GLADE SPRING, Va. — A local artist believes her art has the power to change the world — or at least a tiny piece of it.

Nancy Johnson, of Glade Spring, creates colorful folk paintings that depict historical events that are “not pleasant but true.”

The African American artist lets her paintbrush do the talking when it comes to raising awareness about social justice and challenging the biggest issues of the past and present.

Her canvases — many of them wood — bring emotional elements to the stories of slavery, segregation, 9-11 and even today’s immigration crisis.

“It’s important for the younger generation to learn about history — to learn the truth,” said Johnson, who believes historical events are not always told with accuracy.

“I hope my art will make a difference in someone’s life. I’ve seen people cry when they saw my painting of a slavery ship.”

Twenty of Johnson’s folk paintings will be on exhibit during July at the Town Square Center for the Arts in the Glade Spring town square. A reception for the guest artist will be held from 5 to 7 p.m. on Friday, July 12.

A resident artist at The Arts Depot in Abingdon, Johnson is self-taught and began painting in 1989.

The artist, who believes art is a vision of the mind, not of the hands, is known for her mixed-media paintings. She adds her own unique touches, incorporating flowers, butterflies, clothespins and other materials to the artwork.

But it’s safe to say she always paints from her heart, many times retelling stories that come from today’s headlines.

The artist painted a scene that depicts the immigrants and refugees arrested and detained at the United States border.

“I named that painting ‘Caged In,’” she said.

Johnson was also inspired to paint a scene of the Sept. 11 tragedy when she learned that two men from the community were able to escape without harm when the World Trade Center in New York City was under attack in 2001.

“I painted people gazing at the tall buildings during the massive explosion. I included people jumping from windows. It’s not a pleasant sight, but it’s our history.”

Johnson’s favorite painting is “Slave Ship,” which exposes the stories of slavery that are part of her ancestry.

“This slave ship is leaving from Africa as they picked up slaves along the way to America,” she explained. “The ship carried 200 to 300 slaves packed like sardines. They had shackles on them; some got sick, and a lot of them died. Some were pitched overboard because they were sick. Some were suicidal.”

Johnson has painted the safe houses of Harriet Tubman’s Underground Railroad that were used by slaves to escape into free states and Canada.

“Harriet Tubman risked her life to free hundreds of slaves,” said Johnson.

The artist has painted a new version of Tubman as a fugitive hiding in a tree log. “You’ll be surprised when you see it. It’s pretty cool,” said Johnson.

Other paintings show her mother, who had an artificial leg, hanging clothes on a line. Another reveals her grandmother being used like a work horse to pull a plow. Johnson’s great-great-grandfather was born into slavery and the son of a slave master. Her painting “Cotton Field” depicts slaves working in the fields.

A recent painting addresses immigration following the Civil War. “From the South Bondage to the North Liberation” shows people — many of them women — leaving a world of bondage in the South to find freedom and jobs in places like Detroit, Chicago and New York.

“I want my art to show the beauty and strength of the black culture. I hope more young people will learn the importance of those values,” Johnson said.

Among her artwork is a painting of Martin Luther King Jr.

“Martin Luther King had an enormous impact on people. He demonstrated to the world the power of nonviolence,” she said.

Johnson recounted King’s dream of a nation that would not be judged by the color of skin but by the content of one’s character.

“His words encouraged us then and now,” she said.

The Town Square Center for the Arts is open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Thursday through Saturday. For more information, call the center at 276-429-1276 or visit the website at

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Carolyn R. Wilson is a freelance writer in Glade Spring, Virginia. Contact her at

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