Fragmentation in motion: An interview with Jaleesa Johnston

A free screening and animation workshop for black femmes, women, and non-men in Portland, hosted by the first and the last

This past April, I had the pleasure of interviewing artists kiki nicole (they/them) and ariella tai (they/them) about their work through the first and the last—an experimental film/video and new media arts project. This endeavor offers a platform to amplify and support the artistic work of black femmes, women, and non-men through screenings, skillshares, and workshops based in Portland. During our discussion, nicole cited the influence of another Portland-based black femme artist, Jaleesa Johnston (she/her), whom they were excited to curate into their year of programming.

Johnston will be facilitating a screening and workshop as part of the first and the last’s programming this weekend, July 28 and 29. I had the opportunity speak with her about her incisive body of work and conceptual process, and how all of the above will inform these upcoming events.

Lesson #1: Fractioning Gaze(s)” by Jaleesa Johnston

Johnston describes her artist practice as interdisciplinary: The ideas and concepts come first, followed by mediums for their expression. “If I don’t know that medium, I just find a way to learn it or teach it to myself,” she said, reflecting back a sense of determination that nicole and tai emphasized when I spoke to them earlier this year about the work of various self-taught black femme artists.

“Pretty much all of the themes and ideas that I deal with have to do with black female subjectivity and understanding what it means to stand within this in-between space of being both the subject and object in my work, and historically being seen as both subject and object,” Johnston explained. She described how blackness becomes a “liminal space” that can be defined, in certain senses, but also remains undefined. “That actually can be very beneficial and very freeing,” she continued. “I can use that to harness and activate a radical space that allows me to expand beyond the confines of what blackness has conventionally meant or historically meant.”

On July 28, Johnston will screen an excerpt of the video “Compared to What” (2017) by Ayana V. Jackson. A US-born photographer and filmmaker, Jackson often references 19th and early 20th century presentations of black bodies through her self-portraiture. Her performative and photographic work calls into question the ways the camera has historically been used to construct identities.

“It’s an animated video piece, but through photography, stitching together different photos,” described Johnston, who first encountered the film when she was teaching a photography class at Pacific Northwest College of Art. That same semester, Jackson visited the school and came to speak to Johnston’s students.

“It was through seeing her piece that I started really thinking about what’s not said,” she remembered.

The film piqued Johnston’s interest in the difference between live performance and performance that is mediated by photography or video. “Watching her video piece, I just was thinking about the body…the body in fragments caught through snapshots,” she said. As she encountered the film, Johnston considered how live performative work is often presented comprehensively, from beginning to end in real time for an audience, while performative video or photography can sometimes allow for more discretion and choice-making around what is revealed and what is obscured.

In this sense, for Johnston, what is is not said and what is not seen becomes paramount.

“There’s this fragmented piece of body that is actually still finding a way to function and interact and come alive on the screen,” Johnston reflected of the film.

Following the screening, on July 29, Johnston will facilitate an animation workshop seeded by the notion of fragmentation, a concept that shows up in her own work as well, in pieces such as “Lesson #1: Fractioning Gaze(s)” and her collage work, Between Contact. In this skill-building workshop, participants will have the opportunity to learn how to create a .gif through Photoshop and an animation through PowerPoint.

“Antique White and Flesh” by Jaleesa Johnston

Johnston expounded on the phrase “Fragments from the (W)hole,” her choice of title for this offering. “As people, we break off little bits of ourselves, and that’s what people get to see and interact with, but they all tie back to this part of us that is a larger, whole person,” she said. “There are moments where I feel whole, and then there are other times where I feel like a void, like an actual hole.”

Johnston spoke to the notion of fragmentation as a mode of moving through the world, the act of sharing pieces of oneself that connect back to a unique and complex human identity—yet, without revealing its wholeness. For her, there are a range of affective states evoked by this fragmentation, experiences of “feeling fully present and alive, and then moments of feeling like you’re not really here, not really there.” It is critical to consider, as she articulated, “what that means in terms of blackness, and what that means for how we [black folx] have constructed our identity, especially given the history of blackness as its constructed through photography.”

“My rat race of a mind has wired all these things together that I hope to communicate during the workshop,” said Johnston, musing over the marriage of concept with practical skill-building.

Ultimately, she hopes to give others, especially black femmes, opportunities to work with the camera and to create a kind of narrative—one that “allows for this complicated sense of being to exist.”


Join the first and the last for a screening of Ayana V. Jackson’s work with Johnston on July 28 at 6 pm and an introductory animation workshop on July 29 at 6 pm. These events will be hosted at Alberta Abbey with the Black Life Experiential Research Group (BLERG). Both events are free and open to the public, and the animation workshop will be catered by Platanorising.

the first and the last is accepting donations for their projects and artists via Venmo @firstandlast. Follow @firstandthelast.blk on Instagram to learn more. 


