomplished Princeton artist Margaret Kennard Johnson, as well as 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) and Michael McCloskey, a professor in the department of cognitive science, Johnson began to produce an ongoing series of illustrations and drawings that came to be called “recovery art.”
An exhibit of her recovery art made national news last October, when the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore mounted an exhibit of her pre- and post-recovery art, “Puzzles of the Brain.” Now the exhibit is coming to Morven Museum and Garden, 55 Stockton Street, opening Thursday, January 26, with a reception from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. The exhibit is on view through Sunday, June 3.
Johnson grew up in Princeton where she began her career creating signature graphics for the Arts Council of Princeton and a number of other area organizations and businesses. At the peak of her career, her illustrations were featured in prestigious publications such as the New Yorker (including covers), the New York Times, and the Wall Street Journal. She created illustrations for over 50 books. Her art was exhibited in the White House and the United Nations and is in the collection of the Smithsonian. Closer to home, she did projects for the Arts Council Princeton, the Historical Society of Princeton, ETS, and Landau’s store. Johnson’s art was characterized by the clever use of visual elements in intricate combination, to convey meaning.
Over the course of Johnson’s rehabilitation, her characteristically humorous style and imagination have been emerging. Her recovery art provides unique insight into the devastating effects of amnesia, as well as the complementary roles played by language and memory in her artistic expression.
According to a press statement issued by Morven, “What is extraordinary about Johnson’s case is that, in the context of her deep amnesia, she continues to write and draw urgently, using art to capture her current thoughts before they vanish. Her art is the external record of changes in her mental life. When viewed chronologically, the dramatic transformations in her art tell the inspiring story, of how an artist has come to cope with a devastating illness and how her art propels her journey.”
In an E-mail on Thursday, January 19, Johnson’s sister, Aline, a computer programmer and analyst (as well as a Juilliard-trained musician), wrote: “Today at Morven, Lonni Sue saw her exhibit as it was being put up. She was thrilled. As she went from artwork to artwork, she laughed, pointed out details to us, and said, ‘I don’t remember seeing these in a long time!’ She was radiant, as if recognizing these artworks as old friends. Then, at lunch, less than an hour later, when we talked about the visit, she said she didn’t remember anything. Her journey continues. And creating illustrated word puzzles continues to be central to how she grasps onto the world. The exhibit at Morven spans 41 years of heart, including work that has ties to her hometown, Princeton.”
“Puzzles of the Brain: An Artist’s Journey through Amnesia,” Morven Museum, 55 Stockton Street, Princeton. Thursday, January 26, 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. Opening reception for exhibit of works by Princeton artist Lonni Sue Johnson, who was profiled in the September 21, 2011, issue of U.S. 1. This exhibit has been organized by Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, Maryland, in partnership with the Cognitive Science Department of the Zanvyl Krieger School of Arts and Science at Johns Hopkins University. On view through Sunday, June 3. 609-924-8144 or www.morven.org.
Museum hours: Wednesday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday, noon to 4 p.m. $6; $5 for seniors and students. Free parking is available on site.