— Visionary folk artist Anderson Johnson spent just 5 years covering his East End mission inside and out with the paintings that made it famous.
But finding a home for the celebrated portraits, landscapes and murals that an impassioned band of admirers saved from the bulldozer's blade when the building was razed in 1995 has taken a lot longer.
After 17 years in storage, however, the vividly imagined world of saints, angels and Biblical figures that was cut from the walls and ceilings of Johnson's Ivy Avenue house will be reborn in a new permanent exhibit at the Downing-Gross Cultural Arts Center.
And for those who've waited to see it, the upcoming Saturday opening of "Working in the Spirit: the Life and Times of Elder Anderson Johnson, 1915-1998" represents both a past-due tribute to the self-taught preacher's legacy and a testament to nearly two decades of persistence.
"It was long a dream that there would be a gallery like this," says city museum exhibit designer Mary Kayaselcuk, whose 2,500-square-foot installation incorporates not only most of Johnson's murals but also scores and scores of personal belongings she rescued before the Faith Mission was demolished.
"We always wanted to bring the man back to life — and what we've done here is as close as you can get to being in his house."
Covered with paintings of presidents and prophets on the outside — and bristling with portraits and murals on the walls and the ceilings inside — Johnson's wildly decorated mission offered worshipers and casual visitors alike an experience like no other.
Created mostly at night in response to his dreamlike visions, the elderly preacher produced some 2,000 images after recovering from a 1980 stroke, then used them to transform his church and living quarters into an eye-popping shrine of devotion.
Nationally known Williamsburg folk collectors Ellin and Baron Gordon were among the pilgrims who came to Johnson's run-down neighborhood after his colorful expressions of faith began attracting attention in the mid-1980s.
And what they saw still prompts gasps of disbelief years later.
"The outside of his house was incredible, and when we stepped inside it was even more amazing," Ms. Gordon says.
"There were paintings hanging everywhere — paintings on top of paintings — on the walls, on the ceiling, everywhere. It was otherworldly, and of all the places Baron and I visited over the years I can't think of another one like it."
Other collectors and curators agreed, leading to a growing national reputation and the selection of Johnson's work for important shows at the New Orleans Museum of Art and the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.
So renowned were his house and artworks in folk art circles that the House of Blues bought scores of his paintings for its national chain of clubs.
Still, when the city slated 14 old Ivy Avenue houses for demolition in 1994, it knew more about Johnson's blighted neighborhood than his fame.
But it didn't take long for his admirers to join several East End residents as well as the Folk Art Society of America to begin opposing the plans through the Committee for the Preservation of the Faith Mission.
"There were a lot of drug problems down there — and they were just going to clear out the whole street," recalls former
"But I went before city council time after time to explain the importance of his work — and finally they started to believe it."
Though the group failed to save the house, they did win the support of Vice Mayor Charles Allen and Mayor Joe Frank, in particular, plus a $30,000 grant to remove the murals.
The city also agreed to display the works in a space to be decided in the future.
The rescue had to be done quickly, however, and completed within a 12-day window before demolition started. That meant Richmond conservator Andrew Baxter had to inspect, label and remove the fragile painted plasterboard as fast as possible, using saws, nippers and prying tools to coax it from the framing.
McLeod and Kayaselcuk had to move rapidly, too, braving vagrants and waiting bulldozers as they entered the doomed house to document the murals and remove Anderson's remaining personal possessions.
"The city guy would take me to the door — but he wouldn't go in," says McLeod, who now owns a
"So I just grabbed anything I could carry to make sure it would be saved."
Baxter toiled on long after removing the murals, which then had to be reinforced and conserved.
So did Kayaselcuk, who tracked the works through numerous exhibits and storage spaces while waiting for a permanent venue.
No museum would take all the murals, she says, and a proposed Ivy Avenue recreation center never got off the ground.
"It was so indeterminate how it would happen, who would pay for it and where it would be," she recalls, "that it was hard not to be discouraged."
Not until plans for the Downing-Gross Cultural Arts Center emerged in 1998, however, did a dedicated gallery space appear.
And not until nearly 2 years after the center opened in 2008 did Kayaselcuk finally get the go-ahead to begin transforming the city's sprawling collection of Johnson's murals, paintings, sculptures and personal effects into an unusually immersive exhibit.
Since then she's recreated part of the mission's sign-covered exterior as well as its colorful, pew-filled sanctuary, the pastoral vistas of its public restroom and the otherworldly bedroom where Johnson translated his nighttime visions into paintings.
Then there's the procession of saints and angels who joined him whenever he hobbled up the stairs to his living quarters.
Scores and scores of individual works have been lent by collectors, too, enabling Kayaselcuk to add a traditional exhibit hall to the recreated rooms.
A new documentary film shows the fervent preacher singing, playing his instruments and praying.
"This is such a worthy thing," McLeod says, praising what is believed to be the first such exhibit in the country devoted to a single black folk artist.
"I'm so glad people will finally be able to see the value and the uniqueness of what he did."
Want to go?
"Working in the Spirit: the Life and Times of Elder Anderson Johnson, 1915-1998"
Where: Downing-Gross Cultural Arts Center, 2410 Wickham Ave., Newport News
When: Opening reception at noon Saturday, Oct. 13, with regular hours 9 a.m-5 p.m. Monday-Friday and 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Saturday
Info: 757-247-8590; http://www.downing-gross.org
Online: See a video about Johnson and his work at dailypress.com
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