Artist of Life
Sheila Johnson: Middleburg developer, Mystics owner, media mogul and mom
Interview by Nora Maccoby
Sheila Johnson is easily regarded
as one of the most prominent
and successful women in the
world, known as a visionary,
bridge builder and a transformative
teacher. She is the
co-founder of Black Entertainment
author of the “Roland Method” of violin teaching
and the first African-American woman to own
stakes in three professional sports teams, including
the Mystics, the female basketball wonder women
of Washington. Her latest venture, The Salamander
Inn & Spa, is poised to become Middleburg’s
first upscale resort.
Johnson is also a great mom and wife. In
person, she is warm, honest and relaxed with a
great sense of humor. She is always the teacher,
riffing back and forth with her students, always
an artist of life.
A creator of music schools, television networks,
philanthropy, Johnson’s works derive from
her core belief that creative expression is essential
to the development of leadership in a peaceful
society. The Sheila Johnson School of Music in
Amman, Jordan, teaches the language of music as
a tool for healing transformation. “Young Strings
in Action,” the all-string orchestra she found has
toured in both the United Kingdom and Jordan
and performs regularly at Children’s Hospital in
All the while, she was building BET, the
network providing 24-hour news and entertainment
for an African-American audience. Recently,
while building she somehow found the time to get
married again, to Judge William T. Newman.
Nor Maccoby, a former violin student of Johnson’s
is now a gnostic scholar, an award-winning
filmmaker and screenwriter (“Buffalo Soldiers”,
“Bongwater”) and co-founder of the non-profit
energy literacy initiative, Nature’s Partners. Last
month, she sat down with her mentor to discuss
her incredible life.
Nora Maccoby: Tell us about your vision for the resort
you want to build in Middleburg.
Shelia Johnson: I am building a five-star resort
and spa. It will have a 27, 000 square foot spa,
we’ll have mud treatments, pilates, yoga, a couple
of tree-house spa rooms, an equestrian facility,
tennis courts, walking, hiking and riding trails,
cooking classes, and a state-of-the-art conference
center. We’re five minutes away from Jack Nicklaus’
golf course. I think the resort will be large
enough to meet the needs of corporate executives,
or small enough for romantic couples to get
away [for the weekend.] Yo Yo Ma has told me
that he would love to come perform. We’re going
to have themed weekends with speakers on various
subjects. I want it to be a preventative health
and healing place but I don’t want it to be really
whacked-out and floating in the air. I’m hoping
that the resort will be the gateway in helping the
wine industry here, by doing the wine tastings. I
want to give guests a quality setting, something
that is first-class, yet not overwhelming. You’re
not going to feel like you’re at the St. Regis or
anything like that. It will just be a place where
you can really let your hair down.
NM: You’ve got this incredible vision and it’s going to
provide so much enjoyment for so many people.
SJ: I’ve saved it from a developer... Basically, it’s a
weird situation because everyone thinks the resistance
is coming from the town but it’s not. The
town wants this. The retailers wanted it. They
need the traffic. It’s the people who have just
moved here [that have resisted.] I have to say that
when I first moved here they put their claws into
me. I threw this big gala and they just loved me
and said I should buy this track of land just outside
of town. So I did, and I said, let’s build a resort
and call it an inn. It was a trap, they wanted me
to buy the land and they didn’t think I was going
to do anything with it. It’s not that I’m wrecking
the land, I saved it from a developer who was
going to put 200-plus homes on it. I’m putting
75 percent of it into a conservation easement. So
now I’m doing a boundary adjustment to put the
resort into the town, which means the town will
get the tax dollars from the room revenue, giving
it a flush of cash—over half a million dollars a
year which they can use for all the improvements
NM: They should be thanking you.
SJ: They are starting to realize it, but now they’re
blaming all these cars that come through Middleburg
on moi. But it’s the commuters, the blue
collar workers who have to live in Winchester or
West Virginia and work in town because there’s
no other way for them to [commute.]
NM: You took the role of the president of the Washington
International Horse Show (WIHS). Why did you
do this and what does it mean to you?
