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LeRoy Johnson at Little Berlin

Men with Hats, 60th Street Series
Men with Hats, 60th Street Series

LeRoy Johnson: Call and Response
Little Berlin
Closes May 21

I’ve taught in the same program as LeRoy Johnson, the Claymobile, for about three years now and though I’ve meet him once or twice the only things I really “know” about him are little bits of information I’ve picked up from his teaching assistants. He’s an older African American man (This press release for an exhibition of his at Swarthmore College describes his “50-year journey as an artist”, so I’ll put him down as 50+), who started creating art as a potter. I mention the fact that LeRoy is African American, male, and a potter because people have often commented to me that the combination is rare. I’ve been told time and again by the people who have worked closely with LeRoy that “he has his own way of doing things” but whatever this means, it seems to be a good thing most of the time because although they may sigh, everyone says it with a smile.

I had assumed, because he’s taught clay sculpture to the urban youth of Philadelphia and because he has such a close relationship to the Clay Studio, that LeRoy creates pottery. I was wrong, and the show I viewed recently at Little Berlin; LeRoy Johnson: Call and Response, pretty much chalks LeRoy up to legendary in my book. Mr. Johnson uses “urban debris” to create art the mirrors the experience of urban life in Philadelphia. I am told that even his paintings and collages are on recycled or found canvas or panel, then covered over with various substances. The resulting sculptures and paintings look like what they are; something born of the bombed out and not-so-pretty neighborhoods of Philly.

LeRoy Johnson Rip
LeRoy Johnson’s mixed media sculpture, R.I.P, is reminiscent of a abandoned warehouse/street corner and acts as a memorial to the dead, both anonymous and legend.

detail gummi bear memorial
This detail of R.I.P. highlights a familiar scene in Philadelphia; the street corner memorial.

Which is not say that Call and Response is all serious gloom and doom, or even pessimistic in any way. LeRoy’s realistic subject matter, compounded with the fact that he works to better the neighborhoods he talks about, though sad in places, seems tinged with hope for the future. Some of the works, like a series of “Men with Hats” or five paintings entitled “Happy Happy” seem downright playful. Overall Call and Response seems to be an accurate take on Philadelphia’s problems by a person who has continually shown his love and devotion to the area around him. Philly could use about twenty more LeRoy’s, but the city is lucky to have just one.

LeRoy Johnson Revelation

LeRoy Johnson Happy Happy
Three out of a series of five paintings titled; Happy Happy.