DULUTH — In a documentary about her life and work released in 2012, Solveig Arneng Johnson is seen standing at an easel, paintbrushes between her fingers, a single eye closed as she talks about colors and proportions.
By then it had been years since she had painted. She had macular degeneration, was in fact legally blind, and the work proved discouraging. But the stance, the routine of it, was still in her body — both the exhilaration and the fatigue.
"In a way, I'm glad I don't have to do it anymore," she says in "Solveig: The Life and Work of Solveig Arneng Johnson." "I'm on vacation."
Johnson, a Sami artist and activist who came to Minnesota from Norway in 1949, died Jan. 25 in her sleep in the Chester Park neighborhood home where she had lived for more than half a century. She was 97 — and kept up her droll humor until the end, according to her family.
A memorial service is expected to be held later this year.
Johnson was born Nov. 25, 1925, in the small northeastern Norway town of Kirkenes, which was occupied by Germans and repeatedly bombed during World War II. Her mother, believing Solveig to be "shell-shocked," helped her move to Oslo where she studied commercial art, then earned an advanced degree in fine art from a prestigious school. By the time she graduated with her doctorate degree, she was considered an elite artist in Oslo.
Rudolph Johnson emigrated from Norway to the United States as a child and returned to Oslo as a student. The two married in Norway in 1949 and settled in St. Paul, then Duluth. He was the library director at the University of Minnesota Duluth until he retired; she painted in the winters and spent the summer playing with their three children — Arden, Iva and Kai.
The Johnsons were advocates for peace and justice — and a bit bohemian, according to family members. They were part of the "Ban the Bomb" movement and protested the Vietnam War. According to his obituary, Rudy Johnson, who died in 2007, was at one point investigated for "his radical politics during the McCarthy Era."
Their home was a place of poetry readings and hootenannies, and there was always a sleeping space and meals for a kid whose parents had kicked them out, according to son Arden Johnson.
The Johnsons both were slow to discover that they had deep indigenous roots — identity they embraced heartily, eventually becoming elders in the Sami community. Son Kai Johnson said he saw similarities in how he was raised — more loosely — and the Indigenous people of northern Norway that he met while visiting family. It was a cultural connection that spanned the United States. On her 93rd birthday, celebrations were held with Sami Americans in Duluth — and Seattle and California.
"In some ways, she was a very typical Sami person," Arden Johnson said. "Irreverent and a nonconformist. She was counterculture."
Since she died, the family has received notes about Solveig Johnson's hospitable warmth and her telepathic ways. There have been stories about the orphaned ducks that spent an entire campout in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness treating her like their new mother. Johnson felt bad when it was time to leave, her daughter recalled.
As a young woman, Johnson lived in a closet-sized space in her art instructor's studio. She woke one morning, trapped and in her pajamas, unable to shift or sneeze, as the Crown Prince of Norway had his portrait made.
The fears of her childhood and war stuck with Solveig Johnson for nearly her entire life, her son Kai said. She hid when airplanes flew over the house. She was in her 80s when she told him that she finally felt safe.
Filmmaker Kiersten Chace came to Duluth in 2010 to learn more about the Sami Americans living here and was introduced to Johnson. Chace said she was intrigued by her "calm spirit yet sharp wit and good humor."
"I didn't even know Solveig was an artist when I asked about telling her story," Chace said in an email. "Therefore the artwork was an unexpected bonus."
The 15-minute documentary Chace planned more than doubled in length.
Iva Arneng described her mother as a prolific painter. Some of her work was given to friends, and some has been shown locally at the Tweed Museum of Art and the Duluth Art Institute. Some has gone to family. Twirling in an office chair in her living room, Arneng said she could see nine of her mother's colorful abstract expressionist pieces from her vantage point.
"It's really fun," she said. "I love her work."