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Hutch artist dies at 57

The Baha'i religion helped woman cope with ovarian cancer

By Jim Misunas

Shirley Gitchell Johnson was remembered as a gifted artist and devoted church member by her admirers and friends.

Gitchell Johnson, 57, died Wednesday after entering Hospice care on Tuesday, a family member said. Gitchell Johnson received a diagnosis of ovarian cancer in 2000. Her funeral is scheduled for 10 a.m. Saturday at Johnson & Sons Funeral Home.

It was her close association with Bahaism, a 19th-century Iranian religious movement that emphasizes the spiritual unity of mankind, that helped her cope with her life-threatening condition.

"Baha'i was absolutely central to her life," said Phil Wood, a member of Baha'is of Hutchinson. "She did everything she could to fight the disease physically as well as mentally. She handled everything remarkably well. She used her daily prayers to accept the condition. I know she prayed for God's will to be done."

One of Gitchell Johnson's true loves was teaching youngsters at her church about art education. Co-workers were amazed how her dogged enthusiasm won the children's hearts.

"She was so positive and encouraging; it was beautiful to see," said Marsha Matheny. "She told the kids, 'Let it come from your heart.'"

"She enjoyed seeing the kids explore their talent. They really liked her and responded well to her. She was a really positive person who told every one of those kids how much she liked what they did."

Even when Gitchell Johnson didn't feel her best, she knew it was good therapy to interact with the children.

"It was something that she really looked forward to; she still made that effort to be there for the kids," said Louise Hook Lewis. "She loved those kids so much, she had to share her love. The toughest part was recently when the kids started asking where she was. They were already missing her. We all will."

Hutchinson will also miss Gitchell Johnson's artwork. Many of her works featured koi, a colorful carp that is bred especially in Japan. The fish inspired many of her watercolors; Wood owns one of the paintings.

"With this goldfish in a pool, you can see different levels of reality from the reflections in the pool to the fish," Wood said. "It portrays a lower and higher dimension. Everything she did had a professional look about it. She was very talented."

Betsie Andrews, director of the local dance studio ArtisTree, owes Gitchell Johnson a debt of gratitude for designing a backdrop that's used in the annual "Prairie Nutcracker" production. Elaine Williamson painted the backdrop.

"Shirley received a gift from God because her artwork is wonderful, immortal," Andrews said. "Every light we put on that backdrop brings out different details of that artwork. Everyone who's worked in front of that backdrop draws inspiration from it. I know I'll miss her terribly. She's touched my life, and her memory will always make me fight harder for the arts."

A family member knows Gitchell Johnson's memory goes well beyond her life. Anyone who inspires others to become part of the Baha'i faith is considered a "spiritual parent."

"I consider her to be the mother of the Baha'i faith in Hutchinson," said Marcia Gitchell, her sister-in-law. "There are many Baha'is in Hutchinson because of her. What I'll always remember is how she loved everybody equally and unconditionally."

Reporter Jim Misunas can be reached at or at (620) 694-5700, ext. 315.

©Copyright 2003, The Hutchinson News (Hutchinson, KS, USA)

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