SJ: Because my daughter’s a rider. I’ve never
known a sport that can drain more money out
of your bank account. I did it because of her
interest and her passion and I have to say, I’ve
enjoyed it, the ride has been great. It’s been
making money because I’ve started to run it as
a business, and I think the people in the horse
industry have to understand that you’ve got to
run shows as a business. Unfortunately even people
within the industry do not support the horse
shows—clients and parents who are wealthy and who really should be helping with the sponsorship.
At some point the horse industry is going
to hit a crossroads, and I’m not sure how long
the WIHS will be able to stay at the MCI Center.
The rent is horrendous.
NM: My earliest memories of you are in violin class.
Bobby [Bob Johnson] would come in and out and
you’d talk about your plans in radio, TV and cable.
You were always working out your philosophy. You
were going to change the world, and then you did. You
are a visionary and you instilled that in us that desire
to make the world better or create things that may not
be here now. What makes someone a visionary?
SJ:I think you’re born with it, I really do. It has
something to do with seeing beyond the present,
seeing the whole picture as it is happening in the
present, and seeing how it can blossom.
NM: All of your students have done very well.
SJ: Yes, it’s not so much that they continue to
play an instrument, but that they’ve been very
successful in their own careers. And I really
believe that music is the foundation, because it
touches them in a place where no one or nothing
else can touch them. Our program taught organization,
discipline and focus. We were like one big
family. It was a learning process— from bowing
and learning good stage manners to learning how
to sit still. Because we had students from age five
to eighteen, the bigger children taught the littler
ones. We took it seriously, we were a professional
top-notch group, and we played everything.
NM: Our group was called Young Strings in Action.
You have a music school in Jordan how is that doing?
SJ: It is still doing very well. Two weeks ago was
its twenty-fifth anniversary. Many of the same
teachers I trained are still there. We traveled to Jordan
and the State Department told us we couldn’t
go because some of the students were Jewish. I
thought that was the dumbest thing, I mean, the
arts are the bridge of the universal language.
NM: When we got there we’d meet people and say,
“Half the kids were Jewish, but the Jordanians
embraced everyone of us as our brothers and sisters.”
SJ: The lines of communication completely
opened up. A lot of the students stayed in Palestinian
houses and had real dialogue and communication.
It was really a phenomenal experience
for these kids but we couldn’t go across the
bridge into Israel, that was disappointing.
NM: But we played at the Dead Sea at that ancient
SJ: Yes, the Temple of Artemis, for the Jerash festival,
the oldest cultural festival in the Middle East.
I think it was Queen Noor who started this festival
and she would invite top groups from all over
the world to perform. Remember, we practiced
twenty-four hours, seven days a week? We had to
get it all in order, but not only did they arrange
everything, the king sent his plane, and the kids
NM: You also wrote a book about your teaching
SJ: The book is called “Strings in Action.” It
was actually a string-teaching method that my
teacher, Paul Rolland, had devised. He is the
one who brought the Suzuki method into the
country. He was given a grant from the Department
of Education to come up with his own
method, a half a million dollars, which created
the Illinois String Research Project. It was all
based on movement and natural ability to play
the violin. It’s sort of complex but it works on
every skill from playing the violin to balance
to rhythmic skills. We were on tour in Europe
and we would train teachers on how to teach
this method. When he passed away from a heart
attack. His publisher approached me to rewrite the method so teachers in the school system
could use it.
NM: I think the process and the way that you teach
really enhances the whole person. Have you ever
thought about politics and diplomacy?
SJ: It’s really funny you should ask that question.
I just went on the board of the Sorensen
Institute, a non-partisan organization that gives
young people leadership skills. I’m not saying
that I’m going into politics but I am very happy
that Tim Kaine was elected governor of Virginia.
I helped get him elected and I’m coaching
his operation. This is probably the closest
I’ve been to politics on this level. Since I’m
building this resort and spa here in Middleburg
I’m of course involved in politics because any
building projects you do will get you into politics
with the county boards. It can be a very
NM: What advice would you give the Democrats over
the next couple of years?
