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Holly Johnson

b. 1975
Born: Smethport, Pennsylvania, U.S.

Holly Johnson is a Buffalo, N.Y.-based artist who works in a variety of media, including live performance, video, and music. Born in Smethport, Penn., she attended the University of Pennsylvania and studied English literature there with an emphasis on poetics. (Many years later she would refer to herself as a “recovering poet.”) While living in Philadelphia she participated in street theater and other activist art projects. She was active with the Philadelphia Independent Media Center during the 2000 Republican National Convention and beyond, both as a performer and an online journalist.

Moving to Buffalo to pursue an MFA in Media Study from the University at Buffalo (conferred in 2006), Johnson continued her work as a solo media and performance artist, while also collaborating or appearing as a featured guest with a number of individual artists and art collectives, including video director Meg Knowles, media/performance artist Brian Milbrand, the Real Dream Cabaret, Nimbus Dance, Torn Space Theater, and Subversive Theatre.

Attempting to pigeonhole Johnson within any single art form would be both fruitless and irrelevant; at any given time she may be working in documentary film or experimental video, designing elaborate costumes for herself and other performers, singing blues or Tin Pan Alley standards, building and manipulating puppets, ballroom dancing, or improvising within a persona she has created. Throughout her career she has explored various iconic characters, both real and fictitious, both female and male, rooted in both contemporary popular culture and historical research: Virginia Dare, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Joan of Arc, and Robin Hood, among others, have all inspired her attention, either live or on video. The themes she pursues with this collection of tools include gender, the environment, and the rights of differently abled people, among many others.

Everybody has a Story, a 2008 videotape Johnson directed and produced for the Squeaky Wheel/Buffalo Media Resources project Channels: Stories from the Niagara Frontier, paired her with members of the Children's Mental Health Coalition of WNY. The Claire Cycle (2003-08), a series of three shorts and one feature she co-wrote with director Brian Milbrand and co-starred in, addresses Jungian archetypes through parodies of several film genres. Of her work as a longtime member of the Real Dream Cabaret, two of the company's most ambitious productions—WoyUbu (2009) and The Outlaw Show (2011)—feature scripts co-written by Johnson, who was also a featured performer in each. In a review of the latter, Buffalo News critic Colin Dabkowski described the group, and by extension Johnson’s own aesthetic, as follows: “The gender-bending cabaret traffics in a specific kind of manic energy wed with a deep political consciousness and a riotous sense of humor. Its performances, though almost always infused with humor, often strike a dire tone that seems designed as much to engage the audience as to alarm or disturb it.” [1]

Johnson’s video work has been screened at the Burchfield Penney Art Center, Squeaky Wheel/Buffalo Media Resources, Hallwalls Contemporary Arts Center, the Market Arcade Film & Arts Center, and the University at Buffalo (all in Buffalo, N.Y.); the Buffalo Society of Artists at Market Street Art Center (Lockport, N.Y.), and  J. W. Bush Gallery (Hamilton, Ont.), among other venues.

In 2010 Johnson returned to the University at Buffalo to begin work on a PhD in Comparative Literature, and she has presented papers at academic conferences at various universities around the country throughout her time in Buffalo.


[1] Colin Dabkowski, “Welcome to limbo: Companies pair up for surreal spectacle 'The Outlaw Show,’” The Buffalo News, 11/25/2011, (Accessed 07/31/2013)