Sunday, January 16, 2011


Mary O. Johnson (2/7/1890 - 1/22/1950)

Mary Olmsted Johnson was born on February 7, 1890, the year preceding the introduction of the Steam turbin and the development of electric power. It was also the year of the Congressional passage of the Forest Reserve Act closing over 13 million acres set aside as national parks. The turn of the century which presaged the beginning of the age of technology.
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. Once here, James switched from teaching to farming, setting up a "full service" farm, raising grain, chickens, pigs, cows and so on. The third child of five, she was second oldest of 3 girls.
She was always drawn to drawing. It filled her thoughts and time. It was as though she saw life though the frame of a defined space. An early sketch book exists prepared for her Botany class with the text and diagrams/drawings of plants, such as the buttercup plant, an Indian Turnip, and the Horse Chestnut bloom among the many sketches among the text.
When her father renovated the old farm house, Mary designed the unique and individualized architectural style that remains today, incorporating the old wooden kitchen with a brick two story structure with high eves and dormier windows.
After her schooling in the Porter School house on Garfield Road in Freeland, she attended 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 from 1st grade to the 8th grade. She was not happy teaching, and never felt it was her vocation. She wanted to paint. Years later she bemoans these years teaching. A photograph pictures her in 1911, with the pupils.
It was at this time that she met Oakley Calvin Johnson, who was principal of the Freeland High School at the time, they fell in love and were married. A 1910 picture features the Johnson family in Standish, Michigan.
It was around this time that she was able to fulfill her ambition to paint, and attended the Chicago Art Institute for two years, 1912-1914. (Check up the Ferris Institute). Her photo album, "Kodaks - 'Looking Backward' ," by Mary Charity Olmsted, documents the live model classes, the challanges in painting with others, and also documents her adoption of the middle name Charity - which she dropped after her marriage in September 9th, 1916.
The album features several pictures during these two years of Mary in the womens' sketching "life ' class, "Norton's life class," and "Sterba's life class," and she is also in a photo of the Men's life class taken in 1913. An interesting and provacative picture in the album featuring demonstrators is titled: "Judgment of Matise - burnt in Effigy," (1913).
After completion of course at the Chicago Art Institute, Mary taught at the White School, (1914-1915) on State Street, in Saginaw, Michigan. (1st to the 8th grades).
During the years 1920 - 28, she lived in Ann Arbor, where Oakley taught in the University of Michigan. It was during this time that she had three children (Mary born 1919 died shortly after, Nancy, born 1920, Murray (1923) and Priscilla (1925), Mary also painted during this time and taught drawing classes at the University of Michigan's School of Engineering, with an exhibition in 1924 in Detroit, and at the Juried exhibit held at the Alumni Hall in Ann Arbor, Michigan.