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 Mary Olmsted Johnson  (1890 - 1950)

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Lived/Active: Michigan/New York      Known for: painting, drawing, art education

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Mary Olmsted Johnson
An example of work by Mary Olmsted Johnson
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This biography from the Archives of AskART:

Information submitted by Priscilla Johnson Ciccariello:

Mary Olmsted Johnson was born on February 7, 1890, the year preceding the introduction of the steam turbin and the development of electric power - the turn of the century which presaged the beginning of the age of technology.  It was also the year of Congressional passage of the Forest Reserve Act closing over 13 million acres set aside as national parks. 
Her lifetime was marked by the worst depression in the United States, and the first truly international World War. 

She was born to Alice Stolze Olmsted and James Murray Olmsted which primarily combined German, Welsh, English and Scottish ancestry.  James Olmsted's family were said to have crossed to the United States during the winter, crossing the frozen ice of Lake Michigan on a sled into the United States.  Once here, James switched from teaching to farming, setting up a "full service" farm in a fertile farming area, called, Saginaw Valley, where he raised grain, chickens, pigs, cows and so on.  The third child of five, she was the second oldest of 3 girls.  

 She was always drawn to painting.  It filled her thoughts and time.  It was as though she saw life though the frame of a defined space.  Looking out the window as she washed dishes, you could see her "seeing."  An early sketch book for her Botany class from her early school days exists with the text and diagrams/drawings of plants - the buttercup plant, an Indian Turnip, an intricate sketch of the Horse Chestnut bloom - scattered throughout.

When her father renovated their old three-room farm house, Mary designed the unique and individualized architectural style that remains today, incorporating the old wooden kitchen with a brick facade into a two story structure with high eves and dormer windows.

She attended the Porter School house on Garfield Road in Freeland, graduating from the Freeland High School.  It was shortly after this, when she was 20, that she became a teacher at the Porter School teaching in this one room school, classes - 1st grade to 8th grade.  She was not happy teaching, and never felt it was her vocation. Years later she bemoans these years teaching.  Photographs document her, in 1911, with her pupils.

She attended the Chicago Art Institute for two years, 1912-1914, which opened the way for her painting.  Her photo album, Kodaks - 'Looking Backward',  by Mary Charity Olmsted, documents the live model classes, the challenges in painting with others, and the time when she adopted the middle name "Charity" - which she dropped  after her marriage in September 9th, 1916, assuming then Mary Olmsted Johnson, which shortened, became her signature: Mary O. Johnson .  The album features several pictures taken during these two years of her in the womens' sketching "life ' class, "Norton's life class," and "Sterba's life class,"  and, also a photo of the Men's life class taken in 1913, where she was apparently the model.  An interesting and provacative picture in the album features student demonstrators, entitled: "Judgment of Matise - burnt in Effigy," (1913).

It was either before or after attending the Chicago Art Institute, that Mary attended a session at the Ferris Institute in Big Rapids, Michigan.  There was an arts program for art teaching.  An early catalog describes the four grades of teachers certificates, suggesting courses which would satisfy the minimum requirements.  The broad areas for the third grade certificate, lowest of the four, included language, history and civics, mathematics, science with a special course in theory and art of teaching.  Additional courses recommended included reading, physical culture, vocal music, penmanship, and drawing.

After the Chicago Art Institute, Mary returned to Saginaw, Michigan, teaching at the White School, (1914-1915) on State Street, in Saginaw, Michigan. Also a one room school from the 1st to the 8th grades.  This was a common situation during these years in the rural areas. It was during this time that she met Oakley Calvin Johnson, principal of the Freeland High School, whom she was to marry in 1916. 

During the years 1920 to 1928, she lived in Ann Arbor, where Oakley completed a several degree programs at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, and served as instructor in Rhetoric from 1920 to 1928.  During this time that they had four children, Mary Elizabeth, (born 1919 and died shortly after); Nancy, (1920); Murray (1923), and Priscilla (1925).  Mary continued painting as well as teaching drawing classes at the University of Michigan's School of Engineering.  She had an exhibition in 1924 in Detroit, and submitted work at a juried exhibit held at the Alumni Hall in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

In 1929 she attended a summer program of study with Hans Hoffman in St. Tropez, France, during which time her painting incorporated a somewhat cubist style.

In 1930, the family moved to New York City, where Oakley became an Assistant Professior of English at the Long Island University, in Brooklyn, just in time for the great Wall Street crash, when the professor's salaries were cut in half for lack of funds.  The teachers responded by going on strike, where Oakley remained on strike, and subsequently was "black-listed" from any future college teaching.  This placed a great burden on Mary, since she became the sole supporter of the family as a teacher from this point on.

Private schools in the city were the only places that taught art, so Mary was able to find part time jobs in several.  First, 1930 to 1931, she taught at the birch Walthan School, (94th Street at the time), and her children were able to attend as scholarship students.  She also taught at the Dalton School for a year, and the Little Red School House for 5 years.  In 1932 she was hired at the Walden School, at first located at 68th Street, but which moved shortly after to 1 West 88th Street.  Working at all of these jobs was quite a challange, and she would say that she had "five full-time, part-time jobs."

