LeRoi Johnson is a Buffalo-based visual artist who works as a lawyer by day, and has established himself as an accomplished artist locally and internationally. He was born and raised in Buffalo and began drawing and painting at a young age. Art quickly became a needed distraction following an accident that left him hospitalized from ages ten to thirteen. Aside from taking a commercial art class at Hutchinson Technical High School, Johnson received very minimal formal training. Upon graduating high school, he attended Canisius College, then left Buffalo to attend Georgetown University Law School in Washington, DC in 1971.
The time Johnson spent living, working, and painting in Washington, DC, in the 1970s was integral in the evolution of his style and recurring artistic themes. He describes his work as “eclectic primitive,” exploring cubism and surrealism but incorporating bold, bright colors as well as African, Caribbean, and South American cultural influences. The majority of his works encompass visual depictions of dreams, visions, African ancestry, and various otherworldly elements. However, despite the primitive nature of his paintings, Johnson intentionally leaves grey areas in understanding his works.
Johnson ultimately left Washington, DC to go on the road and manage his brother, singer Rick James. During this ten-year tour period, he was not painting. Despite the hiatus, he made it a point to still surround himself with art and notable artists. He was a regular in the elite Studio 54 nightclub, where he would mingle with artists like Michael Jackson, Andy Warhol, and Prince. He also immersed himself in art on the tour, and said, “Every city that we played in, I made sure that I went to every gallery. I’ve been to almost every important gallery and major museum in the major cities of all fifty states.”
Johnson eventually returned to painting and to Buffalo in 1989, where he has remained since. A close friend of the famous Brazilian artist, Abadias Nacimiento, the two shared an interest in African-influenced art. Together they might be considered an afro-Brazilian-Western New York school of art. He quickly established himself within the city’s art community, exhibiting in local galleries and across the nation. He has also served on the boards of the Burchfield Penney Art Center and the Buffalo Society of Artists. In 2019 Johnson’s work was included in the London Biennial.