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John Johnson: 'The stroke nearly killed me, then art saved my life'

By Ivan Little

Published 13/08/2015

Brush strokes: John Johnson
Brush strokes: John Johnson

Artist John Johnson shudders as he recalls the stroke that gave him his all too close brush with death. But almost four years on, the gifted Coleraine man counts his blessings that he is still alive and the bleak prognosis painted by the medics now seems like a bad dream.

One doctor told John that he'd rarely dealt with a more severe stroke and grave concerns were expressed about his future. But amazingly John is back at his easel, running his gallery Reflections.

The name is particularly apt as John, who exudes a fiery love of life and his art, takes stock of what happened to him that dreadful night in 2011 and the miracle that hauled him back from death's door.

He says: "I was lucky because I knew I was taking the stroke just before I went to bed. It was just like that advert on the TV. The side of my head was burning. I told my son to get the car and take me to hospital.

"The speed of my arrival is undoubtedly the reason I'm still alive today.

"If the stroke had come in the middle of the night, I would have died."

Five minutes after reaching the hospital, John passed out. "I'm told they gave me loads of injections to clear the blockages in my system and I remember that I couldn't move for five days.

"I couldn't even lift my head up and I thought I was dying, but I told the doctors I wanted to see a Christian friend of mine before they tried anything else.

"She came and she performed a laying of hands on me and the next morning I was up and about. I'm not pushing religion or anything like that, but I'm convinced her intervention worked for me.

"The doctors were amazed. The one who'd told me it was the biggest stroke he had ever known couldn't believe the transformation. But whatever it was, we all realised that the corner had been turned."

The legacy of the stroke for 58-year-old John is a general weakness and a lack of energy. "But I'm a lot better off than many other people who've had strokes," he points out.

"I'm fortunate that my speech hasn't been impaired and that I didn't lose too much power in my body, though at first painting was really difficult. But I was determined to regain as many of my faculties as I could. You can't be an orchestra without the strings and I'm certain that if I hadn't had my art, I wouldn't have made such a strong recovery.

"I know I will never be the same again and it's frustrating that my painting has been restricted because I don't have the sort of energy I once had, but if I'm tired, I lie down on the sofa for 10 or 15 minutes and then I'm ready to go again."

John's medical problems, however, aren't just the ones which have come in the wake of his stroke. He walks with the aid of crutches because his mobility is restricted by arthritis of the spine. "The pain has been getting worse over the past 30 years and I'm waiting for surgery to hopefully relieve it."

Even though it's a struggle to climb a flight of stairs, John still manages to paint in his studio - an Aladdin's cave of his artistic treasures.

The most eye-catching are 20 decommissioned RUC shields which were used to protect police officers throughout decades of disturbances in Northern Ireland and which are, pardon the pun, a riot of colours.

"I got them from Coleraine police station after the Patten Report and I recycled them by painting all sorts of themes on them including a number of Troubles-related issues as well as Celtic images.

"One was sold for charity at an auction and the rest have been exhibited all over the place.

"I won't say it's been easy, but I am still here and I still have a fantastic wife in Heather and a wonderful son in Michael."

John also recommends painting as a way of coping with all of life's difficulties and he practises what he preaches. "I find it extremely therapeutic and I know art can help so many people because everyone has the ability to do something.

"I've even taught a number of blind people to paint, though in the end they taught me so much about textures and touch.

"On one project that I assisted the artist Ross Wilson with, I saw a huge range of inspirational pieces including the work of a gifted teenager who had been blinded in a shooting. He loved the feel and the shape of paintings and I followed his example," says John, who had no formal training in art. "I could draw before I went to primary school because it was my entertainment in our big family - I was one of 16 children - the youngest of my siblings."

His cousin was the renowned artist Bobby Anderson, but John taught himself everything he knows. As he grew older though, he gradually grew apart from his art, training first as a plumber and then moving to England to follow a very different work path.

He worked as a banqueting manager for the Holiday Inn hotel group before returning to Coleraine where he worked with the AVX electronics company for 22 years, though he continued to dabble in painting in his spare time.

Eleven years ago he quit his job to go full tilt at a career in art. He opened a gallery in Portrush and started to sell a wide range of artists' work including 30 years of his own paintings which had been gathering dust in drawers and cupboards because he rarely sold it.

When the market declined in dramatic fashion a few years back, John moved to his hometown to open Reflections. The gallery is easy to find in the centre of Coleraine because his four-year-old dog Smudge has become something of a landmark in Dunmore Street where a long flexible lead allows her to roam freely inside and outside the building.

"I have a gallery full of art but people come to see the dog," laughs John, who even has a portrait of Smudge on display beside him. But there's no joking from John on how hard it is to stop an art business going to the wall.

"It's the hardest, loneliest job you will ever have and being an art dealer as well as being an artist makes it doubly difficult. I don't know many artists who run their own galleries in Northern Ireland any more."

John, who also exhibits in galleries in Monaco and Antibes in France, has had to curtail his painting on the continent because of his stroke, though he is determined to return one day to a studio he has there.

The light and the colours of the country say something special to John and the villages of France inspire him - they're the essence of the country, he says - but at home he is particularly fascinated by the beauty of the north coast with which he has grown up.

After his stroke, however, he also developed a passion for painting horses, especially the ones which he sees being exercised on White Rocks beach near Portrush. But he's not a one-trick pony. And the scope of his work has attracted not just a strong following in Northern Ireland but also further afield. In fact, one of his most enthusiastic admirers is a man from New Zealand who discovered him during a visit to the north coast.

But there are dark clouds looming on John's horizon because he fears that soaring rates on small businesses in Coleraine could force him to close his gallery down.

"The new Causeway and Glens council are really putting pressure on us locals. It would be a shame if I had to say goodbye to all this, especially after keeping afloat and paying my rates through the worst days of the recession. And now they're talking about putting them up. I was actually expecting to get a reduction in the rates.

"But I don't know if I could set up somewhere else," says John, whose motto on his website reads: "Art without heart is just wallpaper".

"I spent an awful lot of money to bring this gallery up to what I wanted, after all."

Belfast Telegraph

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