Free Black Dirt is an artistic partnership formed by dynamic duo Junauda Petrus and Erin Sharkey. Formed in its most current iteration in 2011, the partnership allows the artists to tackle big projects that would be hard to attempt on their own. As Erin says, “I think the emerging artist is expected to wear a lot of hats. [An emerging artist] is asked to be making and producing, and making sure the house is full, and figuring out how to make a poster, and writing a press release, and all those things.… I think [the partnership] has allowed us to grow our capacity, to move quickly and do lots of different kinds of projects…I think it’s allowed us to focus on an aesthetic angle or an aesthetic edge because we haven’t had to wear all the hats all the time.”
While writing is at the core of most of their work, their collaborative projects often leap off the page and into multi-disciplinary spaces. For example, their production There Are Other Worlds blends hip-hop and jazz music, aerial arts and a cast entirely composed of women of color to explore friendship, motherhood and the Black Liberation Struggle. In 2015, Junauda and Erin worked with In the Heart of the Beast Puppet and Mask Theatre to create puppets that honored the Black Lives Matter movement and the “purple love” inspired by the one-and-only Prince. More recently, they created an episodic web series, Sweetness of Wild, that explores “wildness, blackness, queerness, bike culture, creativity and sweetness.”
When they sit down to talk about a new project, Erin says, “We sort of have to forge ahead in a new way, and we’ll answer questions in real time. I think we trust each other, trust ourselves, and we’ve been able to use our gumption to make things work.”
They relentlessly push themselves to explore new creative territories and collaborative opportunities. Their work is vast and deep, unexpected and unbound. There are a million things to know about Free Black Dirt, but we’ll start with nine details worth committing to memory:
- They are everywhere. Seriously, when you’re out and about, you will probably run into them performing, curating, teaching or supporting other artists at their events.
- They hustle. They are constantly creating new work individually, as a collective and in collaboration with other talented folks.
- They are multidisciplinary. They write for the page, stage and screen, produce, direct, and they’ve also done work with puppetry and aerial arts. If you said they dabbled in bronze casting, no one would be surprised.
- They hosted Season One of Black Market Reads, a podcast produced through the Givens Foundation for African American Literature.
- They throw a great party. If you haven’t been to one of their literary salons – go.
- They curate content, as well as making it. In 2018, they were the guest editorial curators of mnartists.org.
- They teach all over town: the University of Minnesota, the Loft Literary Center and the Minnesota Prison Writing Workshop, just to name a few.
- They get awards. Junauda was a Playwrights’ Center’s Many Voices Mentee and is now an Affiliated Writer with the PWC, she has received Jerome Foundation grants and a Naked Stages Fellowship at Pillsbury House. Erin was a Loft Mentor Series winner in creative nonfiction, VONA/Voices Writing fellow, as well as a Coffee House Press In the Stacks Artist-in-Residence.
- They jump into the deep end by constantly trying new things; they dream and then they do.
Special Thanks: Modern Times Cafe, Moon Palace Books, The Parkway Theater
Additional Media: Mychal Fisher, Adja Gildersleve, Sarah White
Minnesota Music: Mychal Fisher, Annie Fitzgerald, Javier Santiago, Candid Kid, Lateduster
Production Team: Joe Demko, Matt Ehling, Ezra Gold, Jennilee Park, Michael Phillips, Brittany Shrimpton, Brennan Vance
This story is made possible by the Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund and the citizens of Minnesota.