Politically charged paintings by late Change-Links Editor John Johnson, discovered after he died, go on display for the first time Saturday

By Michael Aushenker

Johnson’s once-secret paintings depict the zeitgeist of more radical times

Johnson’s once-secret paintings depict the zeitgeist of more radical times

The Los Angeles progressive community knew the late John Johnson as the activist and writer who published and edited Change-Links, a left-leaning, 10,000-circulation monthly newspaper with an extensive event listings section for myriad causes local and global.

What nobody knew — not even Johnson’s family and friends — is that he was also a painter.

After Johnson, who ran Change-Links for 25 years, died April 13 from complications following a January heart attack, family members discovered a trove of 15 oil-on-canvas works that he had apparently painted in the late 1960s and early ‘70s. The paintings are very much of the era, including then-controversial imagery of two women kissing and scenes from the peace movement involving protesters clashing with police.

The works go on display for the first time on Saturday at UnUrban Coffee House in Santa Monica, where members of the Change-Links staff will also be seeking volunteers help to keep the publication going.

“This was like his secret life. I’ve talked to many people close to John. None of them knew he was a painter,” said Greg Foisie, a Change-Links contributor who organized the exhibit.

Outside of his writing, Johnson was a man of few words.

“He was a very concerned person, a very giving person,” Foisie recalled. “John was a very soft-spoken person. He wasn’t someone who would talk at great length.”

And yet others have paid tribute to Johnson at great length. The genesis for the art show as well as planning for the future of Change-Links sprang from Johnson’s memorial service, where Johnson’s sister, Linda Hoffman of Mar Vista, recalled how eloquently speaker after speaker remembered Johnson’s life.

More than 100 people paid tribute to Johnson at Beth Sher Shalom in Santa Monica, Hoffman’s husband’s synagogue.

“It really meant a lot more to me after going through this whole memorial service. Suddenly, I’m part of this network,” Hoffman said.
“I had no idea the impact he had on the community. At the memorial service, we chose a date to meet about the publication’s survival.”

About 30 people showed up at a meeting at the Westside Peace Center on Sepulveda Boulevard in Culver City to discuss Change-Links’ future. Johnson’s last issue had come out in March. On July 4, what would have been Johnson’s 70th birthday, activists Paul Krehbiel and Michael Novick published a commemorative issue.

Foisie, who for five years helped place copies of Change-Links at locations including UnUrban, Abbot’s Habit and Abbot Pizza Co., acted as a volunteer distributor.

“Change-Links was really concerned about problems that society, humanity faced — trying to bring awareness to the public,” said Foisie, who offered, as an example, 2008’s subprime loan crisis. “A lot of people were losing their homes and John was concerned about getting resources on the situation.”

Johnson’s hard work and passion had motivated Foisie to get involved with Change-Links and, by extension, back in touch with his family’s journalistic roots.

Foisie’s grandfather was Los Angeles Times war correspondent Jack Foisie. His father, Philip Manning Foisie, helped create the foreign desk at the Washington Post and later became the international editor of the International Herald-Tribune.

Johnson’s strength, Foisie said, was as an editor.

“He focused on investigative journalism,” said Foisie, noting how Johnson enlisted such writers as Naomi Klein, Chris Hedges and Ralph Nader for contributions to the publication. “It was pretty much a one-person job. He did it all by himself.”

Hoffman reflected on her brother with a chuckle: “He used [Change-Links] as a vehicle for his passion in life. He was always kind of a rebel. As a student in college back in the 1960s, he tried to get out of the draft. He sat on the fields when planes were about to take off to bring supplies to Vietnam. That was his big arrest.”

Understanding Johnson might help the viewer understand his canvases.

“It’s not great art, but folk art that really expresses the dynamic of the ‘60s. They very accurately reveal a sense of those times,”
Foisie said.

The John Johnson exhibit opens at 8 p.m. Saturday and runs through Aug. 21 at UnUrban Coffee House, 3301 Pico Blvd., Santa Monica. Call (310) 315-0056 or visit unurban.com. To help Change-Links continue, call (951) 638-9259, email changelinks2@gmail.com or visit change-links.org.