SJ: We’ve lost a lot of ground and the perception
at the global level of the United States is not good.
We have a lot of cleaning up to do. But the Democrats
really need to focus on what their issues are
going to be and how they’re going to reprioritize
issues globally as well as in this country. It has
become the “in” thing to solve other country’s
problems rather than looking within, and we’ve
got problems on every level. I think this is something
that’s key for whoever runs for president. I
think Mark Warner is going to run and I think he
will be really good.
NM: You’re a newlywed. How does it feel?
SJ: It feels great. It takes a little getting used to
(laughs). I’ve always been an independent person
and for a period of time I wasn’t married. It’s a
matter of striking a balance that has allowed me to
keep doing what I’m doing, and be home too.
NM: Where did you and your husband meet?
SJ: Well, we actually met over thirty-some years
ago. I wasn’t making enough money, so I was acting
on the side. Bill was in a play with me and I
was married at the time. Fast-forward and I go
into the chambers to get my divorce and I think,
I know this judge. My lawyer asks, “How well do
you know him?” And I say I haven’t seen him in
at least thirty years. So after it’s over, I say, “Your
Honor, may I approach the bench?” He says,
that I may. And I say, “do you remember me?”
He said he did. Then I sent him an invitation to
the Washington Horse Show to see if he’d show
up with a guest and he came alone, so from that
NM: What qualities do you like best in him?
SJ: I can trust him. He’s brilliant. He’s very comfortable
with himself and his career. I think he is
probably one of the most honest people I’ve ever
met in my life. He’s warm, he’s loving, adores me
and I feel really safe with him. It’s a great feeling.
NM: Your daughter Paige is competing in the upper levels
of jumping. Did she get you into horses or did you
get her into horses?
SJ: She is the daughter I’ve always wanted. She is
quick, headstrong and passionate in whatever she
does. She has known from the very young age of
six that she wanted to ride. So, for her seventh
birthday, I bought her this little pony named Foxhollow
Sailingstar and she’s still riding to this day.
We have 25 horses on the farm.
NM: What is your son Brett doing these days?
SJ: He’s really a great actor. I think he’s very talented.
He’s playing football now, first string varsity
NW: How do you work out parenting with Bobby?
SJ: I’m with the kids most of the time. He had
them over Thanksgiving.
NM: Let’s talk about the Mystics.
SJ: They’re a great team of women and I’m
very excited about owning them. It’s the first
time a woman has [owned] three sports teams,
the Mystics, the Wizards and the Capitals. All
the WNBA teams are under the NBA and
have been inherited by men who own the
NBA teams. Their focus is on men, not on the
women, and they treat [the womens’ teams]
like a step-child. The only way they can really
thrive is by having separate ownership. My job
is to separate my staff from the Wizards and
build a new staff. I’m getting an entire sales
and marketing team, I’m looking for an assistant
coach and I’m still product testing a new
mascot. We’ve got PR to help inform people
about the Mystics Foundation because
we have to reach out into the community. [The
men’s NBA] are paid to go out in the community
and are able to bring the TV cameras in. It’s like
“Oh look, they’re feeding the homeless.” [But]
they get paid to do it, it’s in their contract. Our
women, have to make 11 charity appearances but
they don’t get paid. They only make $45,000 a
season. I am really having a fight now. They are
going to start valuing the women as athletes. This
is the one thing I have been furious about. I’m
telling you this has got to change.
NM: What philanthropies are you most engaged in?
SJ: I’m most passionate about the welfare of
children. They’re being abused on every level,
from sexual abuse, to trafficking, to not having
a great learning environment, to improper heath
care. I’m worried about the impact of the media
on their minds. I have given brick and mortar
for educational institutions. I’ve formed an
institute that is helping disadvantaged students
who have gotten into college [learn to] assimilate
better. Also, the performing arts, because
I still believe that that stage is a way of reaching
so many young people and getting them to
express themselves. I have my own foundation
and have gotten my children involved because
I think [we] have been extraordinarily blessed
with good fortune and it’s really important for
them to learn to give back.