The New Brunswick Arts Board is an arm’s length arts funding agency with a legislated mandate to facilitate and promote the creation of art as well as administering funding programs for professional artists in the province.
Dawn Steeves is a visual artist based in Fredericton, New Brunswick with a background in fibre arts, graphic design, digital art, and printmaking. Dawn currently works in ink and oil paint concentrating on portraiture and the human figure while exploring both physical and ideological tensions on the natural world and the isolated structure that humankind imposes upon it.
We are pleased to have a conversation with emerging artist Dawn Steeves as part of the artsnb “featured artist” blog series. Grab a hot drink and sit cozy, as we discuss her practice and its development and how the arts community in New Brunswick nourishes it.
Dawn, can you walk us through the experience of your project “Paper Dolls” for which you received a Category C Creation grant – what did you explore, how did this project/experience impact your artistic practice/creative process or how you see yourself as an artist?
The idea for the project, Paper Dolls, was born when I was looking through old family photo albums. There were no photo albums in my family before 1970, so it was as if my family began when I was born and I had little visual connection to anything familial before then. There are at least 5 full albums of Little Dawn, and through these visual reminders I have a lasting connection to my early childhood.
As a painter in the present, I decided to revisit these images and use them to make precious little paintings. The cellophane pages of the albums were brittle, and the photos were stuck inside, preventing their removal, so I began to snap photos with my cell phone. For the first time I was able to enlarge the images easily and see what details were in these little photos, some no bigger than 2”x 2”. As I observed more closely, memories filled my consciousness, and I began to write down things that came to me. I decided to capture these mental images. With black Chinese ink on watercolour paper, I painted these flashbulb memories.
Some included no more than a shadow or a combination of lines. Some were the contrasting shapes of familiar structures. Most were of small objects, animals, candy, plant material and insects. I spent a lot of time reminiscing as I painted the child in the spaces she inhabited. The palette is hot and cold; black and white.
In the beginning I felt that painting these private, personal images was a bit of a self-indulgent exercise, like making a hundred self-portraits. As I worked through the project my attitude changed. As I revealed this work to other people and I saw how they were moved to point out things they recognised and talk about their feelings about them, it became clear that this project is relatable to others who have lived in New Brunswick during this time, whether they lived exactly like this or not. I am always excited by the conversations this work initiates.
How has your artistic practice changed over time? Where did you begin and where do you see yourself going?
I began painting in 1995, then again in 2002. I started in acrylic paint, making portraits and non-representational images in bold colour. 2015 I made the transition to oil paint and have been studying oil painting techniques with expert artists in the field. I am working toward generating a comprehensive body of work.
Can you describe for us a current project or a current piece that you are working on – what excites you about it?
Presently I am experimenting with colour and putting my knowledge of colour theory to the test. I am also working to loosen up my hand and having more fun in my work. When learning, everything seemed so technical but as I become a more experienced painter it is like learning a language. I have become more at ease with it so I can branch out and be more creative. This is exciting.
What themes/techniques are you exploring in your work? What do they mean to you?
I am exploring memory in relation to structure, both physical and ideological. I use images of fences and other types of barriers as metaphors for what could be happening in the mind.
What do you think is the most rewarding aspect of your artistic practice?
I enjoy my work. I enjoy working alone. But the thing I like most about painting is the effect it has on people. I love to hear others’ reactions to it. I love the conversations I get to have about it.
Why is art important for you and/or for New Brunswick?
Art is important for me because art is life. Art is a connection between past, present and future. There is a long legacy of important artists in New Brunswick who have paved the way for ones like me. I am thankful that many of these artists are women and that we have this cultural connection. New Brunswick has a rich history with art and artists, and I am thrilled to be part of that.
Can you describe your creative process? How do you approach creating a piece or a series? Do you have any routines, rituals, etc.?
My creative process is not usually a conscious effort. My work is a combination of writing and drawing freely until an idea starts to snowball. I will paint a few studies to see if I can push the idea into a larger project.
My daily routine begins with a basic clean-up of the studio, and then transferring my paint from the day before onto a new palette and refreshing the colours that are used up. Once mixed, I begin to paint. Usually, I listen to quiet music.
What do you think is the greatest challenge or the greatest advantage for New Brunswick artists?
I think the greatest advantage for me as a New Brunswick artist is the sense of community we enjoy here. I live in downtown Fredericton within walking distance of everything I need including the gallery that represents me, the local art supply store, and the provincial public art gallery. There are beautiful galleries and artist studios in New Brunswick, and one needn’t go far to find them. The arts community is engaged. Even though the province is quite small we generate a huge contribution in the larger art world. We are privileged to have access to community arts centres and workshops from world class instructors.
Does collaboration play a role in your work?
I have collaborated in group exhibitions and I have been part of artist collectives. I enjoy working with others and sharing other artists’ ideas and feedback. Artists spending time with artists is part of the fuel that runs this creative engine.
As a provincial entity, the New Brunswick Arts Board acknowledges that it carries out its work on the traditional unceded territory of the Wolastoqiyik, Mi’kmaq and Peskotomuhkati peoples. Read the full statement.