I was really happy to find Lois Johnson’ print Franklin Court: Ben, Paine, Press, in the Philagrafika Philadelphia Invitational Portfolio 2002 at the Free Library’s Print & Picture Collection. I had seen it once before in a fund-raising auction at the library a few years ago, and was immediately drawn to the subject matter: Franklin Court, Ben Franklin, Tom Paine, Philadelphia printmaking.
I worked at Independence National Historical Park for many years as a historical architect. It was my job to monitor the condition of the buildings at Franklin Court, which led me to ponder the significance of the site, the decision not to reconstruct his house (torn down by his heirs in the early 19th century), marveling at the wise preservation choices made by Venturi Scott Brown and John Milner (guided by Penny Batcheler and Lee Nelson of the National Park Service), and generally appreciating Franklin’s positive, can-do brand of being an American.
These same enthusiasms come through in Johnson’s print. She has a deft way of printing in a painterly way, piling on the ink and the imagery until it comes together the way she wants it to. Born in North Dakota, Johnson studied printmaking at the University of Wisconsin at Madison in the late 1960’s. She came to Philadelphia in 1967 to teach printmaking at the Philadelphia College of Art (now University of the Arts) and never left. She has described how the dense, vertical city was a total surprise to her, coming from a rural landscape of land and sky. She loved finding her way through the small streets and narrow passage ways between buildings. Franklin Court is a fine example of such a byway – Franklin built his house in the middle of a block to get away from the noise and activity of Market Street. You enter the court through an arched passage, which Johnson uses as the center of the print. She combines the texture of the bricks, the arch of the passage, and a glimpse of the steel frame “ghost structure” erected to evoke Franklin’s lost house.
Then she overlays the image with text taken from Thomas Paine’s The American Crisis – “these are the times that try men’s souls…”, reminding us that we still live in trying, interesting times.