Ray Johnson was a friend of mine when we were about 14 years old at Cass Tech High School in Detroit. We were wild about art of all kinds and both went to Saturday art classes at the Detroit Art Institute where we had a wonderful young teacher from Wayne State, who taught us everything from quick sketching to casting our own sculpture with molds. I also took classes at Wayne in addition to our difficult art studies at Cass. Ray took classes somewhere else too, but I don’t recall where, though he refers to them in some of the letters he wrote in 1943 after I moved to New York.
We had many mutual friends, among them Harry Katchadoorian stands out, a gifted young man who was freer than we were in art, but I lost touch with Harry. Various other friends from school are referred to often in Ray’s letters to me, and I frequently wonder whatever became of them as I reread the letters and the warm affection we held for each other, not to mention the teachers, Ms. Green in particular. She taught art at Cass for generations, a taskmistress who we loved, feared, and respected.
Ms. Green used to give us assignments to draw from life. Among these, I recall her asking each one of us to draw and paint whatever was across the street from where we lived. A terrific bit of homework for a 13 and 14 year old. Another was a 2 week project in charcoal study: she would line us up in the long shiny Cass hallways with metal lockers on each side, and have us render in detail every odd reflection and glistening piece of tile and shiny linoleum as realistically as we could. It was frustrating learning to “see” this way, but great discipline.
Ray often made a big deal about the girls, all girls. I probably did as well. We were really naïve, but then so were the girls but maybe not as much as we. Ray loved to satirize the outlandishness of such glamorous female stars of the day as Carmen Miranda, Lana Turner and Gypsy Rose Lee, among others. We joked, drew and painted the marvelous colors we thought Hollywood reflected. Handsome men like Gary Cooper were also included in our carnival of cartoons of the day.
I recall Ray as always smiling shyly, with a terrific pun or visual thought. However, as serious about being an artist as one can imagine. This personality quality affected my own budding esthetic attitude and others who were attracted to Ray as well.
World War II was in full blaze and though we were aware of the fighting, none of this seemed to seep into our developing art, except for a cartoon or satirical drawing now and then of good guys versus bad guys. My brother Ken, enlisted in the army, and my mom and I moved to New York City in early 1943. (My dad died when I was 5 years old)
At first, we lived on West 82 Street on Broadway, and later moved to 140 West 71 Street between Broadway and Columbus Avenue in a one-bedroom apartment. I think Ray wrote me when we were still on 82 Street but I haven’t found those letters yet. I do remember the mailman delivering mail to our door at apartment 3B, with a broad grin and some friendly comments when Ray’s letters started appearing every day, sometimes twice in one day. He liked to bring the letters to our door rather than leave them downstairs to be crushed in the mailbox. I believe he sensed these messages were more than mere communications.
Of course, I wrote Ray very often too, and when I skipped a day, he would complain. He also gave me “lessons” by mail, urging me to be more serious in my art to him and stop cartooning, or to take more time with certain techniques. All his letters and cards were joyous and upbeat. His poetry was infectiously absurd and dada. Long before he went to Blackmountain College or studied with Albers, he showed the sort of natural ease and self-acceptance of being talented and exceptional.