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In exhibiting her late-husband's art, she is showcasing her love

Susan Johnson has long told the tale of how she dated internationally renowned artist Theo Wujcik for just three weeks before they married.

What she usually leaves out is they were actually only together for half that time. He was on the road, live-painting alongside a punk band for the other half.

"Oh, I'm so embarrassed," Johnson, 58, said between full-body laughs. "But he wrote to me every day — a lot. He'd send eight to 10 letters a day. And when he got back and asked me to marry him, I knew it was right. It didn't take long."

Enduring love drove Johnson for the three years since Wujcik's death to archive decades of his art and related belongings left behind in a scattered mess that covered nearly every inch of his 3,300-square-foot Ybor City studio.

It's now categorized in storage in Vero Beach, where Johnson moved last month once she concluded her efforts that resulted in a 52-piece Wujcik retrospective at DeLand's Museum of Art running today (Oct. 13) through Jan. 7.

Then, from Nov. 13 to Dec. 9, a Wujcik painting and sketch will be part of an exhibit honoring recently deceased pop artist James Rosenquist at the University of South Florida Contemporary Art Museum.

"I did this because Theo mattered to the art world," Johnson said of the two-time "Best of Show" winner at the Gasparilla Festival of the Arts, who also exhibited across Europe and in the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art. "This will help him to continue to be celebrated."

But this is as much about Johnson as it is Wujcik, even if she refuses to see it that way.

Dozens of Wujcik paintings, hundreds of boxes of mixed knickknacks that inspired his work, and thousands of sketches, diary pages and letters, were strewn about his studio with no rhyme or reason.

She categorized it all by genre and decade, often working 12-hour days.

Only someone who loved Wujcik as much as she still does would be willing to take on the daunting task.

"He deserves this," she said. "He is amazing."

Johnson first saw Wujcik in November 1990 on the day she moved from Los Angeles to Ybor to open the Ovo Cafe there.

She attended an art show on a whim and was enamored with both the paintings and a man 23-years her elder whom she saw in the crowd.

Johnson would later learn Wujcik was the artist and the handsome man.

They crossed paths over the next few months at clubs, with Johnson "shimmying" around Wujcik to catch his attention, but "he never blinked," she laughed. And when he'd dine at Ovo, he'd shyly avoid eye contact with her.

Then, when a common friend introduced them, the spark was undeniable.

"The night we were married, we came home to his studio and he pulled all his paintings out," Johnson said. "I realized then he was bigger than any of us."

His styles included graphic design, portraiture, drawing, abstract and pop.

Artist Rosenquist once said Wujcik was "an individualist, he is energetic, and he works like hell."

Valerie Ann Leeds, an art historian at the Flint Institute of Arts, has written that Wujcik, who was an assistant professor at USF for 30 years, was beloved as a "punkster and a clubber, draftsman, and finally and most importantly a painter."

"Everyone knew Theo for a different reason," Johnson said.

It's memories of Wujcik at home to which she clings, such as the days they'd toss bread into the streets from their Ybor apartment balcony to watch birds flock in the same circle formation each time.

Or their daughter Frankie's first birthday party that had a Cat in the Hat theme. Throughout their home they hung life-sized characters made from papier-mache and chicken wire and guests came dressed as their favorite.

The pair divorced in 2003, but Johnson said that decision had to do with life and not love. It's why they remained close friends and on-again-off-again lovers.

And it's why when Wujcik realized his lung cancer was fatal, they re-married in February 2014. Wujcik died March 29, 2014, at the age of 78.

The unsorted collection he left in his studio was overwhelming at first, Johnson said, but turned cathartic.

"I learned new things about him," she said.

Take for instance his system for correspondence. After he penned a letter to a friend, he'd write it a second time so he could have a copy. That way, he could refer to it if something he wrote was mentioned in the reply.

The topic of letters brought Johnson back to those Wujcik wrote to her while on the road during their three-week courting period.

"I guess it's no different than online relationships today, right?" Johnson said, then closed her eyes and smiled. "Theo always was ahead of his time."

Contact Paul Guzzo at pguzzo@tampabay.com. Follow @PGuzzoTimes.

In exhibiting her late-husband's art, she is showcasing her love 10/10/17 [Last modified: Thursday, October 12, 2017 4:41pm]
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