Art, especially memorials, often has a way of moving people. When that art is tied to the legacy of a beloved hometown hero, its unveiling builds a bond of family their hero would have been thrilled to see.
This new art finally provides an accurate image of the 19-year-old Marine who gave his life in Vietnam to save his fellow service members.
Medical center in Charleston, SC, named after him
Johnson’s sister, Helen Richards, Artist Rick Austin and many family members gathered in the Ralph H. Johnson VA Medical Center lobby for the unveiling in January. More than 200 Veterans, VA employees, Department of Defense representatives, Congressman Joe Cunningham, and members of the community attended the event.
Lt. Patrick “Clebe” McClary and Alex Colvin were present for the ceremony. They are two of the Marines who were injured in the blast.
Charleston VA Acting Director Ronnie Smith noted the legacy of Johnson who received the Medal of Honor posthumously after making the ultimate sacrifice by throwing himself on a grenade to save his fellow Marines in Vietnam in 1969.
As staff pulled back the curtain, Austin, who painted the portrait, embraced Richards. The tears flowed as this fitting tribute took its rightful place in the VA medical center lobby.
Pictured above are, from left, Diana Vincent, portrait artist Rick Austin; Helen Richards, sister of PFC Ralph H. Johnson; her daughter Elaine Johnson-Jones and her husband Garry.
“That is Ralph,” said Richards. “It looks just like him.”
New portrait is true likeness
Medical center staff dedicated an original portrait of Johnson when the Charleston VAMC the center was named the Ralph H. Johnson VA Medical Center in September 1991. While a beautiful artistic rendering, it was not a true likeness of Johnson.
The Johnson family sent a copy of Johnson’s official enlistment photo with the medical center. They began working with the Johnson family to find an artist who would paint a portrait in Johnson’s true likeness.
Artist Rick Austin of Folly Beach, SC, is a Vietnam-era Navy Veteran and Charleston VA patient. He originally volunteered to teach art therapy to his fellow Veterans. Later, Voluntary Service enlisted him to paint the portrait.
“He has talked to me a lot”
Austin worked closely with the family and the medical center for more than six months devoting 800 hours to create an accurate work of art in Johnson’s image.
“It was been an honor to create the portrait and to work with the family to honor Ralph’s legacy. Ralph and I have become very good friends. He has talked to me a lot. Hopefully his portrait will speak to you.”
Austin added that coming to the Charleston VA has been like coming home. Especially in finding fellow Veterans with common experiences. Richards said Austin and his girlfriend, Diana Vincent, are now part of Ralph’s family.
“It was so important to me to have an accurate portrait. I can’t thank Rick and the VA enough,” said Richards.
Tonya Lobbestael is chief of stakeholder relations and public affairs officer at the Ralph H. Johnson VA Medical Center.