The University of Minnesota honored longtime civil rights leader Josie Robinson Johnson at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs on Monday, and John House of Melby played an integral role in the ceremony.

House, a well-known artist around the region, created the portrait of Johnson, who was celebrated for her relentless drive for equality. Johnson was also honored on Monday with a new fellowship in her tribute to support Humphrey graduate students who are focused on fighting racial injustices.

"She's just a beautiful human being," House said. "The South was defeated in the Civil War, but, of course, attitudes change slowly. So slavery was abolished, but rotten treatment wasn't abolished. She was a workhorse in resisting mistreatment. She really was."

Making connections

Duane Rost of Jackson commissioned House to do the portrait, and so House sat down with Johnson in Minneapolis last summer.

The process begins: Discussions ranging from hair to attire to personality, it all plays a role in determining how the portrait will take shape. Then comes picture taking and "color capturing," where House eyes specific colors that the tint in a digital photo may distort.

"I got to know her. That is really the fun part of this," he said. "The rest of it is really a lot of work and intensity. But the visiting with them, getting to know them, is a riot. You discover their personality and their likes and their dislikes and their strengths and their weaknesses. That plays right into the portrait."

House's work in the arts dates back decades and has taken many forms, but his portraits have claimed center stage in the past four years inside his Evansville studio. Alongside his Johnson project, he is also currently working on a portrait of Joycelyn Elders, a former surgeon general of the United States during the Bill Clinton administration.

House sat down with Johnson and Elders the same day, which marked the worthwhile start of two new journeys.

"It was a joy, just because they're beautiful human beings - both of them - inside and out," he said. "You'd be amazed what happens when you sit down with people."

Monday's ceremony also honored Johnson for the work she did in leading the university's minority affairs and diversity efforts in the 1990s, as well as for her accomplishment in becoming the school's first African-American to serve on the Board of Regents.


During the ceremony, House was looking at the portrait up on stage and was struck by a thought.

"I started to realize, 'You know what, House? You have miscalculated the importance of this woman.' ... I was glad I have the standards I have."

The portrait will hang in a new Josie Robinson Johnson Community Room in the soon-to-be remodeled Humphrey School. And for House, it was a privilege to have played a part in an unforgettable day - and legacy.

"Her bravery was honored, and her compassion for her race. It was an honor to be there," he said. "My wife and I walked out of there like, 'Wow. This is a long way from Melby.'"