Although teaching necessarily took up most of Mary Johnson's time, she still continued to paint.  She wrote to her sister, (November, 1930), that she was painting, (in her spare time), "a large canvas, 40" X  65".  It is called the ' Spirit of Humanity,' and will take me about 6 months to complete.  It will show a couple of strata of human beings each showing contempt and derision and pride, etc., each for the other and itself.  Every six months for 5 years I will do a similar canvas, my ' 5 years plan,' until I have 10 big canvases. In the meantime I will keep on with my still lifes, landscapes, portraits and the like."  

In 1931, she lived at 178 West 94th Street, in New York City. She mentions teaching at a "Phoenix House", then on September 15, 1931 she began teaching in White Plains in a program directed by Florence Cane, (1882 - 1952), a well-known art educator.  She writes, "The class at White Plains consists of 25 kids and 30 teachers from Westchester County.  Mrs. Cane and I teach the kids and the teachers come in and watch us; then Mrs. Cane lectures to the teacher and then the teachers draw and paint...."  (letter, October 16, 1930.)  This job lead to a job in Walden School, an experimental school that had been started in 1914 by Margaret Naumburg, the younger sister of Florence Cane.  It had initially been called the "Children's School," and was later renamed the Walden School.  It was established to further Ms Naumburg's belief that "emotional development of children, fostered through encouragement of spontaneous creative expression and self-motivated learning, should take precedence over the traditional intellectual approach to the teaching of a standardized curriculum..." (quoted from her son, Thomas Frank).  Florence Cane taught in the Walden School in the 1920's, and later becaming the director of art for the Counseling Centre for Gifted Children at New York University in NY. This contact led to a full-time teaching job for Mary at Walden School, which she continued until her death in 1950.

Teaching so much of the timie was a trial for her, especially given her full schedule which required a great deal of traveling to the different locations throughout New York. Despite her effective teaching style and her success with the students, she was often resentful of the little time left for painting.  Her teaching schedule was heavy and she writes candidly to her sister, in a letter that obviously reflects her fatigue at the time:  "I am working very hard this winter, doing mostly things that I detest.  One is teaching kids at the Walden School and if you had known me when I taught the little Porter School years and years ago, you would know the mortal state it puts me in to teach kids.  I wasn't cut out for it some way and it gives me a complex that it takes years to get over. I remember it was the first time that I realized that I couldn't do everything and anything better than any one else and easier."  (Letter, September, 1931).

In the summer of 1936 Mary went to North Dakota in an area devestated from the long draught, hitched-hiking throughout the area while sketching scenes of the foreclosed and deserted homes, buried in sand blown up around the barns and houses.  She brought these sketches back to New York and presented a program in which she discussed the sketches and the experiences that she had meeting with those left behind the exodus of farmers and families. 

Most of her paintings during these years were sold to pay the rent and buy food. Most of her most prized pictures were sold privately.  One of her memories in very revealing:  "I was painting a large picture, maybe 50" x  40"  - I called it my "Horse's Asses," since it pictured the "behinds" of a team being driven by a farmer...almost in black, in silhouette, the background fields all golden and browns. A parent came in the Walden studio where I was working, after classes, and said, 'What great colors, just perfect for my living room, how much? '  Mentally, I quickly added up what I needed in expenses that month and said, ' $100,' and he returned, ' Oh, if it is only worth that little, then I don't want it.'  A dissappointing lesson for me in values and business." 

After teaching full time for 15 years at Walden School, Mary took a hiatus, visiting Georgia for a period of time visiting with Marie Campbell, who was writing, Folks Do Get Born.  While there she was painting and sketching.  It was a difficult time for her since she had just been divorced.  She stayed for a year on her parent's farm in Freeland, this, during the war, and worked in Wilcox Rich, a defense plant in Saginaw Michigan.

After her return to New York, 1943, Mary was diagnosed with cancer and had a major operation.  She returned to teaching in 1944 at the Walden School in New York, where she worked until her cancer returned in 1948.  She retired due to her illness, but continued sketching at her home in Port Washington, NY, until her death, a month shy of her 60th birthday, on January 22, 1950.  

In 1945, in an article that she wrote for the Nursery Education Digest, (Vol. IV, 1946. pp. 16-17), Mary summed up her philosophy about teaching art to all ages, reflecting her experience at Walden combined with her own philosophy of life and dedication to painting:  "The idea that only artists, only gifted people, paint is not true.  Painting should be for the enjoyment of everyone.  Despite - and even because of - the complex problems of modern living, with its specialization, it is becoming more and more recognized that painting is one of the big factors that go to make and keep a balanced individual.  And with the spread of modern progressive methods of teaching art, painting is reaching a larger and larger proportion of children."
c1936 - Taught at the Art Students League, assisting assigned teachers.
  1932 -Art Students League
  October 3rd class - Taught with Hans Hoffman,
  (receipt of payment: 9 /29/32 - $10.00)
1946  Marie Campbell  Folks do Get Born, (Book, illustrations by Clare Leighton, 1946. History of Georgia's African American midwives.)  A number of paintings are of  Mary during this visit.
1912 to 14 Art Institute of Chicago; Ferris Art Institute
1929          Studied in three months program with Hans Hoffman in St. Tropez, France 
1932          Art Students League, with Hans Hoffman 

Johnson, Mary O. "Art for Children, "  Nursery Education Digest:  The Creative Arts.  (Vol. IV, 1946, pp. 16 - 17 ). The New York City Chapter of the New York State Association for Nursery Education, 1 West 88th Street, New York City. NY


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