On January 14th, 1929, Beverly entered this world to her proud parents John and Esther Martens. She became a sister to Robert and began a typical middle-class life in the South Hyde Park neighborhood of Kansas City. And so, began an extraordinary and adventure-filled existence that would survive the great depression, a world war, and more obstacles than anyone should have to endure during a lifetime.
Her father John worked as a salesman at a haberdashery downtown when my mother was born. Her mother, Esther, was a typical housewife but had been trained as an executive assistant and had worked at New York Life insurance before marrying John in 1922. The two of them had managed to create a good life for their children and had no idea what “Black Friday” would bring to them in late October of that year.
When the depression hit, my mother and her family were alright in the beginning. The economic downturn didn’t immediately impact them but as the unemployment rate rose and the devastation began to sink in, the stark reality came knocking at their doorstep. In early 1930, the shop that her father worked at closed its doors, and soon my mother and her family would find themselves like so many Americans, losing almost everything and moving from their beloved home to a small two room apartment that shared a bathroom with four other families.
My mother had few memories about the first apartment they moved to. She did tell me that she and her older brother slept in what would be considered the family room. The reality is that it was the family room, dining room, and kitchen in a tenement building located somewhere near Tenth and Oak. A broken-down building that was infested with cockroaches and other vermin. This would be her home for the next five years before the family moved to another, equally horrific building in what I believe was the Pendleton Heights neighborhood in North East Kansas City. This was the place that would form my mother’s character, strength, compassion, and wit. It was the place where her god-given talent as an artist would begin to emerge, and her creativity would begin to flourish. Where her imagination would take her to exciting places from the books she and her brother read, and the adventures they had while playing in the neighborhood, and occasionally escaping via the streetcar to Swope Park.
The Great Depression had a profound effect on my mother growing up. She was part of the poorest of the poor with her family on relief and surviving through the kindness of strangers and pure determination. There were stories of great adventures in Swope Park with her older brother and friends that stood in stark contrast to the stories of her father making hamburgers out of canned meat that was probably dog food. For every great adventure story, there would be the occasional injection of the harsh realities of how the depression impacted her and her family. The strength that she gained from that reality directly impacted her in later years when I was a child and later as an adult. In some ways, I think there was always lingering anxiety, a fear, that at some point she could end up destitute and in the same situation she was in until the late 1930s. It is a feeling that many depression-era children have all their lives.
In spite of the situation her family was in financially, my mother’s parents always managed to keep their children safe and secure. I’m not sure, but it sticks in my mind that my mother and her brother attended Garfield Elementary School and this is where my mother first realized that she had an innate talent for art. At some point around 1936 or 1937, her class was asked to draw something that was a reflection of their home life. My mother chose to draw a bowl of fruit that had been given to them as a Christmas gift by a family friend that had been less impacted by the depression and still lived in her old neighborhood. When she presented her still life drawing to the class her teacher immediately accused her of either having help, or tracing the drawing from a magazine or newspaper because no 7 or 8-year-old child could have possibly drawn anything this good. Mom was sent to the principal’s office and her mother was summoned to the school to speak with the principal and receive the punishment that was guaranteed coming. The problem was her mother brought a stack of drawings my mom had done as proof of her talent, or so the story goes. With that the teacher and the principal relented and she was off the hook. Thankfully someone at the school recognized her gift and encouraged her to keep drawing. That encouragement would shape the rest of her life.
Mom became an avid artist and continued to draw and paint for the rest of her life. She drew and painted every day all the way into her 91st year, and while her hand wasn’t as steady as it used to be, drawing and painting is something that I feel kept her alive and mentally sharp until the last days of her life.
