Anderson Johnson


was an African American preacher who created his own chapel, Faith Mission, in Newport News, Virginia, and filled it with portrait paintings. He preached and sang in this environment, and transmitted the African American religiousexperience through his folk art.Born August 1, 1915, in Lunenburg County, Virginia, he was eight years old when he had a vision of two angels holding a large, open, leather-bound book. He took this to mean that God was calling him to be a preacher, and at a young age he traveled all over the United States, playing his guitar and preaching in churches and onthe street. While Johnson had little formal education, he was a devoted student of the Bible, and he hoped one day to have his own church.In the 1970s he returned to Newport News to live with his mother. When she died in 1984, Johnson transformed the house into the Faith Mission, which was to become his own church. He constructed a stage on which he sat playing his guitar and drums, he set up pews for his parishioners, and he fashioned a pulpit for Sunday prayer meetings from painted wood, egg cartons, Styrofoam, rayon ribbons, house paint, nails, and plastic ice trays.The most striking elements in the mission were the hundreds of portrait paintings on the walls and hanging by string from the ceiling, which he considered hiscongregation. These “parishioners” were dressed as if attending church: the men in suits and ties and the women in their Sunday best, often wearing hats. There werealso large paintings of a black Jesus, and portraits of Washington, Lincoln, John and Jacqueline Kennedy, and Martin Luther King Jr. He painted with house paint andacrylic on found materials, such as cardboard, wallboard, wood paneling, countertops, canvas, and paper, creating several thousand portraits. In addition, he coveredthe exterior of the mission with quotations from the Bible, and painted a sign by the door that read, “Elder Anderson Johnson.”Johnson’s music was another facet of his creativity. He played his guitar, electric piano, and drums on the stage, and sang gospel songs and the blues. Johnson sangand preached with a fervor rooted in his faith in God and his fundamentalist belief in Scripture.When his house was condemned because of urban renewal, there was a public outcry to save the Faith, which resulted in a grant to save Johnson’s creations.Although it was impossible to replicate the intensity as well as density of the art of the Faith Mission, those works that were saved bear eloquent witness to Johnson’screativity.
See also

African American Folk Art; Environments, Folk; Religious Folk Art
Miller, Richard. “The Faces of Anderson Johnson.”
Folk Art Messenger,
vol. 4 (winter 1991): 1–3.Oppenheimer, Ann. “Anderson Johnson, 1915–1998.”
Folk Art Messenger,
vol. 2 (summer 1998): 23.Yelen, Alice Rae.
Passionate Visions of the American South: Self-Taught Artists from 1940 to the Present.
New Orleans, La., 1993.