“You were made of the stuff that makes legends”: The life and legacy of Ellen H. Johnson

Document 1: Survey of Potential Faculty and Administrative Contributions to a Program of Women’s Studies | Document 2: Interview with Richard Spear | Document 3: Letter from Deborah | Document 4: An Open Letter to Ellen | Bibliography

Author: Athena Tacha

Angel Drawing
David Saunders, Swedish Angel, Series I Biographical Files, Record Group 30, Box 1, Ellen Johnson Papers, O. C. A.
This was the cover to Johnson’s funeral program, which was sketched by the same artist who made Ellen (see Introduction of this mini-edition).

Title: An Open Letter to Ellen

Date: March/April 1992

Location: Series I Biographical Files, Record Group 30,  Box 1, Ellen Johnson Papers, O. C. A.

Document Type: Typed Document


This document, written by Athena Tacha, was included in Ellen Johnson’s funeral program, but was not recited during the service. Tacha and Johnson were long-time friends and colleagues at Oberlin College, and Johnson was one of Tacha’s role models. The letter is raw, poignant, touching, and illustrative of Johnson’s full life. Tacha begins by listing the qualities in Johnson which she loved, such as her “indomitable mind” and her love of beauty, both in art and in nature. Toward the end of the letter, Tacha chronicles the many illnesses that Johnson faced, and the fierceness with which she battled them.

In the eyes of her close friend, Johnson was certainly a feminist of the Second Wave. Shortly after Johnson’s death, Tacha created a sculpture series including a piece, Feather Armor for Ellen, dedicated to Johnson. Tacha’s  description of this work is evokes the feminism performed by organizations such as Boston Women’s Health Collective and the Jane Collective, groups that worked to combat the oppression, shame, and violation of the female body.[1] Tacha also references her opposition to “corporate exploitation” and “the fashion industry,” connecting her feminism to anti-capitalism, perhaps reflecting the socialist feminist strain of the Second Wave.  In the document, Tacha identifies  Johnson was her role model in both and ideology and practice, with her feminism likely shared by the two.

Original                       Both                    Transcription


letter to ellen page 1
letter to ellen page 2



Dearest Ellen:   

                                                                            by Athena Tacha

        I am writing because I know you must be here, somewhere, somehow.  You had too much spirit to have disappeared.  You were too alive to be really dead.  (As Richard Morphet[2] aptly put it, “you were a force of nature.”)  And I can’t believe you wouldn’t revisit the places you were fond of during your human existence.  I hope you are aware of our still loving you and thinking of you.

        You were one of the most beautiful human beings I ever met.  A sunny person, permeated by the sun you adored.  Golden-haired, cheerful, exuding light through your shiny blue eyes and your sweet smile that was admired not only earlier by your lovers, but even by your care-takers [sic] in the last weeks of your life.

        You also had one of the most indomitable minds I have come across — clear, meticulous, to the point, relentlessly pursuing whatever purpose it set for itself.  Your scribbly notes and nearly illegible manuscripts are witnesses to your complex thinking and your tremendous skill in expressing your ideas with words.[3]

        You loved nature, and nature loved you back.  Your endless gardening and planting was matched by the constant thriving of your plants.  Your pebble-collecting and beach combing were only stopped by arthritis and artificial hips.  You still snorkeled in Greece and the Caribbean at age 79, until you cracked your spine falling down a cliff.

        You loved art almost more than nature — I guess you loved beauty above all.  Not the easy beauty of accepted form, but the tougher beauty of the still undiscovered.  You not only found visual coherence where others didn’t, but you also created it in your environment.  You just couldn’t live without beauty.

        Moreover, you had a generous heart.  You were demanding, of yourself and of others, but in return you gave everything you could.  That warm generosity, the wish to share yourself and your vision, made you a truly great teacher and beloved to your many life-long friends.

        I could list so many more qualities (and a few faults, such as stubbornness!). What I admired in particular were your modesty, honesty and courage;  your inexhaustible energy and formidable capacity for work;  also your strength of will, your endurance of pain, your endless optimism.  And above all, your love of life!  Nobody I knew suffered so many illnesses without defeat or complaint:  prolonged stomach ulcers, cancer of the uterus, three nearly-fatal intestinal blockages due to the radiation, painful arthritis necessitating three artificial-hip operations, severe allergy to bee-stings leading to cardiac arrhythmia, several bone breakages — most tragically that of your spine, which rendered you almost invalid;  all of this borne under the constant strain of near deafness.  And finally, the second cancer, in the colon, that ultimately killed you by moving to the liver.[4]  You almost seem to have invited repeated health problems by your abundant strength.  You not only endured them, but you defeated them — all but the last — and with constant cheerfulness.  Even a few days before your death, when the cancer had devastated your body and heavy drugs had parched your throat and mouth, you still were able to smile.

