Chamber Music Northwest Summer Festival Portland Oregon

Linda K. Johnson and the art of remembering

The storied veteran dance artist makes connections as she creates a memorial to colleagues who've passed on.

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Altar for dance artists no longer with us. Photo: Linda K. Johnson

Linda K. Johnson is a storied artist who evades simple description, but I will venture an incomplete summary here: She is known widely for her decades’ worth of participation in the dance ecology of Portland as a performer, teacher, and creator. For dance history nerds, it bears mentioning that Johnson is an honored custodian of Yvonne Rainer’s post-modern solo “Trio A,” and that Johnson tends to build her own choreographies site-specifically. So, it makes sense that her most recent work took place in Building 5, a large industrial space in the heart of NW Marine Artworks. Here—in celebration of her 60th birthday on February 24th—Johnson spent time honoring her personal dance history, and she invited a web of friends to join in honoring theirs as well. She titled the culminating installation Mycelium Dreams

The public was invited to experience Johnson’s work at Building 5 on February 25th. When I arrived for open hours, she explained that had been inspired by Finding the Mother Tree, a memoir by Susan Simard that explores the critical role that fungi mycelium play in interdependent forest ecologies by creating webs for exchange of micronutrients. Johnson began mapping out the “mycelium” of her own dancing life. Determined to represent her history on her terms, she created a visual cartography of artists, spaces, and projects that had imprinted on her between 1985 and 2015, and she invited people from the dance world represented on her map to do the same. Each rendered their personal maps onto large, uniformly sized sheets of paper—which, I was told, will be professionally photographed and uploaded to the Portland State University Archives

Post-performance photo of Jann Dryer memorabilia. Photo: Stephanie Schaaf

Johnson’s installation at Building 5 likened itself to the organic structure of mycelium. A large circle of chairs enveloped the space in a manner reminiscent of fairy rings of mushrooms—a phenomenon of divine geometry generated by fungus mycelium. Johnson lined the internal perimeter of the chair circle with salt, a sacred mineral that would leave evidence of movement toward its center. Inside lay carefully arranged memorabilia from four of Johnson’s friends who had passed on and who had imprinted deeply and unforgettably on her being. Their memorabilia were outlined with salt, as if to trace disappearance or loss of life. 

Johnson told me that the night prior, on her birthday, she had invited friends from her mycelium mapping project to visit Building 5 for a secret performance. During this happening, Johnson inhabited the memorabilia of the passed artists—Keith V. Goodman, Mary Oslund, Bonnie Merrill, and Jann Dryer—and performed solos in their honor set to the first of Bach’s “Suites for Unaccompanied Cello” as played by Kendra Carpenter. As the ritual concluded, all present for the ritual were invited to dance. 

The remains of this affair were left for public viewing in the days that followed, along with a hanging installation of the mycelium maps that Johnson and other artists made. At the far end of the space, Johnson created an altar of passed artists that visitors could add to. 

Linda K. Johnson’s map. Photo courtesy of the artist 

During my visit, I spent a lot of time with each of the artists’ maps. I noted different sizes and styles of handwriting as well as the varied strategies for parsing out history in two dimensions. I recognized many names on the maps, and I even found my own on a few of them. 

I began to notice a trend: Names of individuals were often mapped around organizations as points of first encounter. I considered the slipperiness of these kinds of entities, the ways in which they facilitate sharing and interdependence but also act as silos and purveyors of scarcity. Both of these scenarios have played out within the complex lineage of Portland’s dance history. Johnson acknowledged that feelings of exclusion still come up among community members, and even she feels these sometimes. But her mapping project built context around individuals as a counterpoint, for there is always more to trace and acknowledge. 

Considering Johnson’s Mycelium Dreams, I began to turn the notion of individualism over and examine its harms, particularly the ways that individualistic culture demands actions and outcomes, leaving little room for uncertainty. The most striking aspect of Johnson’s installation rested at its center, where she had rendered death in a mycelial fashion—like the necrotic earth where fairy rings grow. At the nucleus of her own fairy ring, she gave herself space to explore the absence of loved ones and to feel the ways she still carries them with her. Though death may be the ultimate uncertainty of life, Johnson’s Mycelium Dreams put trust in the ensuing processes of decomposition and nourishment. 

Hannah (they/them) is a nonbinary neurodivergent dancer, dance-maker, and writer residing on lands of the Cowlitz, Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde, Clackamas, and many other tribes, also known as Southeast Portland, Oregon. In addition to creating zines and writing for Oregon ArtsWatch, their contributions have been published by Movement Research’s Critical Correspondence and Stance on Dance. They have been an artist-in-residence at New Expressive Works, Sou’wester Arts, Art Klub NOLA, and Performance Works NW. Their work has been presented by the Domestic Performance Agency, 912 Julia Gallery, Pieter Performance Space, and the Chehalem Cultural Center, among others. Hannah often works in close collaborations, most consistently with long-term collaborator Emily Jones. They continue to grow in the complex lineages of somatics, improvisation, and disability justice. They hold an MA in Performance Studies from New York University.

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