Mosaic, the art of assembling small pieces of materials like glass, stone or tile to shape an image, has a history going back some 4,000 years. Mosaics with patterns in pictures were widespread in both ancient Greece and ancient Rome. The art form flourished in the Byzantine Empire and in early Islamic art, most famously decorating the floors, walls and domes of basilicas and mosques.
Four millennia later, Peoria-based printer and screen-print artist Rolan Johnson applied the medium of mosaic to the canvas of Christmas cards. For four decades, he designed and created unique mosaic print Christmas cards for very limited distribution each year until he passed away in 2000.
The original distribution list for the cards was only a few hundred people but grew over the years to over 2,000. Because of the limited initial distribution, complete collections of Johnson’s work are rare. Johnson’s accountant, Phyllis Dittmer of East Peoria, collected his Christmas cards for many years. When she passed in April, Phyllis Dittmer’s son, Bob Dittmer, executive vice president and chief lending officer at Morton Community Bank, inherited the collection.
This holiday season, Dittmer’s collection of more than 30 Rolan Johnson mosaic Christmas cards is on display in the Time Gallery on the second floor of the Clock Tower Place building, 201 Clock Tower Drive, East Peoria. The collection will be available for viewing until Jan 5, 2018.
“We felt it was a unique opportunity to have the large collection shown in one place,” said Dawn Maloney, art gallery curator for Morton Community Bank. “Also, Morton Community Bank has had a relationship with the Sisters of St. Francis of the Immaculate Conception and have sold their exclusive collectible Rolan Johnson ornaments, made from a selected card design each year, since the beginning of that program so it seemed like a perfect fit to display the cards.”
The Morton Community Bank sponsors the Time Gallery by providing space at its Fondulac Bank division and staff support. The bank has hosted an art gallery in Clock Tower Place since the building opened in 2013 and rotates artwork every two to three months.
“It’s a joy to walk through the Time Gallery and see the mosaics up,” said Audrey Miller, a visitor to Time Gallery. “They are exquisite. I can tell a lot of painstaking attention went into the artist’s work. They brighten up the gallery, and they help people get into the holiday spirit.”
“Some of the pieces are not under glass, and so it’s a fantastic opportunity to see how the paint is on the surface of the board,” said Maloney. “The screen printing process has to be done one color at a time with a hole in the screen letting the ink flow through as you pull the ink across. This process is very time-consuming as you must make one screen for each color fitting exactly over the print in the right place. And Mr. Johnson was making 2,400 cards per year!”
In addition to the seasonal display at Clock Tower Place, the Pekin Public Library is currently showcasing a collection of more than 20 Rolan Johnson Christmas cards.
“It’s my understanding that Rolan Johnson donated the cards to the library himself,” said Jared Olar, display coordinator at the Pekin Public Library. “Each year, when he did a new print, he sent a copy of that print to the library.”
The library, located at 301 S. 4th St. in Pekin, regularly displays its Rolan Johnson collection during the Christmas season. The cards will be available for library patrons to view until Jan. 7.
“We are very glad to be a repository of Mr. Johnson’s artwork,” said Olar. “It’s great to have someone from the area whose talent we’re able to display. It’s been 17 years since his death, but we can remember him by showing his work. It’s also a good way to participate in the general celebration of this holiday season.”
Rolan Johnson’s work is available now only for viewing but for purchase through a series of Christmas ornaments sold by the Sisters of St. Francis of the Immaculate Conception in West Peoria. Before his death, Johnson gave the Sisters exclusive permission to use his Christmas card designs for their ornaments. Each year, a new ornament is produced and made available to the public at several area locations, including branches of Morton Community Bank. For a complete list of locations, visit www.westpeoriasisters.org.
The Rolan Johnson collection is open for public viewing from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday and 9 a.m. to noon on Saturdays. The Pekin Public Library’s hours of operation are from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Fridays and from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Saturdays.