Photo by Peggy Sturdivant
Lynette Johnson illuminates everything she touches.

At Large in Ballard: Everything is Illuminated

Writer Fred Moody had been trying to track down Lynette Johnson for months. When he finally found her, he asked exactly one question and then listened to her talk for three hours. Eight years later, he said, “My life has pretty much never been the same.” Having walked into the same place eight years later I feel destined to the same fate.

I wonder if we know when our lives are on the verge of tremendous change, or if it seems obvious in hindsight. I think that sometimes we know. Those stories of love at first sight -- a certainty that grips you with the knowledge that you have just found something that you didn’t even know you were seeking.

Moody had seen Johnson’s photographs at a memorial service he’d attended with a colleague. Photos that documented family love during a child’s life, ended too soon due to fatal disease. He learned the photographer had offered her services to Seattle Children’s Hospital’s palliative care team to help create a legacy for families whose children were facing life-threatening diseases. Although the photographer had covered some of the most exclusive local weddings, she had never advertised, and her number was unlisted.

Upon finding Lynette Huffman Johnson, he may have wondered -- like I did -- how had he ever missed her? She’s as brilliant as a rainbow at its brightest. Entering her world is like finding the treasure at the rainbow’s end.

My own quest started because over the years I had heard of an annual artist’s sale for a nonprofit called Soulumination. From a cursory website search I knew that, through referral, they photographed children ages 18 and under facing life-threatening diseases. Inexplicably, I went through the gate of Ballard Courtyard expecting its founder to be an apple-cheeked grandmotherly type. Instead, I was greeted by a tall, gorgeous, whip-thin woman who is inclined to wear costumes in public. Like Fred Moody, I had just had my first unforgettable encounter with Lynette Johnson.

Their meeting changed both their lives, and their stories match, including how Moody asked one question and then Johnson talked for three hours. She is a self-taught photographer whose own life experiences had shown her the value of offering her photography skills to families at their most vulnerable time -- whether the birth of a stillborn or with a particularly fragile child. After Moody wrote a piece about Lynette’s efforts that The Seattle Times initially deemed too poignant, “Saying Goodbye Forever” ran in People Magazine instead, on Valentine’s Day, 2005.

The response was so great that The Today Show came calling, Seattle Times reconsidered and the nonprofit Soulumination was born, with the name coined by Moody because the photographs seem to capture the soul. Their mission: to celebrate the lives of children and parents facing life-threatening conditions by providing professional photographs of these special individuals and their families, free of charge. The 501(3c) now has 40 photographers who volunteer their services, a Board, staff and the annual artists’ sale that helps to fund their efforts.

So much has happened since 2005. Many, many more families have been referred to Soulumination, which provides them with framed photographs and handmade books. “Families don’t really know what they’re going to get,” Johnson told me. “We hear from the families and their gratitude is so heartfelt. And we do want our supporters to see that these children also survive. We love to be able to document the child as they grow up.”

Johnson was personally involved with aspects of every single shoot until last April. That’s when she was diagnosed with lymphoma. Upon learning the cause of the pain she had been experiencing, Johnson stomped and stomped in her cowboy boots and cried. She admitted thinking, “I now get to live the life of a Soulumination subject.”

Yet a woman who has at least one creative idea per minute, even while claiming chemo-brain, didn’t face chemotherapy without a camera nearby. She has chosen to outfit herself for appointments and to document stages of her treatment in costume: as a poodle at a bus stop, as Catwoman, and my personal favorite, the Fish-out-of-Water mourning her brethren at the Ballard Market seafood department. She plans to compile those photographs in order to make a difference in the perception of middle-aged women with cancer.

Meanwhile with the annual sale pending Johnson’s workroom is overflowing with beads, buttons, and handcrafted recycled tin luminarias. Framed black-and-white photographs of the children and families are above; the images are amazingly joyous. The week after Thanksgiving, volunteers will render donated greens into work-of-art wreaths and December 1-2 some 30 artists will gather in Johnson’s live-work space at Ballard Courtyard for the sale. Twenty-five percent of all proceeds (and 100 percent of the wreath sales) go toward the costs of providing this legacy for families.

After that first meeting Fred Moody’s involvement with Johnson and Soulumination never stopped. He was on the Board, writes all the bios for the website and on being contacted he replied, “Anything for Lynette.”

Johnson’s instinct to pick up the camera when others might have looked away has proved more valuable than any pot of gold.

Soulumination’s 7th Annual Artists’ Sale takes place 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. on December 1 and 12 p.m. to 5 p.m. on December 2 at 5201 11th Ave. NW. More information at www.soulumination.org

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