The late Leslie Ann Jones knew that art is finest when enjoyed by all. She lived by that value until the end of her life. Just as a painter leaves a new mark with every brush stroke, Jones made a lasting impression on Oak Park with every piece of art she helped bring to the village.
“I hope that I honor her in the best way that I can,” said Taylor Elizabeth Morris, the inaugural recipient of the Leslie Ann Jones Scholarship.
Jones’s life was cut short in April 2020, when she and her husband Thomas Johnson were found brutally murdered in their home on Fair Oaks Avenue. The commemorative scholarship was created by their sons, in partnership with the Oak Park Area Arts Council (OPAAC). Jones served on the Council’s board for many years.
“The world was a better place when [Jones and Johnson] were in it,” said OPAAC Executive Director Camille Wilson White.
Since Jones championed the work of multicultural artists during her life, the Council decided that the $1,000 annual scholarship in her name would go to an African American woman planning to study some form of art in college.
Morris was awarded the very first scholarship just a month after the 1-year anniversary of their deaths, which remains under investigation, according to the Oak Park Police Department.
A budding star of the stage who will be studying musical theater at Columbia College Chicago, Morris was chosen from a pool of applicants by the OPAAC scholarship committee.
“That kid is determined. She is going to make it and she is going to be fabulous,” said Wilson White of Morris, whom she called a “delightful young woman.”
Morris grew up watching such movie musicals as “The Wiz” and “Hairspray” with her mother and grandmother, but her love of performing began when she was cast as a background dancer in a production of “Schoolhouse Rock Live!” at Percy Julian Middle School.
She continued acting in high school, landing a role in “Hairspray” her freshman year at Oak Park and River Forest High School. Morris has grown as an artist with every musical she has been in.
Without ever having had any formal training, she landed a spot in Columbia’s musical theater program. Morris is looking forward to honing her craft in college.
“There aren’t any musical theater classes in high school and I just want to go deeper into the business and see how everything works,” said Morris.
Jones and Johnson’s son Jake Johnson, who declined to be interviewed, helped choose the recipient of his mother’s scholarship. His participation on the OPAAC scholarship committee Wilson White called “tremendous.”
“It was really wonderful to have him on the panel,” she said.
Both Jones and Johnson had impressive legal careers. Jones even drafted Oak Park’s public art ordinance. Jake Johnson is following in his parents’ footsteps and studying law.
Despite his busy law school schedule, Jake Johnson was entirely engaged throughout the scholarship selection process and made great strides to connect with each candidate, said Wilson White.
“He was just very gracious,” she recalled.
While the heartbreaking loss of Jones and Johnson is still acutely felt, Wilson White believes Jones would “absolutely love” that the OPAAC scholarship program had been expanded to include one specifically created to support young African American women pursuing careers in art — a cause that was dear to her during life.
“To have a scholarship in her honor and to have it go to a student who will really benefit from it, I think she would be thrilled,” Wilson White said.