DramaWatch Weekly: time to JAW

Portland Center Stage's new-plays fest hits its stride. Plus: Isaac Lamb on gender and "The Music Man," Rene Denfeld on "Glass Managerie"

Summer stinks.

Sure, the long days are great, but the summer sun is a hot-tempered tyrant. There’s no good basketball to watch. And maybe worst of all, there’s not as much theater to see.

Ah, but then there’s JAW.

Portland Center Stage’s annual playwrights festival is an oasis in the (relative) desert of the summer performance calendar. Originally called Just Add Water/West, it started in 1999 as an offshoot of a similar program at the New York Theater Workshop. Over the years, it has served as an incubator of works by such renowned playwrights as Itamar Moses (Outrage, Celebrity Row), Lauren Gunderson (Parts They Call Deep), Adam Bock (The Thugs, San Diego), Jordan Harrison (Act a Lady, Futura), Constance Congdon (Paradise Street), Marc Acito (Birds of a Feather), Will Eno (Middletown, Gnit), Kimberly Rosenstock (99 Ways to Fuck a Swan), Dan O’Brien (Body of an American), and Yusef El Guindi (Threesome).

This year’s JAW, ready to roll. Photo: Portland Center Stage at the Armory

As useful as JAW is for writers — giving each a director, a dramaturg, a cast, and more than a week for concentrated rehearsals and revisions — its a boon as well for theater fans when it gets around to what PCS calls “the Big Weekend.” That’s when the public gets let into the process for a series of free staged readings, along with other performances and events.
Because the plays being presented are still being developed, there’s not much in the way of production history or reviews to inform our expectations, but you can read brief descriptions of the plays and playwright bios at the PCS website. In any case, the spirit of discovery — both in plays well-polished or those still finding their form — is one of the great pleasures of JAW, along with the lively lobby conversations between readings.


MusicWatch Weekly: comings and goings

Summer festivals open and close, and Oregon's musical week also features other concerts indoors and out

Portland’s summer music scene would feel incomplete without Portland SummerFest Opera in the Park, the annual free, family friendly opera performance in Washington Park Amphitheater, with the audience arrayed on their blankets gazing down at singers and orchestra on the amphitheater stage. In Saturday’s Tosca, veteran conductor Keith Clark leads an abridged concert performance (that is, no props, just singing and playing) that features singers who’ve starred on stages at New York’s Metropolitan Opera and beyond. Soprano Angela Brown (who’s also sung with many major orchestras and opera companies) sings the title role in Puccini’s popular perennial, with Portland’s own Met vet Richard Keller as the villainous Scarpia, bass baritone Deac Guidi, tenor Allan Glassman, chorus and orchestra.

Angela Brown stars in ‘Tosca’ at Portland SummerFest.

Portland Opera’s Orfeo ed Euridice, which opens Friday at Newmark Theatre, closes its summer festival season. The tragedy of the irresistible singer Orpheus and his lover and their journeys to hell and back has tugged human heartstrings since long before the ancient Greeks transformed it into one of the world’s most enduring myths. One of the most popular musical settings is Christoph Gluck’s 1762 opera, with its hit single Dance of the Blessed Spirit. Sandra Piques Eddy and Lindsay Ohse star in the title roles, with resident artist Helen Huang singing the role of Amore, the god of love. This new production also features full chorus, ballet, and lots of rose petals, sung in Italian with projected English translations.

Portland SummerFest brings ‘Tosca’ to Washington Park. Photo: Tasha Miller.

One of Oregon’s summer music treasures, Portland Piano Summer Festival, begins Monday and runs through August 3 at Lewis & Clark College. This year’s festival adds a new series of Kaleidoscope Lectures that “explore the world of music as it relates to science, language, and art, guided by experts in relevant fields,” including subjects like music and the brain, the birth of Romanticism, and, on Monday evening, Constance Jackson’s talk on Music and Meaning. The annual summer immersion in pianistic performance this time includes acclaimed pianist Tanya Gabrielian playing Handel, Beethoven, Schumann, Gershwin, and Chopin on Monday. The next evening, she talks about composers and mental illness before Alexander Shtarkman tackles a great Beethoven sonata, Brahms’s quartet of Ballades, and Chopin’s two dozen Op. 28 Preludes. We’ll tell you about the rest of the fest next week.

The view from Mt. Angel Abbey.

