At The Loft Literary Center, housed in Open Book in Minneapolis, Emily Johnson has gathered poets and writers from as far away as Thunder Bay and as close as Phillips. They are here for SHORE: STORY, the literary arts segment of her dynamic multidisciplinary project. There are sons and grandmothers and everyone in-between, reading, and we in the audience are consuming. Read aloud often enough and you know the audience is a living part of the craft. While the majority of the poets are Indigenous, there are also other races speaking their hearts and truths. Everyone’s shoreline is different. Someone says “sure, why not?” and that attitude strikes me as powerful. The writers address racial conflicts, talk to their community like a lover, relate a conversation with their child on a bike ride, allude to teaching creative writing to businessmen.
It had been a rainy few days before SHORE’s opening weekend. Or the part of SHORE that took place at the Northrop, at least – Emily Johnson’s SHORE is a multi-faceted project that existed in a number of different locations and spaces. Even the part that took place at the Northrop didn’t take place in the Northrop. Not initially. The first part of the performance had a few hundred people sitting on the great lawn outside, on the University of Minnesota’s mall, the oldest part of campus.
In the center of a long, low barn, a 30 foot table covered with a white tablecloth holds a dazzling array of homemade food: salads straight from the garden, an enormous platter of roasted pig, warm biscuits with strawberries and real whipped cream. White lights ramble across the rough walls, lending a celebratory feeling to this gathering. A side table offers dozens of plants to be taken home as a gift for each person. Quilt squares bearing a scrawled word or two are strung along the wall, each one invoking something we would like to see in our community. Everywhere I turn, there is an invitation to create, to share, and to participate. Outside a light rain is falling, as if blessing this event.
Emily Johnson’s SHORE gave me a keen sense that this artist, and the circle of artists with whom she collaborates, have been making their way toward me for a long time and vice versa. The stories of this new work emerge, strange and disturbing, and join the accumulating conversations with the works in this trilogy, The Thank-You Bar followed by Niicugni. Johnson’s works dwell in the liminal space between memoir and dream, intimate and mythical, dance and installation, continually working away at the boundaries between performers and audience.
In two parts of SHORE: PERFORMANCE, Emily Johnson tells stories out loud. She tells one standing on a pedestal on the grass of the University of Minnesota campus, pointing to a tree just down a ways from where we are sitting. “I think I remember that tree in my bones,” she says. Then she tells us about a dream she had during the SHORE production process. In the dream, she’s at rehearsal, and out the window sees an eagle and a hawk flying together in tandem, touching. She calls everyone over to see, and then the birds land right outside the window, and the eagle turns into a hawk, and the hawk turns into a baby, and the hawk holds onto the baby.
Emily Johnson tells me that the first time she realized she was dancing was when she was hugging a tree as a little girl and she felt it’s swaying and she realized she was swaying with it.
I like imagining dance like that: something you echo, something you already are. I thought of it often when I was watching Catalyst’s SHORE, as well as planting in the rain garden at East River Flats and participating in the feast at Foxtail Farm.
Wait, Emily told me the story of her dancing with the tree after I did all of those things. True, but didn’t the story of the tree at the top of SHORE move forward and backward through time, as if to say: the past, the future, the present, they are knotted together like roots?