To understand Jillian Johnson’s mark on Lafayette, La., just look around, her friends say. They guess that just about everyone in town has a T-shirt featuring one of her designs, sold from the popular gift shops she had a hand in operating.
Johnson designed the logos for a generation of businesses, progressive organizations, and performers in the Louisiana city, which is reeling from the 33-year-old’s death after a lone gunman opened fire in a movie theater Thursday night, killing two and wounding nine others before turning his gun on himself.
“Jillian was a force, you know? She did things she wanted to do,” her friend Lucius Fontenot told The Washington Post on Friday.
Fontenot and Johnson met in the art department at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, from which Johnson graduated in 2004. Then, as she did in the years after, Johnson always had her hand in something imaginative, Fontenot said.
“She had all this energy,” he recalled. “She was just always creative.”
Fontenot added: “She was friendly, smiling, and fought for what she believed in. She made the community better.”
Said Whitney Broussard, another friend: “This is a small town. Thinking about the number people involved — there’s a lot of folks in this community who are going to be connected. Everybody is just shocked and sad.”
Johnson’s work — from the businesses she owned to the regional bluegrass band she helped start — were often projects she took on with those she loved most.
“She was the love of my life and I will miss her always,” read a Facebook post from Red Arrow Workshop, the gift store Johnson ran with her husband, Jason Brown. “This was a senseless act and, as is the case with all such acts, there is no playbook, no rules on how to cope. We’re trying our best to pull ourselves together. We’re putting one foot in front of the other. Thank you all.”
Johnson, the statement said, was attending the Thursday night screening of “Trainwreck” with her best friend, who was not identified.
“She was an incredible stepmom to her new husband’s daughter; they were so tight,” said Tyler Thigpen, who worked with Johnson on the Acadiana Food Circle, one of the many local projects Johnson helped start.
The food circle’s logo was designed by Johnson — a leader in the Lafayette area’s small but tight-knit progressive community, Thigpen added. “When you live in a largely red community, losing a leader like that has a big effect,” she said.
“We at Parish Ink are still in shock about the loss of our partner, friend and leader Jillian Johnson,” read a statement posted to Facebook and signed by the “parish ink family.” “She cannot be replaced and will be infinitely missed. Please respect the family’s privacy during this very difficult time.”
Johnson was also a radio DJ and a musician; she sang and played ukulele in the Figs, an all-woman band that dove into the mostly male world of Acadiana-style bluegrass. “Being an all-female band in Acadiana music, for them to come out and play that kind of music, was pretty cool,” Broussard said.
Gambit Weekly of New Orleans said the band “looks like a country-time tea party of pretty girls in pretty dresses, but it rocks, Cajun-style, like a roadhouse full of moonshine and buckshot.”
“She just picked up an instrument and formed a band that would just pack” local venues, said Thigpen.
“The Lafayette music community, like the town that houses it, is small, close-knit and motley. She was a commanding presence as a performer and a human being, smoke-voiced as a singer and sarcastic in her swollen drawl that gave conversation with her an air of sharp gentility,” wrote Christiaan Mader, a friend, in a remembrance published Friday in the Independent in Lafayette. “She sold Lafayette to Lafayettians. And she succeeded because she probably knew this place better than any born native did.”
Even as a college student, Johnson was always creating something, her friend Sarah Savoy said in an e-mail, “whether it was photographs, sewing, music, a beautiful home or sweet mischief.” Savoy and Johnson met in college, after other students kept confusing the two, both brunettes of the same size.
“We hit it off immediately,” Savoy wrote to The Post. “She had this great, dry sense of humor that matched mine perfectly, we had the same tastes in music, and her art inspired me so much.” Soon, they were swapping dresses for nights out together. Sometimes, Johnson would lend her friend a dress she made herself.
Eventually, Johnson served as the maid of honor at Savoy’s wedding.
Savoy moved to France, but she and Johnson remained fast friends.
“She visited me in Paris,” Savoy wrote Friday. “When we went out for pizza one night she said she’d always dreamed of celebrating her birthday in Paris. I lied to the waiters and told them it was her birthday, so they brought her ice cream with a sparkler in it and sang her ‘Happy Birthday’ in French.”
Savoy added that even though she was three years older than her friend, “I always said I wanted to be Jillian when I grew up.”
This post has been updated.