Dear Ellen Johnson,
I think you are the bee’s knees. We’ve never met, but you taught art history at my alma mater, Oberlin College, for almost forty years. I became an art history major there after you retired and it seemed like every corner I turned, I ran into something you had contributed to the institution. Hanging in the college’s art museum was your portrait painted by Alice Neel (I hope you liked it—there’s something about it that makes you look like a real mensch).
I used to walk past Claes Oldenburg’s Giant Three-Way Plug, the sculpture you commissioned, on my way to the art library, and I visited the Frank Lloyd Wright house you restored and donated to the college. But most importantly, I have to thank you for founding the Art Rental program. As a grubby college student it meant so much that you’d trust me and my fellow undergrads to keep original works by Picasso, Chagall, Warhol, and many other hugely significant artists in our dorm rooms, and charge us no more than $5 a piece to do it.
So, after all this, when I started working at the Archives of American Art, I naturally felt a little starstruck when I realized that we have your papers! Looking through them has been fascinating. I knew you were active in the art world, but I didn’t realize how close you were with so many different artists. I think it’s so neat that Roy Lichtenstein sent you the original source materials for two of his paintings. And what’s this about you giving a hippopotamus figurine to William Wegman? I’d love to know the inside joke behind that one!
Anyway, I heard that it would have been your 101st birthday this Friday, so I just wanted to say: happy birthday and thank you again for being so great.
Wishing you all the best,
Bettina Smith is the librarian for digital projects at the Archives and a long-time fan of Ellen Johnson.