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Skip Johnson
The colorful wood artist Skip Johnson, who died last month, had an unusual plan for the posthumous party celebrating his life. Henry A. Koshollek

A lot of people think Skip Johnson was shot out of a cannon the other day. That's not strictly true, although what did happen was a blast, literally and otherwise. Most important, Skip would have loved it.

This all started one day some years ago when Johnson, a nationally known wood artist and craftsman who died last month at 81, was drinking beer with his good friend Dan McGuire, who teaches sculpture at UW-Whitewater.

That was not an unusual pastime for Johnson, who taught art at UW-Madison, and who more or less invented the art of toting your beer bottle in your back pocket.

"He was the only guy," McGuire said of Johnson, "who could put a beer in his pocket, work under your car and not spill a drop."

Their friendship started two decades ago when McGuire was working on a building on Main Street in Stoughton, and Johnson, passing by, asked if McGuire could use some help. They soon discovered common interests beyond art that included horseshoes, and, as mentioned, beer.

One afternoon, perhaps after horseshoes but certainly after a few toasts, the friends decided they should make a cannon. Skip, who lived just west of Stoughton, made an initial pattern out of wood. They did a little research on the Internet - "so as not to blow ourselves up," McGuire noted - and eventually they completed their cannon.

Its use was pretty much confined to target practice but at some point a few years ago Johnson said that when he died, he wanted his ashes shot out of the cannon. If Hunter S. Thompson could do it, why not Skip?

Such spirited irreverence was much in character for Johnson, who was originally from New York state. He served in the Navy and joined the UW faculty in 1967, soon becoming a favorite of students. He occasionally held seminars at Genna's on University Avenue, a tavern Johnson preferred over the 602 Club down the block. He encouraged his students to take chances with their art. "I try to get them to make to make the oddball thing," he once said.

It was an oddball thing that led to our only meeting earlier this year. It was an afternoon in January. A mutual friend had told me how an archeologist consulting with the state of Wisconsin had recently surprised Skip by showing up at the front door and asking about a burial ground that state records showed had been on the Johnson property. They were considering some road work on Highway 138, and didn't want to disturb any graves.

Everyone got a laugh when Skip figured it out. Back in the early 1980s Johnson had made a series of tombstones out of insulating foam. He inscribed them with the phrases "5-cent coffee" and "Nehru jackets" and other things that had come and gone, and somehow this "graveyard" got onto state of Wisconsin paperwork.

Skip was great company the day of my visit. He had been diagnosed with a brain tumor the size of a lemon a few years earlier, and surprised his doctors with his post-surgery recovery. Still, he was ill. "This is the cane I use to go find my other cane," he said at one point.

He suffered a stroke not long after my visit, and he died Sept. 9.

A celebration of Johnson's life was held at his farmhouse property Sept. 13. More than 100 people attended. Dan McGuire had mentioned the cannon to Skip's daughter, Kari Radl, who teaches art herself in Oregon. Kari was all for the cannon shot, but the ashes weren't ready yet. (Kari said this week that a portion of them will be shot from the cannon at a later date, along with a similar dispersal in North Carolina, where Skip taught at the Penland School of Crafts.)

But Skip had wanted a party with a cannon shot, and that's what he got. McGuire and another friend, Doug Sigler, up from North Carolina, loaded the cannon with some Leinenkugel beer, a few other mementos and some symbolic ashes from Skip's studio. The cannon went off and the crowd roared.

Beer for the occasion was paid for by a former student of Skip's who couldn't make the party. He said all he wanted was a photo of everyone with their bottles in their back pockets.

Contact Doug Moe at 608-252-6446 or dmoe@madison.com.

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