Another Oregon summer music glory, the Mt. Angel Abbey Bach Festival, returns for its 47th season at the beautiful abbey near Silverton. Wednesday and Friday’s concerts have been sold out for awhile, but tickets remain Thursday’s performances by excellent Portland organist Douglas Schneider (featuring that most famous organ work by JS Bach) at 6 pm and for the evening concert by the Canadian duo of cellist Yegor Dyachkov and pianist Jean Saulnier, featuring more Bach, plus music by Schumann and one of Beethoven’s great cello sonatas.

Hunter Noack performs at Timothy Lake.

Tosca isn’t the only outdoor classical music event this week. On Thursday, Portland State University prof Ken Selden leads the Vancouver Symphony in a family-friendly, free outdoor concert in downtown Vancouver’s Esther Short Park band shell featuring Shostakovich’s aptly titled Festive Overture, some of Dvorak’s Slavonic Dances, Sousa’s Stars and Stripes Forever, Copland’s Hoe Down (from his ballet score Rodeo) and music from Sleeping Beauty and Star Wars. And on Saturday, with Mt. Hood looming in the background, Portland pianist Hunter Noack brings his Steinway, wireless headphones, and engaging In a Landscape project to Cove Amphitheater on Timothy Lake.

Still another summer musical treat commences with Jacksonville’s annual Britt Orchestra Season, part of the Britt Music & Arts Festival. There will be one difference this year: due to wildfire smoke, these Britt Orchestra concerts have been moved to the North Medford High School auditorium. Wednesday’s opening night concert features classics used in film, from Mozart, Wagner, John Williams, and more.


DanceWatch Weekly: A holiday just for dance

Saturday is National Dance Day and DanceWatch has some ideas about you can celebrate

Saturday, July 28, is National Dance Day. Shouldn’t it also be a national holiday? Don’t we need a holiday to dance?

“So You Think You Can Dance” judge Nigel Lythgoe invented National Dance Day to promote dance education and physical fitness. Lythgoe also co-founded the Dizzy Feet Foundation, and the foundation and I agree “that participation in dance connects the mind and body, promotes health and wellbeing, connects us with others and enables us to find joy through dance and movement.”

So, let’s do it! How will you engage in dance this week? Will you watch it, do it, or both? Listed below are a multitude of ways to do it all. See you at the dance.

Performances this week

Dance artist keyon gaskin. Photo courtesy of PICA.

[A Swatch of Lavender]: A Self Portrait
keyon gaskin
July 25-27
PICA at Hancock, 15 NE Hancock St.
Dancemaker keyon gaskin in DanceWatch Weekly two weeks ago spoke with me about about his new work [A Swatch of Lavender]: A Self Portrait, which debuts at the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art.

Gaskin’s work is complex and layered, deeply intellectual and questioning. His work butts up against normative performance practices and can disturb, confuse, and up-end.

“I think with this piece, I’m really trying to value and center all the ways in which we receive information,” gaskin said. “I also think about feminist ways of engagement with it. I think the whole piece in general is very decentralized. It’s not about WATCHING. Things are happening all around you. You can’t possibly see everything the whole time because there are three different people moving throughout the room at any given time….trying to center text and experience, and sensations, smell, feel, as equally receiving of information.”

To read the full interview, click here.

Dancer Dalitza Samantha Alicea-Perez. Photo by Karla MIlugo,

Duende Yubá: Bomba Workshop and Performance
Presented by #ArtSavedMyLife
Featured artists include: DJ Mami Miami (Noche Libre DJ Collective), Bobby Fouther, Jean Nada, Amenta Bodunde Abioto, and Dalitza + Drummers
8 pm July 26
New Expressive Works, 810 SE Belmont St.
6-7:30 pm Bomba workshop with Dalitza Samantha Alicea- Perez

#ArtSavedMyLife—that’s exactly what I’m talking about! Join Puerto Rican performance artist and Bomba dancer Dalitza Samantha Alicea-Perez and her drummers for an evening honoring Puerto Rican and African cultures through music and dance. The evening will also include performances by DJ Mami Miami (Noche Libre DJ Collective), Bobby Fouther, Jean Nada, and Amenta Bodunde Abioto.


Newport honors favorite sons David Ogden Stiers, Ernest Bloch

Upcoming on the Coast: a screening of Benedict Cumberbatch in "Hamlet" and an open house at an historic Coast Guart boathouse

The central Coast pays homage to two of its famous former citizens this month. As part of the Oregon Coast Council for the Arts’ capital campaign program, plans are under way to change the name of the Performing Arts Center’s Black Box Theatre to the David Ogden Stiers Theatre.

