‘As Human as Possible’

After Judge Horace J. Johnson tragically died from COVID-19 in July 2020, Oxford College decided to rename Language Hall in honor of one of the school’s most distinguished graduates. On Oct. 8, 2021, Horace J. Johnson Jr. Hall was dedicated.

by Kari Apted

At a ceremony to mark the occasion, Emory University unveiled a portrait it had commissioned from Ross Rossin, a world-renowned artist in Atlanta. The work was positioned beside the poem “Among Us,” written in Johnson’s honor by Oxford faculty member Dr. Tameka Cage Conley.  

Rossin’s photo-realistic oil painting depicts the judge as many remember him: smiling while dressed in business- casual khaki slacks and a navy-blue button-up shirt. He sits casually in a plush chair, holding a tablet, with his cell phone lying ready on the table beside him. The late judge’s wife, Michelle Bryant-Johnson, revealed the portrait was based on a photo taken during Johnson’s 60th birthday party. 

“We chose that picture because we wanted one that expressed his personality,” she said. “In other portraits, he had his robes on; they were more formal. We wanted his personality to shine, and you might not necessarily see that side of him in a formal picture. We wanted students to see that you can be comfortable just being who you are.”

Rossin agreed that the portrait should be less institutional and more engaging. 

“We chose that picture because we wanted one that expressed his personality.”

Michelle Bryant-Johnson

“The family came to my studio, and we had a long conversation,” he said. “I listened carefully, and they shared a wide variety of photographs. It was a good representation of his personality. We wanted to make the portrait as human as possible.”

Rossin specializes in creating art that captures the human spirit down to the tiniest detail. Four of his hyper-realist portraits hang in the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery, including those of poet Maya Angelou and Atlanta Braves legend Hank Aaron. Rossin also created the nine-foot bronze statue of Aaron on display at Truist Field. 

Born in Bulgaria, Rossin began painting at the age of 6. He attended the prestigious National High School of Fine Arts, which required him to move to the city of Sofia and live there on his own at the age of 14. Upon graduation, he studied painting at the National Academy of Arts. He graduated cum laude with a Master of Art degree. After living in Japan and traveling around the world painting portraits, he relocated to Atlanta. Rossin’s interest in portraying the human face and figure reflects a lifelong passion. 

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“My first recollections are flipping through books of the great masters, the faces of Rembrandt, Leonardo and Michelangelo,” he said. “I had a fascination with these masters. Today, the passion is still the same.” Rossin feels a weight of responsibility in capturing a moment that will last forever. “Art isn’t temporary. My work will be here for centuries,” he said. “It means a great deal to me that [Johnson’s] sons and wife were happy about it.”

Click here to read more stories by Kari Apted.

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