The ‘heartbeat’ of Philly arts, Leroy Johnson, 85, has died

Often considered an “outsider” vernacular artist, through his 60-year career Johnson became a Philadelphia institution and inspiration.

Philadelphia artist Leroy Johnson

Philadelphia artist Leroy Johnson, as photographed by Wale Oyejide of Ikiré Jones. (Wale Oyejide/Love in Isolation)

Leroy Johnson, a longtime Philadelphia artist and educator, died on Friday, July 8. He was 85.

According to longtime friend Genevieve Carminati, Johnson was recently diagnosed with lung cancer, which progressed quickly. After undergoing treatment at Jefferson Hospital, he entered hospice care at a friend’s home in Bala Cynwyd, where he passed away.

Johnson was a prolific creative force for more than six decades, working in a variety of mediums including painting, clay, collage, and assemblage sculpture.

He was busily making work up until his illness.

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

Eight months ago he was the artist in residence at the Center for Emerging Visual Artists in Rittenhouse Square. As recently as March, Johnson spoke with students at Temple University as part of a Race and Identity artist speaker series.

“He was so full of energy and eager to share everything he had,” said Ricky Yanas, who organized the event.

Johnson called himself an “activist-artist,” making work about his life in Philadelphia’s urban neighborhood, and about Black history.

“I consider my work to be about markers in history for the period of time that I’m alive,” he said during an interview in 2019 while in residence at the Barnes Foundation. “From gang violence, gun control, lynching. Generally, they’re not popular. Nobody wants to buy this and stick it in their living room, you know?”

His memory was long. Johnson described listening to stories told to him as a boy by his grandmother, born in 1896. He incorporated over a century of family history into his work.

Johnson was born in 1937 and grew up in Eastwick in Southwest Philadelphia. He is considered a self-taught artist, although he attended classes at Fleisher Art Memorial and studied at the Philadelphia College of Art (now the University of the Arts). He went on to earn a master’s degree in Human Services at Lincoln University.

Johnson was inspired by African American vernacular artists like Horace Pippin and Jacob Lawrence, as well as more formally trained Black artists like Louis B. Sloan.

He had what might be called a maximalist style: he used anything and everything in his works, including cardboard, scraps of fabric, bits of metal, and watch parts. His studio was littered with seemingly random debris, all waiting to become pregnant with meaning.

“I was a poor artist, a starving artist for a long time and I couldn’t necessarily afford supplies, so I ended up going to hardware stores,” he said. “And also picking up stuff. Philadelphia is a little cleaner now. There used to be an abundance of trash and junk you could pick up very easily.”

Over his tireless 60-year career, Johnson became a steadfast arts fixture in Philadelphia with countless solo shows, residencies, and the support of many art philanthropies including a 2014 Pew Fellowship. He was also the subject of a segment on the public television show “Articulate.”

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

“I think of Leroy as a constant heartbeat within the Philadelphia artistic scene,” said the curator of public programs at the Barnes Foundation, Kathleen Greene, in 2019.

“He gave us so much powerful art, but we will miss that which he still had to share,” posted the Clay Studio in an Instagram memoriam.

“Artistic genius, devious legend, my best buddy in person and across lands/seas is now an ascended Master,” posted artist Candy Depew, aka Candy Coated.

Johnson compared his working methods to jazz, improvising his way through an artwork driven by the urgency of his feelings.

“I’m trying to hit you emotionally, get people to start to look with their guts and not with the eyes,” he said. “I try to have some passionate intensity to it. It’s not a visual thing, but emotional.”

There will be a funeral Service at 1 p.m. on Friday, July 15th at Laurel Hill Funeral Home in Bala Cynwyd, PA. In lieu of flowers, the family will accept donations of good deeds or contributions to Fleisher Art Memorial.

Get the WHYY app!

WHYY is your source for fact-based, in-depth journalism and information. As a nonprofit organization, we rely on financial support from readers like you. Please give today.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal