Rod’s “doodling” as a pre-teen in Detroit, Michigan grew into illustrating programs for school theatre productions, such as “Raisin In The Sun,” as well as creating a 30 foot mural at his high school. He was only seventeen years old when his watercolor, "The Huddle” was selected as the City of Detroit’s entry into the national NAACP Afro Academic, Cultural, Technological, and Scientific Olympics.
Pursuing the dream of being a fulltime artist, Rod bade farewell to his hometown to attend college in Atlanta. Once there, however, deep immersion in sociology left him wondering whether he had made the right career choice. He became more acutely aware of so many pressing social needs. Rod changed directions, making a decision that would redirect his passion for the next twenty years.
After Rod graduated, he went to Robeson County, NC to organize for fair employment and sound environmental health. Rod’s passionate pursuit of social justice and racial equality moved him to assist various philanthropic institutions, first as a fellow of the Field Foundation; and then working in a variety of program areas with the New World Foundation and Youth Project. He traveled throughout the country facilitating community-based efforts for positive change.
Twice Rod returned to academia, attending the New School in New York to study Urban Planning, and later graduating from City University of New York (CUNY) at Queens College, from which Rod received his Juris Doctorate.
After returning to Atlanta in the mid 1990’s, Rod raised funds for the Georgia Legal Services Program. In early 2000, while transitioning to yet another career challenge, Rod woke up one morning in the hospital unable to speak or to walk. A brain injury caused by a blood clot struck him with damaged “sleep/alert” functioning, cognitive issues, no short-term memory, eye damage, and a dysfunctional right hand.
When the doctors proclaimed, “You will never be able to…” Rod dismissed their predictions. Countless well-wishers tried to get him to “accept his limitations.” Ultimately, “limitations” would not be the defining word for Rod Johnson. He kept working hard to improve, participating in the Side By Side Clubhouse, a brain-injury support center, and became ever more independent.
In 2007, using his non-dominant left hand for sketching and painting, Rod finished his first painting after twenty-five years--a composition entitled, “Smiles.” The painting and subsequent works are emblematic of the brightness, hopefulness and wellness that is Rod Johnson today.