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Longmont Journey: Hip-hop cellists and housing artists

Cellista brings politics and art home to Longmont

The musician Cellista grew up in Longmont. Though she splits her time now between Los Angeles and Longmont, she still considers it home. The House of Cellista on the 700 block of Gay Street is right next to her best friend. The pair even took down the fence dividing the backyards to be closer to each other. The House of Cellista is an art house, a place where artists can create without pressures of cost or time, Cellista said. The current residents, Rob Mess and Amanda Lehey of Porchfront Theater Collective, have the rent subsidized so they make art with less worry.

Cellista easily shifts through subjects in a conversation, from musical inspirations to business, to housing issues and politics. She considers herself a strange melding of her parents, Dr. Frank Seeburger and Gail Packard. Her father taught philosophy at the University of Denver for more than 40 years before he retired, while her mother was a Longmont City Manager and managed Niwot’s Wastewater Treatment Plant. Cellista played cello at Sunset Middle School and Niwot High School, as well as the Longmont Youth Symphony, going on to study at Metro State, double majoring in political science and cello.

“Both of those degrees felt like relief from each other,” Cellista said.

Cellista wound up going to France with a partner and spent a few years overseas before landing in the San Francisco Bay Area. Cellista had stopped playing cello, feeling burnt out by performance, but that changed for her when she reached the Bay. 

“I thought – I’m going to sign up for an audition that’s absolutely ludicrous, so I’ll sign up for a graduate school audition,” she said.

Cellista prepared and auditioned for San Francisco State University, where she was accepted in with a scholarship. Cellista said she struggled with the demands of studying and playing classical music, but her time in the Bay Area opened up a series of opportunities that would alter her perspective on performance. Playing with San Francisco’s Classical Revolution and picking up gigs with bands started conflicting with graduate school as Cellista established a career outside a typical classical music performer.

“I realized there was a whole world out there that wasn’t classical music,” Cellista said. “I was establishing a career and grad school was like ‘You shouldn’t do that because we want to prep you for a career you can never have.’”

Switching majors from performance to musicology was a big deal for Cellista, connecting her with visual artist Barron Storey. She performed as Cellista with the Juxtapositions Chamber Ensemble, alongside Storey’s paintings at the Anno Domini Gallery in San Jose, CA, inspired by Olivier Messiaen’s 1941 “Quartet for the End of Time.” She officially took on the stage name Cellista in 2015 during the exhibition with Storey.

“It kind of gave me the courage to take my own path at that point and do multimedia art,” Cellista said.

Cellista incorporates more than just music into her work, taking intermedia art with elements that juxtapose each other. The elements can be taken individually but work together as a whole piece, she said.

“I want (the work) to reflect community. In a community you have individual houses but you also have an entire neighborhood,” she said. “It’s not like we’re all one, we’re a collection of unique voices. We’re able to stand together and still retain ourselves.”

Cellista said that the latest album, Pariah, was heavily informed by hip-hop and her own experience with performances “in the round,” where performers are surrounded by the audience and on the same level. In particular, she highlighted working with musician and filmmaker Boots Riley, witnessing a blending of genres and style to create a new experience for the audience.

Pariah is a blend of classical music, hip-hop, spoken word and pop music. Accompanying the music is a book of poetry and philosophy, written with her father and full of illustrations, in lieu of traditional liner notes. Pariah is a narrative, the tale of a woman who speaks truth to power and is banished, a tale of balance, acceptance and self-actualization.

“You can be banished or you can choose to wander and accept it as your own self-exile,” Cellista said. 

Cellista doesn’t distinguish between politics and art, considers herself to be very political and looks for where they intersect. Cellista was an arts commissioner in San Jose and serves as a chapter governor for the San Francisco Recording Academy, using her first-hand experience as an artist to address changes. Cellista felt that discussions around supporting arts and artists in communities often take the wrong approach to addressing needs.

“We think if we fling money and grants at artists, that’s supporting the arts, but you know what supports the arts? Affordable housing,” Cellista said. “Artists just need cheap spaces to live and they’ll handle it from there.”

The answer she came up with, at least on a small scale, is the House of Cellista. Cellista subsidizes the rent for tenants, in exchange for community based artistic things. The residents can make music, put on theater performances, so long as it engages the community Cellista doesn’t get involved in the curation. Cellista wants to show that when artists can afford a place to live, art will happen anyways.

Much of her motivation for infrastructure advocacy – housing and resource support over grant funding – comes from her experience living in the Bay Area. The concern, she said, is that without sustainable and attainable housing arts communities will wither up and localities risk losing creative identity. Cellista is hopeful for Colorado’s arts and music community to grow and flourish, so long as housing can still be available. The key, she said, is for artists to get involved in their local government. 

“I think artists should see themselves as political creatures and run (for office),” Cellista said. “The fact that you exist here in this place and give it a sense of place is inherently political. You can’t avoid that.”

Cellista spends a lot of time on the move, more in California than Colorado, though not forever. She’s considered making a more permanent residence in Longmont. The future is undecided, she said.

“I feel like Longmont has a space to create artistic work that has more depth...its identity lends itself well to deeper discussions,” she said. “There’s a strong knit community here that cares about each other across political lines.”

Cellista will perform Pariah at the House of Cellista, along with a screening of the film and other performances, on October 16. There are no tickets, she said, and anyone is invited to see the show at 734 Gay Street.


Correction: Article updated to reflect that the artist's legal name is Cellista

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