Artist Finds Purpose in Therapeutic Hobby

Cindy Johnston didn’t set out to become an artist.

Yet for three days in early September, the University Park resident was being saluted with a show at a gallery in the Dallas Design District. A gala opening saw her in the middle of a whirlwind of attention, as dozens of admirers purchased her work and a letter was read from President George W. Bush with his personal well-wishes.

For Johnston, who has Down syndrome, the occasion meant to celebrate her upcoming 40th birthday turned into so much more, especially since she started coloring for reasons that were more therapeutic than artistic.

“My dad thought it would be a good tool to help me work on my fine motor skills. It can be very relaxing,” she said. “I didn’t call myself an artist. Other people did.”

Various therapists suggested that coloring might be beneficial for Cindy’s condition. So since her father, Jim Johnston, is fond of doodling on his bank stationery, his impromptu sketches soon gave Cindy something to color between the lines using markers.

“I found myself doodling in meetings, then I would bring them home, and Cindy would color them,” Jim said. “When it first started, my doodling was really poor and her coloring was just as poor. Then as time went on, I could tell that it was physical therapy for her, and it was probably mental therapy for me at the same time. Then she started staying in the lines better and her coloring became dramatically more impressive. It created a nice partnership for us.”

Even once the works improved, it was nothing more than a shared hobby among close family members.

“We just put them in a shoebox in my closet and left them there,” Jim said. “We thought they were priceless to us but not worth anything to anybody else.”

The idea to showcase Cindy’s work in a gallery came from Carolyn Miller, who is friends with the Johnstons and with Conduit Gallery owner Nancy Whitenack, who loved the thought.

“When we saw her drawings, they’re just marvelous,” Whitenack said. “Her sense of color is quite excellent.”

Proceeds from the sale of Cindy’s works went to Special Olympics and to the Jesters theater troupe, two nonprofit groups with which Cindy is involved. But the value of the gallery show was priceless.

“The doodles are just doodles to me, but when she colors them, they come to life,” Jim said. “She’s got a talent.”

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