Friday, July 3, 2020

Essay'd: Lester Johnson

I'm pleased to share my latest short piece for Essay'd: a consideration of the work of Detroit visual artist Lester Johnson (b. 1937). 

Johnson has lived and worked in Detroit his entire life, and has had a significant impact on the artist community here, both as a maker and an educator (he taught at the College for Creative Studies for 35 years!). I first learned of his work through my ongoing research into the proliferation of visionary abstract public art in Detroit in the early 1970s. His now-lost mural Continuum (1974), painted on a Detroit Edison substation at Grand River and Scotten in the neighborhood where he grew up, was one of eight murals commissioned by New Detroit, Inc. between 1972 and 1974 in an attempt to uplift the city after the devastation of the 1967 uprising.

Lester Johnson with Continuum, 1974, Detroit News photo courtesy of
Walter P. Reuther Library, Archives of Labor and Urban Affairs, Wayne State University

When I interviewed him for the essay, I asked Johnson if he could summarize the most crucial concerns of his long and varied practice. He surprised me by focusing on the increasingly collaborative nature of his work, saying that the great lesson of his life in art is: "You never accomplish anything by yourself." That's the theme I chose to emphasize in my piece. Consider it, this fraught July 4th, as a paean to interdependence, offered as an American alternative to our mania for personal liberty at any cost.

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