Our next Artist You Need To Know is Rae Johnson (1953-2020). She was a Canadian artist who worked primarily in painting, based out of Toronto.
Originally from Winnipeg, and having lived in Ottawa as well, she moved to Toronto in 1975 where she studied at the New School of Art and later graduated from the Ontario College of Art. While there, she won the Forsyth Award for painting in 1980 and was an associate professor at OCADU from 1987 until her passing.
Since the late 1970s, Rae Johnson was exhibiting her paintings both in Canada and internationally; in 1981 Johnson co founded ChromaZone (an artists’ collective). During its lifespan (it closed in 1986), she was frequently director and curator, helping to shape the organization as well as define its important role in both the Toronto and larger Canadian art scene.
Johnson was represented by the Carmen Lamanna Gallery, Paul Petro Contemporary Art and Christopher Cutts Gallery, all in Toronto. Significant exhibitions of her work outside Canada include the 49th Parallel in New York City; Galerie Walcheturm in Zurich; one of the featured artists in O KromaZone in West Berlin; and the exhibition titled Bambino Miracolo at the Canadian Cultural Centre in Rome. She has also had exhibitions mounted at the Art Gallery of Peterborough (Dream Girl, 2000), the Tom Thomson Memorial Art Gallery in Owen Sound, the Robert MacLaughlin Gallery in Oshawa, the Macdonald Stewart Gallery at the University of Guelph (the group show ChromaZone), Lonsdale Gallery (Toronto) and at the Justin M. Barnicke Gallery at the University of Toronto. Johnson was also a featured artist at Toronto Painting ’84 at the Art Gallery of Ontario.
She earned the gold award from the Chicago International Film Festival for poster design, for the documentary film No Sad Songs, about the AIDS epidemic, in 1985. In 1988 she was a senior artist in residence at the Banff Centre, and was instrumental in the symposium there “Women and Paint.” The MOCCA (now MOCA), in 2011, featured an exhibition she curated about the 1980s Queen St. West art scene, called This is Paradise. She also curated another show titled Toronto/Berlin 1982-2012, that was on display at Zweigstelle Berlin Gallery in 2012.
Theatre Passe Muraille (Canada’s oldest alternative theatre space, focused upon fostering Canadian productions) chose Johnson to be the visual editor for their 50th anniversary publication in 2017, and a year later she was included in Intervention: 31 Women Painters, an exhibition at Galerie McClure in Montreal, curated by Harold Klunder. In 2020 Angels And Monsters, a two-part 40-year survey of Johnson’s work was on display at the Christopher Cutts Gallery (Toronto) and was a highlight of the gallery’s slate of exhibitions.
Johnson was awarded numerous grants over the course of her career (which spanned more than four decades), and her work is represented in several major public and corporate collections across Canada (of note is that her work is also owned by the author Michael Ondaatje).
Johnson liked to position spirituality as the basis of her artworks, saying that “I want my paintings to offer a space for the imagination and an affirmation of inner life.” She worked mostly in paint, with some forays into digital media, and “Johnson’s work dealt with dreams and imagination, providing enough detail to recognize figures and spaces but “encourages us to contemplate endings, meanings and loss.” Themes in her artwork ranged from Madonna figures to sexuality, pornography, archetypes and Jungian psychology. With a feminist outlook, and using domestic interiors and natural landscapes as starting points for her paintings, her works have been noted for their diary-like quality, being “like notations in a journal,” of simple memories.” (from here, with quotes from Johnson herself)
Rae Johnson was diagnosed with ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis) or Lou Gehrig’s disease in 2019, and died in 2020. In this epitaph from Now Toronto, Johnson is remembered for how for “more than four decades [she was a] groundbreaking Toronto artist and teacher [that] explored feminine archetypes and fought for the marginalized and voiceless.”