Editor’s note: As the pandemic continues, KERA and The Dallas Morning News are collaborating to document its impact on North Texas’ arts and culture scene. The Morning News’ Julianna Morano talks to three Dallas artists about how their work has evolved since COVID hit. This is the third and final story in the series.
Dallas multimedia artist Nitashia Johnson came out of 2020 with a new mantra.
“People’ve got to choose their busy,” she says.
Johnson thinks, as a society, we’ve gotten used to being busy all the time. But during the pandemic, she’s had the time to slow down and analyze the world around her.
This story is the last in our series asking local artists about the pandemic’s impact on their work. The artists have attested to a mix of loss, grief, new opportunities and deeper appreciation of why they do what they do.
Our previous profiles featured Dallas Youth Poets’ Gabby Elvessie and her experience coaching young writers and Dallas improv comedian Sydney Plant’s pivot from live shows to launching a T-shirt line.
Honoring the South Dallas community
Growing up in Dallas, Johnson learned little about Black artists.
The first artist she witnessed in action was her mother, doodling images of strangers on the bus while they rode through town. But in schools around the city, she wasn’t taught much about Black creatives, or the history of her community.
During the pandemic, this stayed on Johnson’s mind. In her time at home, she reflected on how the past can help make sense of present inequities in the Black community.
“Lots of my work is meant to uplift the community and to show the beauty there because a lot of that I didn’t see when I was younger,” Johnson says.
Specifically, these reflections continue to influence her work on “The Beauty of South Dallas” project. She did it as part of her 2020 residency with the Juanita Craft House, with support from the South Dallas Cultural Center.
Through a series of black-and-white portraits of South Dallas residents and places, Johnson says she wants to capture the beauty of the neighborhood before gentrification alters it forever.
The project includes a photograph of the now-closed Pearl C. Anderson middle school where, as a student, Johnson met a teacher who introduced her to graphic design.
Johnson says her teacher was like “a planter that came around, that was like ‘Oh, let me water this seed.’”
That teacher and place were fundamental to Johnson’s development as an artist, and with “The Beauty of South Dallas,” she aims to preserve its history.
Although COVID-19 introduced new stresses into her work — especially the worry that she and her subjects’ health could be in jeopardy without either of them knowing it — it also underscored the urgency of highlighting untold stories.
“I continue to share the beauty of my community or the spaces just to remind people that there’s a light,” Johnson says. “We have to love each other and love ourselves because that’s what a community does. We love each other.”
Nitashia Johnson is a freelance photographer who has worked for The Dallas Morning News, The Marshall Project and The New York Times, among others.
A version of Nitashia Johnson’s interview produced by freelancer Jeff Whittington aired on KERA-FM (90.1). This story also appears on dallasnews.com and will be published in the newspaper’s Sept. 26 Arts & Life section.