Meeting Esther Johnson

I first met Esther Johnson at the annual community-wide Labor Day sidewalk sale in the Powelton Village section of West Philadelphia many years ago. She, her daughter, granddaughter and others were staked out in what I later learned was their long-held traditional corner at 35th & Hamilton Streets. Walking past the vintage furniture and furnishings, I stopped upon seeing an array of colorful and idiosyncratic watercolor portraits propped up along a stone wall.

Sitting quietly on a chair nearby was their creator, Esther Johnson. A serene, smiling woman with silver braided hair and a gracious manner, Esther possessed a gentle, simple spirit whose radiant essence was amply manifested in her portrayal of her subjects. I later learned that their charm owed much to the change Esther was forced to make as a result of a stroke, switching from her right to her left hand. The deftness of her draftsmanship took a hit, but in such a way as to imbue her portraits with a primitive yet powerful presence.

It was only upon visiting Esther at her home in Coatesville that I discovered that painting was only one of her passions. Tucked inside her rustic, quaint house was the collection of a lifetime; paintings, China, antique furniture and quilts, as well as bric-a-brac and some objects which defied categorization. Esther downplayed her obviously gifted eye for the unique, but at the same time relished her role as collector and curator of her own assembly of objects des arts.

We became friends. She took to calling me every Sunday evening, and we would invariably talk for an hour or so. Looking back to those conversations, I find it difficult to remember what it was that we actually talked about. But it was always time rewardingly spent.

I visited her when she moved into a nursing home, and was not surprised to find her painting watercolors, despite the difficult surroundings. Art was in her blood, from her youth until her final days. I miss her. But I always feel a hint of her warm radiance when I look at the works she left behind.