In the late 1940’s my mom began attending class at the Kansas City Art Institute graduating around 1953 with a fine arts degree. The Art Institute is where she met my dad and became great friends with regionalist painter and instructor Glenn Gant. There was an entire cast of characters that she met at the Art Institute that I was introduced to during my childhood thanks to mom. Along with Glenn Gant, there was Keith Coldsnow, who owned an art supply store in Westport, Photographer Tony Latona, who worked for National Geographic, Life Magazine, and was head of the Unity Village Photography Department for 20 years.
One of my earliest memories are being taken to Kelly’s bar in Westport at age 3 or so by my mom and dad, where I sat on Glenn Gant’s lap drinking a Roy Rogers while the Art Institute alums held court. The memory is vague and fading, but I still remember being passed over the table to my mom by Glenn as she talked and laughed with her friends from the Art Institute.
In the early 1950’s before I was born and before my parents were married, Mom worked first at Hallmark Cards as an illustrator in the greeting card division, then at Barry-Fick advertising as a graphic designer and illustrator. Her time at Hallmark was short-lived, just under two years. There were things about the culture of the organization at the time that she disagreed with, from dress codes to politics, just to name a few. My mother was a bit of a beatnik and a rebel, loving jazz and blues and things that could be considered counter-culture for the time.
The end for her time at Hallmark came when she was called into HR, having been reported for socializing with a black man at a blues club somewhere in midtown KC. She was told that the behavior was unacceptable and that if she valued her job, she wouldn’t do it again.
In true fashion, she promptly quit. I remember her saying to us as we were growing up “no one should ever be judged by the color of their skin, their religion, or their gender”. Once again, I think this is a lesson that was taught to her by growing up so poor and in such diverse neighborhoods during the depression. It all comes back to the memories of how she was treated because of her financial situation as a child and that lasted with her most of her life.
Around 1958 or 1959 my mom moved to the house we grew up in North Johnson County in Kansas. She and my father along with our older brother settled into suburbia in a house that they purchased with a GI loan thanks to my dad’s service in the Army and Navy during WWII and the Korean War. The house was a typical 1950’s 3-bedroom split level home that cost a whopping $15,000 in 1958. This is where my mom would begin her first career as a freelance illustrator, and graphic designer working in a studio that was set up in the basement level of the home. There are fond memories of playing next to her drawing board while she worked while taking care of her children and the house.
Over the next 30 years, she illustrated 1500 coloring books, did hundreds of illustrations for Childcraft, Jones Department Stores, Highlights, Jack & Jill, the Kansas City Star, and so many more. In many ways, she was the primary breadwinner in the family. She had a steady stream of clients that she worked for and was consistently busy.
She was also a great teacher. She taught me illustration techniques, paste-up, color stripping, typography, and more. By the time I was 14, I would help with many of her projects earning my allowance money, spending the time between after school and dinner working for her on graphic design projects she had in.
Around 1970, my father had started freelancing as well as doing copywriting and basic design production work. The two of them formed B.R. Johnston Studio and began to develop a list of clients they would supply artwork to until the late 1980s. I still remember watching mom from the living room as she worked tirelessly into the evening as the light would fade outside and the studio lights would come on. Between freelance work and raising three boys it never ceases to amaze me how much she got done during the course of the day. Her work ethic will forever be imprinted on my soul.
As if all of this wasn’t enough, mom became actively involved with her kids’ extracurricular activities. My brothers and I were involved in Scouting. So, she became a Den Mother for all three of her kids. Mark and I went on to become Boy Scouts and my mom volunteered to help teach merit badge courses when other instructors weren’t available. She ferried the three of us to science fairs, music lessons, went on field trips, volunteered at school events and activities and so much more. Her energy was tireless all the way up to the last years of her life.
By the time my mom was 60, in 1989, she had semi-retired from doing freelance illustration work. My father’s health was in decline, and the shift to computer-based design work was leaving their studio in the past. Always creative, and looking for ways to keep the money coming in she and my father had begun making miniature sculptures and figurines that they were selling in local and regional craft fairs. The new way of earning suited their evolving lives and they both began to wind down toward retirement. Like so many things in my mother’s life though, the unexpected intervened and retirement would not come for many years.
