My High School art teacher made an impression on me and to all she taught. But it was for more than her obvious talent. Recently a schoolmate posted a wonderful update in Seattle Vintage about her. I hope you enjoy her story as much as I did in finding it after all these years of wondering about her. I felt privileged having her as a teacher then and now even more so.
A Northwest native, d’Elaine Johnson is a prolific painter with nearly 2,000 paintings to her credit, including 1000 in her Myth & Lore Series. A former teacher, d’Elaine was inspired by her students and her experiences from being one of the world’s first female scuba divers, where she found her ultimate inspiration, the waters and peoples of the world and their myths and lore. d’Elaine, now in her eighties, currently resides in Edmonds, Washington, where she continues to paint what she loves.
She did me a good one when I was in my junior year and had her for my 1st class of the day. April 1st of that year, my mom was in a near fatal car accident and almost died. As the oldest sibling I found myself with a whole lot of new responsibilities. My grandparents took my nine-year old sister to stay with them and get her schooling handled. However, I had a 13 year-old brother who I was responsible for getting to school on time. This meant missing my first class. Art was an elective, but it did roll into the GPA and I relied on my electives to keep my GPA up for college. Ms. Johnson gave me an option of “extra credit” work I could do at home and let me know she was there to offer support. I made a mock-up of a park design and she gave me an A for my efforts (admittingly not my best effort). I had a couple other teachers who stepped in when they learned of my family needs (Mr. Bagly of my history class, and home room Mr. Green too). I plan on going to d’Elaine’s next showing in Edmonds in September.
From the Posted article from former student: The public may know Pacific Northwest painter d’Elaine Johnson as an internationally-acclaimed artist and the Grande Dame of the annual Edmonds Art Studio Tour, but for those of us at Roosevelt in the 1960s and 70s, she was art our high school teacher. She ran her art room like a master class. Students who had advanced through the district’s structured curriculum could stay on and paint for an hour a day in any of her classes, working your way in a sort of hierarchy up to the big table at the front of the room next to where she painted her own works after giving each period’s opening lecture.
One such student, myself included, learned much more than art technique. She taught us that the creative cycle includes finishing your work, exhibiting it and taking whatever criticism and compliments that come your way from it. We learned how to shake hands and look someone in the eye. Our off-script lessons included how to accept praise and not deflect it because that is disrespectful to the person who thinks highly of you.
She wasn’t without her detractors. d’Elaine’s unconventional style earned sharp rebukes from her colleagues for working on her own artwork while her students worked on theirs. I can say without a shadow of doubt, I learned more about painting from watching her paint than I ever did from any lecture or book. She also believed that artists deserved good materials and she ran a covert supply operation out of her back room which was stocked with professional grade illustration board and canvasses, as well as top quality paints and brushes, which she sold at cost, or ran “an account” for students who couldn’t pay.
In the fall of 1978, Seattle public school teachers went on strike. Such a thing was unheard of at the time. The strike dragged on for 30 days, during which d’Elaine did the unthinkable: She opened her art room for students who needed a place to go. She knew that many of her students had difficult home lives and the art room was their only sanctuary. In opening her doors, d’Elaine essentially crossed the picket line, and for that, she was never forgiven.
Shortly thereafter, she was diagnosed with a degenerative eye disease in her one good eye. Her doctor told her if she wanted to save her precious eyesight, she had to stop commuting to Seattle from Edmonds every day.
Instead of wishing her a fine retirement, the department head, still furious from the strike, locked her out and seized all of her personal belongings, including items her students had made her and her entire “store” of professional art supplies.
So we, her loyal students, did what any good students would do. We broke into the building and stole it all back. Careful not to take anything that we didn’t know was hers, we met our former teacher at a pre-arranged time on a weekend and loaded her station wagon to the ceiling with all of her stuff. With brief hugs and tears out in the dirt that passed for a ball field behind the school, we bid our farewells to the best damn teacher life ever sent our way.
We’ve kept in touch over the years. Dropping in unannounced at her annual studio shows, d’Elaine has seen me grow from a skinny little high school student into a husband, father and now a gray-haired senior citizen. Sometime in the 1980s, I asked if I could look through the paintings she had in storage out in her shed. Slipping them carefully out of their rack, I was stunned when I saw this one. “Guiding Compasses” was the last piece I watched d’Elaine Johnson paint when she was our teacher at Roosevelt High School. There was no doubt in my mind, I had to have it. It has spent over 30 years keeping watch over our dining room where it reminds me every day, “Shake hands like you mean it. Look them in the eye. Never deflect a compliment. Smile and tell them, ‘Thank you.’”
(Guiding Compasses by d’Elaine Johnson, October 1978)