Nerys Johnson

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The Independent Online

Nerys Ann Johnson, artist and curator: born Colwyn Bay, Denbighshire 5 October 1942; died Durham 12 June 2001.

When about 20 years ago the curator Julian Spalding was given £15,000 by the Arts Council to make acquisitions for its loan collection, one of his forays included the Durham Light Infantry Museum and Arts Centre, to look at a mixed show of north-eastern artists. Retiring to the curator's flat for a drink, he found himself electrified by her own work. One wall was

hung from floor to ceiling with drawings of irises, gladioli, lilies and carnations, all full-blooded and passionate . . . I bought three to show her visual imagination at work on these plants and how she responded both to their strength of growth and to their withering.

The painter and curator was Nerys Johnson. She always felt herself to be rather an impostor as a curator, being at heart an artist. Yet she fulfilled both roles with distinction and with formidable courage, despite lifelong disability.

She was born in 1942 in North Wales, the daughter of Howard and May Johnson, and included Welsh among her languages. After Brunts Grammar School in Mansfield, Nottinghamshire, she studied painting and sculpture under Victor Pasmore, Richard Hamilton and Matt Rugg in the Department of Fine Art at King's College, Durham University. As visiting artists included Richard Smith, Eduardo Paolozzi, Joe Tilson and Terry Frost, she was ensured instruction which would keep her abreast of art trends in London and abroad.

Johnson next completed a Diploma in Education at Newcastle University (as King's College, Durham, became), preparing her for a career in teaching. She did teach extramural life drawing for several years while practising as an artist, but eventually rejected the idea of becoming a full-time teacher.

From 1966 to 1970, she was Keeper of Fine Art at the Laing Art Gallery, in Newcastle. She had a strong interest in French painting, having written a first degree thesis on Monet's and Derain's paintings of London, following it with a dissertation on drawing from life by artists in France, 1750-1865, for her Diploma. It was 1968, however, before she made her first visit abroad, to Paris, followed in the early 1970s by further trips to France and Italy.

She became interested in etching, studying it under Chris Pennie in London at Byam Shaw School of Art in 1973. This craft she pursued at the Charlotte Press, in Newcastle. Johnson's early paintings, in contrast to her later tiny flower studies, included big, vigorous abstracts.

By now, Johnson was well established in the job in which she proved an innovative, adventurous curator. In 1970, she had become Keeper-in-Charge of the newly opened DLI, as it is known locally in Durham, where she was to settle. The DLI was at the outset an unpromising mix of Durham Light Infantry military museum and arts exhibition space, but by the time of Julian Spalding's visit it had established a national reputation for enterprising exhibitions, reflecting Johnson's wide interests.

At the Laing, she had made a name for surprising choices of subject, such as the retrospective for the Belgian-born sculptor Maurice Jadot, in 1967. Her exhibitions at the DLI ranged over "Contemporary British Sculpture", in 1977, including the present Royal Academy President, Phillip King; "Landscape, Townscape", in 1979, with artists as diverse as David Gommon and Len Tabner; "Historic Durham", 1980; "Lotte Reiniger" (the silhouette film-maker) and "Henry Moore: Head-Helmet", both 1982; and "Moments of Being", a 1988 South Bank Centre touring show, which started at the DLI and which she selected.

This was the year before Johnson was forced to retire, through disability. Since she was a child, she had suffered from increasingly crippling arthritis (Still's disease, diagnosed when she was two). For "Moments of Being", a catholic selection including works by Frank Auerbach, Prunella Clough, Roger Hilton, Emile Nolde and Walter Sickert, Johnson had had to undertake a series of extended journeys, before going into hospital for major surgery, only made possible when a friend offered to push her wheelchair.

As she travelled, Johnson the artist surfaced. She found that "drawing each work enabled me to explore the visual language". In doing so, she

sought to discover what I did not know before, and in doing so to reach that point where the newly created work has a life of its own. This new life is recognisable to me when the lines, marks, shapes and colours begin to exist with a freedom of their own.

Retired, Johnson could concentrate on her own work. She wrote that her "favourite flowers to paint are those with strong colour and a bold form, such as tulips, artichokes, sunflowers, gerberas, poppies, lilies and irises". Her studio became a meeting place for artists, art students and writers, backed up by carers who enabled her to live independently.

Johnson won a string of awards and was enabled to visit Venice, which resulted in the publication of Venice Sketchbook (1996). Although progressively housebound, having periodically to endure long and painful operations and finally unable even to grip a sheet of paper, by the time of her Broughton House Gallery, Cambridge, exhibition in 1999 she had achieved 17 solo shows, numerous mixed exhibitions and representation in a number of public collections.

David Buckman

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