A campaign is under way to rename a Newport theater after former resident David Ogden Stiers. Photo courtesy Newport Symphony Orchestra

In a press release, the arts council’s Executive Director Catherine Rickbone called the actor, known for his role as the pompous Maj. Charles Emerson Winchester III in the 1970s TV show M*A*S*H, “an inspiration to several generations over his many years of involvement with OCCA and the PAC.” Stiers, 75, died March 3 of bladder cancer at his home in Newport.

Rickbone’s release continued to note that Stiers often said of the Performing Arts Center, “it so delights me to see the theater camps and dance recitals involving kids. They think they own this place, and of course they do!”

The renaming comes with $1.6 million in renovations that will include a new seating system, enhanced sound, lighting, and acoustics, and improved HVAC for the theater. It will be home to experimental theater, premiering original plays, literary readings, storytelling, piano performances, dance recitals, cabaret-style jazz ensembles, international musical events, and a broader youth theater. It will also enable simultaneous programming with the adjacent Alice Silverman Theatre. For more information, call Bonnie Prater at the OCCA office, 541-574-2655.


Beta Percussion Institute: crossroads of performance and composition

New concert series and seminars spotlight contemporary percussion music


The University of Oregon School of Music and Dance, usually empty and quiet during the dog days of summer, is about to become a vibrant soundscape of performers and composers attending the first Beta Percussion International Institute August 4-10 — and you can listen in.

UO Percussion Studio. Photo: Gary Ferrington.

The week-long program, organized by artistic director Pius Cheung and co-director Eriko Daimo, focuses on both performance and composing, or arranging, music for percussion. “I noticed a surge of performer/composers in the past decade and I wanted this seminar to be a place for people to feel free to share their works, or begin their journey in writing,” Cheung, who teaches percussion on the UO music school faculty, told Artswatch. “The primary objective is not to turn percussionists into composers, but … for performers to play with the insight and understanding of a composer.”

The Institute has attracted participants from Hong Kong, mainland China, Japan, Philippines, Austria, and a dozen American states. In Eugene they will be attending work sessions to explore, experiment, and make revisions in their music along the way. The program includes clinics addressing practice techniques, memorization and creative analysis, master classes with faculty, and hands-on workshops exploring topics such as improvisation and composing. Individual students will also have private lessons with guest faculty. UO instructor of percussion Sean Wagoner serves as Director of Operations. The next Institute is proposed for 2020.

“Art is always evolving, as it is a reflection of everything around us, past, present and future,” Cheung notes. “Therefore, in a certain sense, art/music is always going to be in the ‘beta testing’ stage.”


Verona Quartet: musical conversations

Young, diverse string quartet performing this week at Chamber Music Northwest succeeds through strong communication and connection


It’s a good thing the Verona Quartet members are young and energetic, because they’ve been getting quite a workout in Portland this month.As part of Chamber Music Northwest’s 2018 Summer Festival, they will play Haydn, Beethoven, and Brahms at Portland State University’s  Lincoln Hall on Tuesday, Shostakovich’s Quartet #3 at northeast Portland’s  Alberta Rose Theater on Wednesday, and this Saturday and Sunday at Reed College’s Kaul Auditorium they will take part in the all Dvorak program that closes the 2018 Summer Festival. They’re also participating in various community outreach activities.

The Verona Quartet performs at Chamber Music Northwest this week.

Not that their Oregon schedule is unusual. The Verona Quartet is a full-time ensemble — chamber music is what they do, and they do a lot of it away from home. The quartet has given concerts and residencies in the U.S., Canada, Europe, Asia, Australia, and the Middle East. This is their eighth week on the road this summer.

Like every string quartet whose players I’ve ever interviewed, the Verona is particularly attracted to contemporary music. Among the new works it’s commissioned is one by Michael Gilbertson, which was recently chosen as a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. Another, Julia Adolphe’s Star-Crossed Signals, was inspired by the signals used to communicate between ships at sea. The Verona will perform it for the New at Noon concert in Lincoln Recital Hall at Portland State University this Friday.

Abigail Rojansky, the Verona Quartet’s violist, is adamant that “classical” music should not be considered old fashioned and stagnant, but that it is constantly changing, as is our understanding of it. The young ensemble’s makeup reflects that process of change.

On a perfect Portland summer evening last week, I chatted with Rojansky at a courtyard picnic table at Reed, the quartet’s current lodging. The Verona’s multinational touring schedule mirrors the group’s diverse backgrounds: two men, two women, four nationalities. Rojansky grew up in the San Francisco Bay area, first violinist Jonathan Ong is from Singapore, second violinist Dorothy Ro is from Nova Scotia, and cellist Jonathan Dormand hails from Yorkshire, England. To make things easier they call Dormand “J.D.”  When I ask if any of them are married, she smiles and says no. “And the next question,” she offers, “is if any of the members of the quartet are ‘together,’ and the answer again is no.”