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OLLI Names Recipient of Betty Robertson Award

May 13, 2014 | Updated May 16, 2014

gray-haired man

Steve Johnson is the recipient of the 2014 OLLI Betty Robertson Award. He earned his master of fine arts degree in art-sculpture with a 3.98 GPA.

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A 30-year health care professional, who returned to college to pursue his interest in sculpture, is the 2014 recipient of a Cal State Fullerton honor awarded at commencement to an individual who personifies lifelong learning.

Stephen E. Johnson, 70, of Long Beach is receiving the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute's Betty Robertson Award. Johnson completed his master of fine arts degree in art-sculpture in January, earning a 3.98 GPA, and will take part in commencement ceremonies Saturday, May 17. On the eve of commencement, he will be recognized at the annual Honors Convocation, set for 7 p.m. in Meng Concert Hall of the University's Clayes Performing Arts Center.

"I enjoyed my career, but I also saw retirement as an opportunity for change. I realized that I can't put these things off."

So at the age of 60, the former health care administrator and psychiatric social worker, who holds a bachelor's degree from UCLA and a master of social work from St. Louis University, began to pursue an M.F.A. in earnest. Taking art classes for the first time in his life, he began at Long Beach City College, then transferred to Cal State Fullerton.

Along with art, Johnson enjoyed taking courses in English, philosophy and history. "Although the courses weren't required," he said, "they added to my experience and brought a perspective to my art."

Johnson describes his sculptural methods as "addition and assembly," rather than the more traditional casting and carving. Using new and used materials of wood, Plexiglas and photographic images, he said he is drawn to used and found objects.

"My current work explores the phenomenon of memory formation, both on the individual and societal level," he explained. "I am interested in what is remembered, as well as what is forgotten. In both cases, the default is to remember the cohesive and forget the divisive."

His perspective includes a long-held interest in social-justice issues, and he is intrigued by how art can be used to influence social action.

Johnson plans to continue his work in sculpture and would like to see his art exhibited. He said he valued the connection he enjoyed with faculty members and art students at Cal State Fullerton and wants to join a collective of artists.

"I found the program here to be very supportive — the openness to ideas and constructive critiques that improved my work. It's a nice place to learn and thrive."

When asked what's next, Johnson responded, "Where do I go from here? That's part of the adventure." Johnson's work can be viewed online.

The OLLI award was renamed in January to honor the late Elizabeth "Betty" Robertson, one of OLLI's founders, who was active in the organization until she passed away last November at the age of 89. Robertson, former director of community and in-house programs in University Extended Education, secured a grant in 1979 to create a self-supporting educational program on campus that led to the organization now known as OLLI.

As recipient of the award, Johnson will receive $500 and a yearlong OLLI membership.

The College of the Arts commencement ceremony, where Johnson will cross the stage with other Class of 2014 graduates, is set for 9:30 a.m. under a tent in the parking lot west of the tennis courts, at the corner of Gymnasium and West Campus drives.

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