I’ve known Elisheba Johnson for the past 15 years and I am so proud of contributions she’s made to the artists’ community here in Seattle. She is a Cornish art graduate, former owner of the still deeply loved and missed Faire Gallery and Café. She is a published poet and now tween fiction author. On top of that, she has a pretty sweet job working for the department of Arts and Culture. Yeah, that’s my best friend, but guess what – she’s your friend too, especially if you’re a creative type that culturally enriches this city.
When did you do 33 Things Every Girl Should Know?
Oh – wow, that was a really long time ago in 2002. So Tonya Bolden, who is a family friend, writes primarily books for middle school and young adults. And I’ve been writing poetry all through high school and I don’t know how she asked me, but she had done one book called 33 Things Every Girl Should Know and this was the follow up, which was called 33 Things Every Girl Should Know About Women’s History. And so we had this conversation about empowering women to – even if they get older and unmarried that they’re not going to be spinsters. She grew up in a time thinking that if you were 40 and unmarried that it’s the worst thing that could happen to you. So I wrote a poem about how there are these diversities with women and how they are changing the world.
After you graduated Cornish, you decided to start your own business and have a gallery. But the deal is that you opened up a space that was so community centric. Everyone hung out there. It wasn’t just artists who did visual work, it was also artists who did music or theater. People showed films there and comedians did shows there like Emmett Montgomery, Hari Kondabolu and Solomon Georgio. Musicians like Owour Arunga and Evan Flory-Barnes performed at Faire. You had everyone from every spectrum hang out at Faire. You had goths hang out with really hard hip hop dudes at Faire.
Yes, I wanted a place for my friends to show their art, because trying to navigate the art world is really scary when you get out of college. I was like do I go to Soil and try to join them? Or be part of an artist co-op? Do I just try to find a gallery? I didn’t feel that I was good enough and feeling insecure. And I thought I needed a job and that I wasn’t making enough art. So I was just like maybe if I could have a store front, that disappeared. Like how Love City Love is now. That was really how I envisioned Faire. It could be just some abandoned building with really cheap rent that you can make and do stuff. But I had talked to a business owner and he said “you don’t really want to do that. You want a lease so you don’t have to get kicked out.” And I was like I didn’t really want this weird make shift thing. So I always envisioned gallery shows, music shows and theater in the space. I was like if this didn’t work, then we’ll just close, and I’ll file bankruptcy and I’ll be young and it won’t matter. So that was the plan. And we opened and I didn’t want to close because I was really emotionally invested.
So tell me more about your role as the Executive and Commission Liaison with the Mayor’s Office of Arts and Cultural Affairs.
Technically we changed our name.
Yes. We are now the Office of Arts and Culture. We dropped the Mayor and we dropped the Affairs.
Oh that’s nice.
It’s really fun. I work with the arts commission with their strategic initiatives and advocacy efforts. So advocating for cultural space and education. I get to see all the really cool stuff we do in terms of public art and granting programs. I feel like I have more access to things that I can bring back to the community.
Our office is really focused on equity and access. We are going through all of our funding programs and looking at ways we might be having any institutional or structural barriers that prevent communities that have been traditionally underserved or underrepresented from getting grants or access to grants. The commission just did a two day retreat where they learned about institutional and structural racism. So that’s a lot of the work we’re doing now.
We have a program called ARTISTS UP where we had focus groups and resource sessions with African American, Asian American and Latino artists. And the next session coming up is for Native American artists.
Our biggest initiative probably is The Creative Advantage, which is arts education. It’s a community collective impact model where teaching artists who already work with the schools – we’re working with them and we have an evaluator to be able to show the impact arts education does for disciplinary rates, graduation rates. This is like a long term initiative where we will have the data around the power of arts education. So it’s really exciting and that’s what Lara Davis is in charge of.
And we just launched a space finder tool called Spacefinder Seattle. This is basically a dating site for artists and space.
Oh that’s something that I can use now?
Yes, you can use it now. Those are some of the big things that are happening in our office.
Talk to me about you being a part of the Americans for the Arts and Emerging Leaders Council.
Yes, I applied to be on the Americans for the Arts and Emerging Leaders Council and I got in. We meet twice a year and talk about things that emerging leaders need in arts. It’s really interesting to meet the other people who are arts managers or executive directors of small or big organizations. Some people are like me who work in the arts departments of their city. Some work in arts education. These people are so dope. We had our first meeting in February in Lubbock, Texas. They have a nice art scene there.
Let’s talk about The Adventures of Emery Jones, Boy Science Wonder. This is a book you’ve written with your father Charles Johnson. You already have The Adventures of Emery Jones, Boy Science Wonder: Bending Time that came out in 2013. A few weeks ago you released The Adventures of Emery Jones, Boy Science Wonder: The Hard Problem. This is a good series for all ages.
Oh yeah, and it’s been really fun. With the first book I approached my dad and said let’s do something, let’s write a children’s book. There aren’t a lot of books that I feel like my son can have a character that looks like him. And my dad said, “well I always wanted to write about a Black boy genius.”
It’s the second book, so stuff is going down now.
Stuff is definitely going down. So in the first book, Bending Time, Emery makes a contraption called the Chronovisor which was suppose to help his friend Gabby with her homework but ended up transporting their bully to the Triassic period and they had to go retrieve him. In the second book, The Hard Problem, we find out that Aliens are somehow connected to the time travel and pay Emery and Gabby a visit.
That’s really awesome. It’s an amazing series and I can’t wait to read the second book. So final question: who are some of the women here in Seattle you think are kicking ass and taking names in regards to art?
I just feel like women are a force in the city and we’re doing some awesome things. I think that there are more barriers that need to be broken down. I think a lot of gallery owners are doing great things like Diana Adams at Vermillion, and Kirsten Anderson and Sharon Arnold at Roq La Rue, Natasha Marin, Davida Ingram… They’re just so many great women out here kicking butt.