Moe Carrick recommended Dawn to me with high praise. She actually recommended I interview Dawn and her husband Bruce together, but I haven’t quite figured out how to make those logistics work, so perhaps Bruce will be a future interview. I made the drive out to their property in beautiful Terrebonne and Dawn met me in the driveway. She gave me a short tour of their home and some of her paintings and then brought me out to her studio where we sat and chatted for about an hour and half before I turned the recorder on. It’s often that it happens like that during these interviews - that we click and have so much to talk about - so I keep a large window of time available for it. It’s one of my least favorite things to cut a conversation short. I hope you’ll get a sense in the interview below of Dawn’s kindness as she seems to be nearly overflowing with it.
Who are you and how would you describe yourself?
Dawn Emerson. I would say I am an artist - visual artist. I love painting and discovering new ways to portray things. And I'm a teacher - I teach art - as well.
What matters to you or what motivates you?
What motivates me is curiosity and discovering stories that I don't know exist. You know, just sort of peeling back the layers of a person or an image or, by contrast, layering ideas on top of each other and unburying them - digging through - to find out what I think about things or how I can find out new ways of representing something. Ideas, abstraction, what the metaphors in life mean to me - that kind of thing.
Why does that motivate you? Or to what end?
For me, I think the why I do it is because it helps me understand other people. It helps me understand how to help other people discover that about themselves - that they can realize that they, too, are creative. That they don't have to think that they're not an artist. That they can learn that the visual world is available to anybody and that it's one of the ways that you can express yourself. But very often they've been told or somebody has pointed out that they're not as good as somebody else or that they don't have any skill in this area and so they've shut that down. So, for me, it's about helping people understand how to recover storytelling. And if it turns out that visual language is their key, then I want to learn everything about that person so I can help them figure out how to show that again and feel happy doing it. So that's, I think, the why.
What concerns you or what gives you a heavy heart?
Oh, a heavy heart for me is about the state of our country, the state of medical care - especially the homeless - the prevalence of drug addiction, the sense that very few people have a joyful sense of purpose. You know, or even a willing sense of purpose. That's what gives me a heavy heart.
Do all of those problems link to something in your opinion? Do they have some kind of common source?
I think the lack of knowing where to turn or what to go for - you know, how much to risk in your life - how much to pursue something that you think will give you happiness or joy is often shot down. I think that's probably where it starts - that people are not made to feel nurtured or that their choices are good ones or that there are ways to find another way to apply their strengths.
Sometimes I think it would be really wonderful if as soon as you were born - because we don't come with directions - a baby vet comes in and they check out and they say, Well, you have the potential to be an amazing athlete based on your bone structure. Or The way your mind is gonna work, you should be a brain surgeon. (Laughs) It would be so nice if we knew those things, but we spend most of our lives trying to figure that out. And then when you do, it could be so late in the game that you give up. So, that may be where it starts.
What do we mean to each other - person to person?
That's a great question. As another human being to another human being. I think at the root of that is that we have volumes inside each of us and very rarely do you get a chance to share that with somebody. And in sharing those stories, I think that's where you find the humanity and the common link. And I guess I would add - when you realize the hardship that everybody has gone through that you can't tell on the surface, I think that makes you very humble. That, for me, it's about realizing the humility that each of us should have or could have if we only understood the other person. If we really could walk in their shoes.
What does it mean to you to be part of community - to be in this life with other people?
The sense of community that I feel the most comfortable with right now on a personal level is those friends that I have that I keep in touch with on a regular basis. But they are part of a broader community of people around the world who are enjoying pursuing art and wanting to share ideas and make their art better and learn and be happier people. So, it sounds like a very narrow kind of community, but those are the people I've been able to spend the most time with - either in a workshop situation or at their homes for up to a week - and I get to know a great deal about these people and they become, for the most part some of them, amazing friends. Yet they've rarely met one another, so there's a linkage there that is really special. Community, for me, is not about religion. Community is not about the same church or temple that I go to. It's about knowing who you can call on when you need help, I think.
I keep expecting to have a more refined version of this question in between interviews, but it keeps getting longer and more convoluted. I'm effected deeply by what I choose to call a violation of human rights or social injustice. And I mean the deliberate forms of it - the choices that we make to deliberately harm someone else. What are your thoughts on that? And what do you feel like you can do about it?
Yeah. That's a very deep question (laughs) especially in light of our conversation before this interview. I think that the human race is the disease on the planet (laughs) - that's pretty cynical, but as I get older I become a lot more cynical. And I want to see good in people. I want to see them helping each other without any thought to race, color - anything - religion. And what I can do in my very simple way would just be to have an open heart and give my attention to people who otherwise I might follow the instinct of just turning away or not listening or not helping in some way. I would hope that if someone really truly needed my help I would be there to give it. So, each individual that comes across my path - I have a choice how I'm going to do that. And that's all I can do in my life, I think. And, you know, lead by example for my kids and for my friends and anybody else that might be watching that I don't know about.
Do you have a sense of purpose?
Personally, I do - it took a long, long time to find it. But I'll be in this studio doing art work, knowing that I can't afford to buy one of my art pieces. I can get down about that and think, Why am I doing this? And yet, I know that all of this leads to self-discovery and teaching in a way that only that process and that journey is going to make me a better teacher. So, very often when I'm working I will think, Damn! I'm doing what I'm supposed to do. This is what I'm supposed to do. And sometimes it's teaching and seeing somebody crying and understanding I just touched a nerve and I know what to do with this or I'm gonna give it my best shot. It comes from a place of genuine concern and love for other people and wanting to believe that if everybody painted (laughs) - if everybody had such a joyful experience of being able to create artwork - that they would be okay. That they wouldn't be in such pain. Or even it could be a relief from pain for a little while. And I think that's what my purpose is - is to teach them to be joyful and to play in a very productive way that will engage their mind, their energy, their inspiration, imagination and let them tell stories again.
What do you want more of in your life?
Time (laughs). Yeah, time - for sure. More insight about everything and a better sense of direction (laughs). In terms of I get lost in a paper bag. (Laughs) So, I keep hoping that one day I'll be able to find my way clearly. But seeing how the direction my life has gone in such an unplanned, uncharted way, I guess I just have to resolve to it's okay if I don't know where I'm going - I'll get somewhere.
Can you unpack time a little bit? I like to hold people accountable if that's their answer.
More time to not be rushed. More time to just be in a place without doing anything in it. To take notice of more things - not feel the pressure... I'm very fortunate that I can take time in my studio, so I have that time to be in my studio. It's not that kind of time. It would be the time to go hiking and the time to garden more, I think. Get to know more people by listening to their stories.
Do you have anything else that you'd like to put on the record?
No, I just think that you have a fascinating life ahead of you (laughs). It's hard for people who feel so deeply about the way they're living their life. And I'm sure that it will be worth it.