        You certainly have been a role-model for me since my youth,[5] as you have been for so many of your students, colleagues and friends, in intellectual attitudes, in life-style, in taste.[6]  However, I did not fully realize, until near the end, the heroic dimension of your moral strength and fortitude.  Your fight with the last cancer had the grandeur of ancient tragedy.  You bore pain to the limit, in order to be less debilitated by drugs;  you struggled to remain yourself and stay on your feet, even tottering a few steps at a time with the walker, till a few days before your death.  As your body got decimated and weak, and your face ravaged by suffering, you still fought to maintain, with dignity, what you valued in life.  Only two weeks before your death, you went out to see (which many of us still haven’t) Mangold’s new “rose window” installed at Finney Chapel.[7]  And, holding yourself together by sheer will, you managed to attend, dressed in grand style as always, not only the opening of your exhibition,[8] but even the dinner following it.

        Once bed-ridden [sic], you battled death for a week, like a Viking goddess.  (You were made of the stuff that makes legends.)[9]  It seems unjust that you should have suffered for your strength — because your body and mind would not give up.  As if your long lonely struggle with illness had not been enough, the last three days of your life, totally paralyzed, unable to swallow and incapable of speech, you were racked by intermittent terrible fits of choking and tremors.  Were your frightening grimaces and inarticulate moans the signs of uncontrollable brain crises?  Were they the result of the cancer, or of the heavy drugs?  Were they expressive of momentary insanity, unbearable physical pain, fear of unknowable death, or emotional distress at the inability to control your body and to communicate?  In retrospect, I think the last, because I believe you were awake during those crises, even though we were too confused to understand.  I finally knew you were conscious, because you shed prolonged tears — from your dried-up, filmed-over, unseeing eyes — the two last times I was with you, the night before and the morning of your death.  Forgive me for not understanding this soon enough, to relieve at least your isolation and mental anguish, if not your physical pain and disability.  I hope you forgave, because you finally expired peacefully, surrounded by your house, your plants and your loving friends.

[Transcribed by Della Kurzer-Zlotnick.]


[1] As Tacha wrote,  Feather Armor for Ellen references the “exploitation of the female body and psyche by the fashion industry” (Athena Tacha, “Artist Statement,” Oberlin College, Source, accessed 27 June 2016.)

[2] Richard Morphet is an art historian, and was a Keeper of the Modern Collection at the Tate Gallery. It is unclear exactly how he knew Ellen Johnson, but they likely met in the art world before her death (Paul Levy, “Remembering Sally Morphet,” Plain English, 14 October 14 2014, Source, Accessed April 26, 2016).

[3] Johnson’s manuscripts in the Oberlin College Archives are difficult to read, perhaps the mark of her mind moving faster than her hands.

[4] Johnson was 81 years old when she died (“Ellen H. Johnson, Art Teacher, Historian and Curator, Dies at 81,”The New York Times, 24 March 1992, Source, Accessed April 26, 2016).

[5] In 1960-61, at age 24, Tacha studied at Oberlin to receive a second masters in Art History through a Fulbright scholarship, where she met Johnson. Tacha was the first student to complete her degree in only one year, in addition to holding down a part-time job and research assistantship. Oberlin faculty and museum staff were impressed. After her studies at the Sorbonne, Tacha  returned to Oberlin where she resided 1965-2000,  During those years, she was especially close to Johnson (Ellen Johnson, Fragments Recalled at Eighty: The Art Memoirs of Ellen H. Johnson(The Estate of Ellen Johnson, 1993), 116).

[6] Shortly after Johnson’s death, Tacha created a series of sculptures, citing the death of her “two best friends” from cancer in 1992. The sculpture series is made up of two wearable sculptures, each dedicated to one of her best friends, and is intentionally feminist. Tacha writes in her description of the pieces, “Private memorials to tragic individual deaths, these pieces move into the realm of the public through their references to…corporate exploitation, specifically the exploitation of the female body and psyche by the industry of fashion.” One of the sculptures, calledFeather Armor for Ellen, is made of various bird feathers and aluminum. It is significant that Tacha points to distinctly non-fashion-related characteristics which she admired in Ellen: her intellect and her taste (presumably in art), perhaps to push back against “exploitation of the female body,” a concern of many second wave feminisms (Athena Tacha, “Athena Tacha,” Frontiers 20, no. 3 (1999): 158-160, Source, Accessed April 30, 2016).

[7] The rose window was a glass-stained window which was part of Finney Chapel’s original design in 1908. Due to financial disputes, it was not actually installed until 1992, months before Johnson died. The design was created by Robert Mangold, an artist from New York. Geoffrey Blodgett and Oberlin Alumni Magazine, “175th Anniversary of Oberlin College and the City of Oberlin: 1833 – 2008,” Oberlin College, 2008, Source, Accessed May 04, 2016.

[8] The Living Object was an exhibit that opened at the Allen Memorial Art Museum on 6 March 1992. It featured “half of the 300 pieces of art she bequeathed to the Museum” (“RG 30/243 – Ellen Hulda Elizabeth Johnson (1910-1992).” O. C. A., Source, Accessed 4 May 2016).

[9] This line is striking because of the language that Tacha uses–“Viking goddess” and “legends”– which evoke images of Johnson at war against the world. Additionally, Tacha does not call Johnson a “god,” but a “goddess,” an inherently woman-oriented word. Though Tacha is referring specifically to Johnson’s battle with cancer, she also points out that Johnson was “made of the stuff that makes legends,” suggesting that this quality of divine or superhuman strength was a larger part of Johnson’s character.