In July of 1992 my father died of a massive heart attack at the age of 63 leaving my mother with a mountain of debt that he had hidden from her. Without missing a beat, my mom, always resilient, kept moving forward, resolving to pay off the debts, keep the lights on, and keep going. She did this by continuing to work the craft show circuit expanding beyond the miniatures creating folk art painted boxes and wooden objects all done in her signature and evolving style. She always referred to herself as “The queen of cute”, but many of her pieces showed a deep sensibility that was so much more than cute children’s illustrations. It was the craft show circuit that helped her move into the next phase of her career and what I consider her true calling, teaching painting.
My mom was approached by so many people at the craft shows asking her if she could teach them how to paint that she turned the home design studio into a classroom and began giving group and private lessons 3 days a week. It was also around this time that she was recruited to teach two days a week at a local shop in Mission, Kansas. Teaching became her job and that allowed her to spend her evenings painting for her own enjoyment, developing new styles and techniques that she could demonstrate for her students after she had mastered them.
From the lessons she taught she began to realize there was a market for the folk-art objects she was creating on a larger level. A market that allowed her to sell through local shops as well as at craft shows. Her intricate, detailed pieces of holiday scenes, religious stories (Noah’s Ark was a favorite of hers) were standouts and her work became collectible amongst those in the know. Her constant need to create and express herself through her artistic outlets manifested itself over the next 20 plus years in hundreds of painted folk-art objects. Her God-given talent as an artist was shared with so many in so many ways.
By the time she was in her early 70’s she had been discovered by an art licensing firm that was interested in reproducing her folk artwork. Jumping at the opportunity she began to license her work through Applejack/Art Licensing and has sold through them for the last 20 years with her work appearing on products all over the world. She would continue to produce original art for them well into her 80’s before officially retiring at the age of 88.
At the age of 80 she sold her house and briefly moved to Arizona to live with my older brother. After putting up with his antics for about a year she decided it was time to come back to her native Kansas City where she would continue to draw, paint, and occasionally teach for the next 12 years of her life, seven of which were spent at Rosewood Apartments where she had a small studio space and she could continue to create and occasionally teach painting to close friends.
At Rosewood she began the last chapter of her life developing deep friendships with other residents. She engaged in a variety of activities, including weekly bingo sessions where she was quite the hustler. I remember taking her to the bank to have a giant bowl of change converted to dollars from her monthly winnings – $120.00 in quarters. Later those winnings would go to the SPCA where she could help with animal adoptions. She even got the other residents to begin to participate as well. She and a crew of ladies that would donate their Bingo winnings monthly without hesitation. This lasted for seven years like clockwork. It is a demonstration of her deep love for animals, especially dogs, something that she held close to her heart until the very end of her life.
Death is nothing at all
It does not count
I have only slipped into the next room
Nothing has happened
Everything remains exactly the same as it was
I am I and you are you
and the old life that we lived so fondly together is untouched, unchanged
Whatever we were to each other
that we are still
Call me by the old familiar name
Speak of me in the easy way which you always did
Put no difference into your tone
Wear no forced air of solemnity or sorrow
Laugh as we always laughed
at the little jokes that we enjoyed together
Play, smile, think of me
pray for me
Let my name be ever the household word that it always was
Let it be spoken without effort
without the ghost of a shadow upon it
Life means all that it ever meant
It is the same as it ever was
There is absolute and unbroken continuity
What is this death but a negligible accident?
Why should I be out of mind because I am out of sight?
I am but waiting for you
for an eternal somewhere
just around the corner
All is well
Bev Johnston 01/14/1929 – 09/03/2020
This is a beautiful tribute to what seemed to be an amazing woman. My heart goes out to you old friend.
Wade – Condolences on the loss of Bev. Thank you for your lovely and heartfelt goodbye. –BY
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