Former football star and lawyer, Virginia artist hosts art auction for Ukrainian children

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BY BILL LOHMANN Richmond Times-Dispatch

Seeing the video of a cellist performing amid the ruins of Kharkiv, Ukraine, last March, in an effort to raise funds for humanitarian aid and the restoration of his hometown, moved Robert Johnson.

The Virginia painter, who was teaching at an art school in Arizona at the time, told a student the next day how sad the scene made him and how he wished “we could do something as as visual artists to help these people”. A few days later, Johnson read that a print had been auctioned off for a remarkable sum, and the idea of ​​auctioning off art in support of Ukraine caught on.

One of his students had a connection to auction houses, and the effort was rolling. The virtual auction, featuring the works of Johnson and nearly three dozen other American artists, called “American Artists for Children of Ukraine,” launched Sept. 14 and will end Sept. 28. Proceeds will go to Ohmatdy, Ukraine’s largest children’s hospital. Details can be found here on Bidsquare.

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I’m telling you this not just because it’s a good cause, but because Johnson has an interesting history and connection to Richmond.

He grew up in the 1950s in Hopewell, where he was a football star (and was also named “Hopewell’s Outstanding Youth Citizen” in 1959), landing a scholarship to Duke University where he was part of three championship teams of the Atlantic Coast Conference and was a freshman when the Blue Devils won the 1961 Cotton Bowl against Arkansas. (“Dullest Cotton Bowl game in history,” he laughs. “7-6.”) At Duke, he also earned an undergraduate degree and a law degree.

He returned to Virginia to practice law and worked for a time in the state attorney general’s office in the early 1970s (when Andrew Miller was attorney general) in Richmond, where he was also co-captain of the Richmond Rugby Club. But his passion for art has always hidden it.

Johnson drew and painted as a young child, much like his older brother, Ben, who later received a Fulbright scholarship to Italy to study art conservation (Ben became an art restorer and principal founder of the Conservation Center at the Los Angeles County Museum). of Art), and from then on, Robert “had a fixation about going to Europe at some point,” he said.

Johnson, who went by Bob when he played football, had loved playing sports, but that didn’t leave him much time to do something like his brother had. Until he is older.

While working for the Attorney General’s office, he learned of the opportunity to work for an American university in Germany. He jumped on it.

“My co-workers were puzzled but very accommodating and they gave me a really nice farewell lunch,” he recalls.

He spent two years at university, which allowed him to teach and travel around Europe and see a lot of art. He returned to Virginia, opened a small law firm in northern Virginia, and also engaged in his art, which required a good deal of juggling his schedule.

“I got up early and painted in the morning before going to the office,” he said, “and in the evening I worked on my drawing.”

He took art classes at local colleges and sought advice from one of his professors at George Washington University, an artist named Frank Wright.

“I took my drawings to his studio in Washington to get a review,” Johnson recalled. “He looked at them and was silent, but I could see he was nodding positively. As I was leaving, I said, ‘Frank, can I really be a real artist, like those in galleries and museums?’ And he said, “You’ll never know until the arts are at your best: your best time, your energy, your focus.”

“And at that point, that’s when I decided I was going to pursue a full-time career.”

It was the mid-1980s, and after handing over his law practice to his partner, he devoted himself full-time to his art.

“At the time there was a lot of uncertainty, but I had a relationship with someone who became my wife, and she was also an artist,” he said of his wife, Virginia Price Johnson. “I think she was ready to go through any kind of financial uncertainty with me. But it didn’t work out that way.”

He enrolled in classes at the Art Students League of New York, commuting from Virginia, and found inspiration and camaraderie among teachers and fellow students. Within a few years, he was exhibiting his work, winning prizes and making a living.

“It really surprised me,” he said. “It was very rewarding for me to be able to make a living as an artist, which I’ve been doing ever since.”

He still retains his law license, but has not practiced since the 1980s.

Johnson and his wife split their time between Northern Virginia (Vienna) and Taos, NM He was on his way back to Taos after a few days in Sedona, Arizona, where they were painting to celebrate Virginia’s birthday, when we we are connected by phone.

Johnson’s painting covers a spectrum: flowers, still life composition, landscapes, portraits, animals.

About 20 years ago he had a successful exhibition of still lifes at a gallery in Santa Fe – but he grew tired of still lifes.

“When I was at Hopewell we had all kinds of animals – pigs, chickens and 125 hives of bees,” he said. “My job was to look after chickens, so I decided to paint a chicken. I called the gallery and asked if they wanted a picture of a chicken. There was a long silence, then, ‘ Send it if you must.’

He did, and it turned out that people liked paintings of chickens, he said. The gallery quickly sold the chicken painting, and the next thing Johnson heard from the gallery was, “When can you send me another one?”

“It was very rewarding,” he said.

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