hill country observerThe independent newspaper of eastern New York, southwestern Vermont and the Berkshires


Arts & Culture December 2015-January 2016


Choreographing a night of stargazing

Artist guides massive quilt-making project in northern Berkshires


Contributing writer



The choreographer Emily Johnson, an artist in residence at Williams College, conducts a visioning session with students at Williamstown Elementary School in preparation for “Stargazing,” a nightlong community event planned for the spring of 2017. Courtesy photo/Maggie Thompson

Some artists create an object or a performance, but Williams College Artist-in-Residence Emily Johnson is working with scores of others to create something more ethereal, but still tangible: an experience.
Johnson’s current project, “Stargazing,” will be realized in the spring of 2017. She has been collecting organized community input as she plans an all-night event of togetherness and looking at the night sky – complete with a park-sized quilt for participants to lie upon.

The idea and process for the current project began with her previous work “Shore,” which Johnson describes as “equal parts performance and feast, with a day of volunteerism and a curated reading.”

Johnson is primarily known as a dancer and choreographer. She is the artistic director of Catalyst, a Minneapolis-based dance company she founded in 1998.

But with organizational art projects like “Shore” and “Stargazing,” she is bringing ideas of movement -- guiding it and directing it -- beyond the confines of a traditional dance program. Johnson is still the choreographer, but of a project built on various movements that she helps set into motion and brings together at the end.

“Rather than come into a place and decide what we were going to do for service or volunteerism, we would have conversations with people in the communities,” Johnson said, describing her work on “Shore.”

“We would set up community-building sessions,” she explained. “And so through this community visiting process, we brainstorm hundreds of ideas about what you want for the well-being of yourself, your friends and family, your neighborhood, your city, your town, your tribe, your state, concentrically from in out.”

These types of meetings now are under way in northern Berkshire County for “Stargazing,” a project that was born from one of the brainstorming sessions for “Shore.” Someone wrote the word down “stargazing,” and it was picked up during an expansion process that took the idea further.

“From an idea, you can create a whole frame and context for that idea,” Johnson explained. “Not only what does stargazing look like or what does each community look like, not only what is that, but what is around that, what creates context for that. And then we create a map for how to make that idea come into reality, which is based on imagining that coming into being.”


Seeking a community’s vision
As “Stargazing” takes shape in the Berkshires, Johnson has held visioning sessions with two fifth-grade classes as well as with participants in the Northern Berkshire Community Coalition’s Unity Youth Leadership Project. The idea of well-being is at the center of these discussions: The groups envision what well-being looks like in their own lives, their community, and also the lives of others.

Johnson said one of the concerns brought up in these meetings -- as something considered in a larger societal context as well as the more intimate one of a Stargazing night -- is the issue of race-related gun violence, particularly in cases involving the police. This has led Johnson to address the sense of safety as a component of the future stargazing gathering.

“What I want to do is work with youth leaders in every town that we’re going to and have specific community visioning sessions about safety -- what we, and you guys specifically as our future, what do you envision as safety?” she said. “How do you envision a safe night for this event, but also how do you envision a safe community? Really, I don’t know what that answer is, so the group we’re working with here in North Adams, Unity, I want to work with them on how do we redefine safety: What are our parameters of safety? What are our definitions of safety and care?
“And then, how do we lay that out? How do we propose that? How do we then have that conversation with the local precinct and really have the kids lead that conversation?

“To me, that is not only just benefiting this night, but it’s also creating a way of working with youth, a way of working together,” she said. “But also they can go and work in such a way that … this process will continue through their lives. And also then they’re directly having conversations between kids and cops, and that starts to change a relationship and starts to change power and structure. It’s a long form of change, but I know that it’s wanted, and I know that it’s needed, and it feels like something this project can be part of.”


Making quilts, square by square
Each idea from these visioning sessions is collected into quilt squares that will be joined into a series of 80 quilts to be used on the actual night of “Stargazing.” There’s also an effort under way at the Williamstown farmers market to add to the number of quilt squares.

The quilts will be put together at sewing bees, the most recent of which took place at the Maker’s Mill in North Adams. Johnson hopes these quilt-sewing events will become regular gatherings that extend beyond the “Stargazing” project.

Johnson said she is particularly excited by this component of the project. Besides working together to fashion a physical representation of all the ideas in the “Stargazing” project, she explained, people have an actual encounter with the project’s ideas -- and a chance to take them beyond the initial meetings where they were posed and even beyond the sewing bees.

“There’s a group of people of many ages that have come together,” Johnson said. “And we’re just sitting together and sewing, and you pick up an idea -- you pick up something that a fifth-grader wrote on this cloth square -- and you start sewing it and start talking about it. It’s a very natural evolution of conversation and of ideas -- and of really getting deep into some of these ideas. It is a natural process that is put into motion when you get people together over and over.”

“And I love that idea that these quilts are going to be touched so often, not only from the initial brainstorm, but in the sewing and the next step of the sewing and then in the packing and then when people lay on them and then when people lay them out or fold them up. These ideas are just going to be reread and talked about.”

The plan at this point is to continue the process — visioning meetings, gathering quilt squares, stitching the quilts at the bees, gathering community partners to further the effort – and to develop specific content for the actual stargazing night, since performance aspects are desired by the participants.

Johnson says they are at the beginning stages of a process that will end with an all-night gathering on a collection of quilts, inviting people to stare into the night sky.

“The point is not necessarily to see as many stars as possible,” she said. “The point is to get together for that simple and extravagant act of getting together and resting — laying down for the purpose of gazing at the skies together with a group of people. That night will also include performance, and it will include moments of stories and moments of silence. And we somehow want to allow for sleep and have all of this be very much choice. Imagine coming to a theater and sitting in your seats and saying, ‘oh, man, I’m really tired, I wish I could lay down.’ I want that to be a part of this night.”