- Featured Artist:Paul Brett Johnson
When Paul Brett Johnson (1947–2011) died unexpectedly of a massive stroke in June at the age of 64, our region lost one of our most distinguished children's book authors and illustrators. Paul Brett—as he was known to his many friends—grew up in Mousie, a very small Knott County community in the coalfields of Eastern Kentucky, and relished drawing from a very early age. Before he started school, he had sketchbooks and made up stories, which he illustrated initially without any words. He couldn't remember when he didn't aspire to a career as an artist. When he enrolled at the University of Kentucky, he took a course in children's literature and never lost the desire to write and illustrate children's books. After college, he continued to live in Lexington, eventually making it his life-long home. At first he held a variety of jobs, but, when he was still in his twenties, he opened an art studio/gallery in an abandoned garage. Working long and hard, he was able to place his pictures of Eastern Kentucky life in a variety of commercial buildings and homes.
The first picture book that Paul Brett Johnson wrote and illustrated, The Cow Who Wouldn't Come Down, was published in 1993 by Orchard Books, a distinguished New York publisher. School Library Journal called it "a virtuoso debut." It was followed by two books in both 1997 and 1998 and then seven more in the next decade. He also illustrated books for other authors, including James Still and George Ella Lyon. All the book that he both wrote and illustrated were tall tales in the tradition of the Appalachian Region, including Jack Tales and animal stories. His books garnered starred reviews in prestigious publications and a variety of honors from coast to coast, including the New York Public Library's "100" and the California Young Readers Medal. Twice, the Lexington Children's Theater created productions based on his books.
Paul Brett was known for his generosity, not only in reading his works at schools and donating signed books for various charity auctions, but also as a teacher at the Appalachian Writers Workshop at Hindman, Kentucky. His artwork and his picture books will continue to bring joy and appreciation for Appalachian culture for generations, but Paul Brett will be sorely missed. [End Page 122]