Layer Upon Layer: Artist Dawn Emerson’s Studio

Kelowna artist Dawn Emerson’s studio has so much in common with her artwork, it’s hard to tell where one begins and the other one ends. The mixed media artist, who likes paper and layers and keepsakes that mean something, fills her canvases and her room with lots of each.

She’s been pumping out her large-scale artworks since finishing her Bachelor of Fine Arts at UBC: Okanagan (then Okanagan University College) about 10 years ago.

Since then, she’s added a teaching degree to her list of qualifications, and now combines the two to work with school kids, adults with developmental disabilities, and to teach community art classes.

“I have done commercial art in the past, but right now my focus is on making art for art’s sake,” Dawn told The Pear Tree. “Sometimes, when you’re making artwork with a social issue it’s not really sellable, but I want to have a voice.”

Memories are a big theme in Dawns work, and her basement studio is replete with reminders and mementos of people and events that are important to her.

When she moved into her current home, just over four years ago, she had a closet space for a studio. Her partner, Ken Pratt, added on the room she now works from. He’s since added a small storage space, too.

“I’m always running out of space – I always need something bigger,” Dawn laughs.

The walls of Dawn’s room – a private, personal space, free from disturbances – are papered in old photographs, works in progress and drawings supplied by her grandchildren.

The little table (pictured above, right) is from a sewing machine, and was Dawn’s grandmother’s.

Clustered on a shelf (below) is a collection of bottles, a metronome, clock and, among other things, a little stuffed pig Dawn’s daughter made for her when she was young.

“How can you throw things like that away,” Dawn asks, taking it down for a closer look.

Many of these keepsakes have appeared or are destined to appear in a painting. The old Underwood typewriter, borrowed from a neighbour, will star in an upcoming painting – although Dawn hasn’t decided how just yet.

“It’s just like one that was my grandfather’s that I used to use to type my essays for school and work on. I like the lines and shape of it,” she said.

Not all of the things that appear in Dawn’s paintings are replicated with the help of a brush and paint. Many of them go right in – like pages from her father’s diary (below, right). Both of Dawn’s parents suffered from dementia – one of the inspirations behind the theme of memory in her work. Dawn has incorporated original notes and scribblings by them – as well as other documentation – into her collaged work.

“It’s a way of documenting the history, the past, from before the dementia started setting in,” she said.

Of course, not everything has a story. Many things – a playing card here, a ticket stub there – have been collected along her travels, spied and harvested from the side of the road during a walk, or stumbled upon in other unexpected places, to incorporate into her work one day.

“I love playing, tearing, cutting and collecting pieces of paper and putting them in my paintings. Even if they get covered up, it makes the work more personal. It feels like it’s always growing.”

– Words and photos by Lori-Anne Poirier

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