artist dawn chandler
Born and raised in New Jersey and now a 20-year+ resident of New Mexico, Dawn Chandler’s life has largely been about exploring: ideas, books, mountain trails, city streets, museum corridors, combinations of paint and color and text and canvas.
An artist all her life, Dawn holds a Bachelor of Fine Arts (BFA) degree from Miami University of Ohio and a Masters of Fine Arts (MFA) from the University of Pennsylvania. Read the full story of her artistic evolution below.
Artist Dawn Chandler rises before daybreak each morning. “Most days I set my alarm for 4:00 so I can be working in my studio by 4:30/5. Some surely think it’s a curse of my name, but I’ve always thought it a blessing. Early morning is my favorite time of day, when I’m most alert, most aware. My dad gave me my name; I love it.”
That naming occurred fifty years ago in New Jersey. “I was born and raised in New Jersey and—believe it or not!—am proud of it. Some people are surprised to hear that, but they don’t know New Jersey like I do; they’ve only seen the highways, not the green and lush pastoral back roads. There’s good reason why my home state is called the Garden State: there are few places as beautiful as New Jersey in springtime.”
Growing up on a ten-acre swath of Jersey woodlands, much of Dawn’s early childhood was spent playing in the woods around her home. Roaming with her dogs, wading the shallow creeks, Dawn’s passion for Nature is rooted in the shady hills of the Garden State.
Perhaps even more though than the setting of her home, Dawn’s love of Nature stems from frequent family camping trips. With a hip pack containing her toothbrush, change of underwear and socks, at the age of four Dawn set out on her first family backpacking trip, setting in motion a lifelong love of outdoor adventure.
Eventually that love of the outdoors would lead to longer backpacking trips along the Appalachian Trail and ultimately summers teaching backpacking skills in northern New Mexico.
But if a love of the outdoors was a constant in Dawn’s upbringing, it was equally matched by a love of the arts. Home life for Dawn was spent in the company of sparkling conversation, classical music and an enormous collection of books, with bookshelves filled to over-flowing in every room of their house. “Neither of my parents was ever without a book. They savored reading and each kept a list of every book they ever read, which counted in the thousands.” [Dawn has kept her own list since the age of fourteen; she, too, is rarely without a book.]
Her parents also had a keen interest in visual art. Being just an hour from New York City, Dawn’s family had easy access to some of the greatest museums of the world, and made monthly excursions into the city to view art. “I know The Met backwards and forwards; I can find my way through that museum with my eyes closed.”
Indeed, it was there, in the 17th-Century Dutch Masters galleries of The Met, where Dawn met her first landscape love: Jacob Van Ruisdael’s Wheat Fields. “I don’t know how old I was when I first discovered that painting, but it was jaw-dropping to me. I wanted to climb into that canvas and feel the wind kicking up with the approaching storm, and smell the coming rain. There’s a marvelous sense of calm, coupled with an impending sense of urgency—of drama—in that painting.”
Dawn’s own painting career began at age eleven, when she embarked on private painting lessons. “I had tried all kinds of activities—piano and guitar lessons, tennis, Brownies—but nothing held my interest. I was always kind of gifted with art though, so my mother signed me up for weekly oil painting lessons with a local artist. The lessons were to start in January, and for Christmas that year I received a dark blue ArtBin filled with a fleet of sable brushes and gorgeously enticing tubes of Grumbacher oil paints. To this day it remains the best Christmas gift I’ve ever received.”
“For the first lesson we were to bring a photograph that we wanted to paint. I brought a picture of a barn from a Vermont Life calendar. I couldn’t believe it when my teacher had me mix Lemon Yellow with Paynes Grey to mix green. Who knew? And the sky! She pointed out that the sky is always darkest overhead and gradually gets lighter toward the horizon; that forever changed the way I looked at the sky. She then had me paint a gradated sky. It just seemed magical.
“When I returned home from my first class, my father asked how it went. I remember standing there in my blue denim overalls, my heart bursting with satisfaction. But I hesitated, choosing my words carefully. ‘You know….I don’t mean to be too full of myself… But… I think… I think I might be as good as Picasso.’[!!]
Fortunately in the near forty years since that conversation, life has bestowed some humility upon Dawn; her heart-bursting enthusiasm for painting, however, remains intact.
education, inspiration & motivation
Despite less-than inspiring art instruction in high school, Dawn eventually found her way to Miami University of Ohio to study studio art with an emphasis in painting and art history.
Meanwhile, by her late teens she was spending her summers in New Mexico, teaching backpacking skills at Philmont, a huge 214 square-mile outdoor adventure program operated by the Boy Scouts of America. (BSA).
“It’s impossible to overstate the impact of Philmont on my life. I first went there as a teenager, on several backpacking expeditions designed much like Outward Bound. Those experiences challenged and changed me—not just physically but emotionally and spiritually. It’s a place that stays with you. Philmont is where I first fell in love with New Mexico, and where, in a very real way, I became a dedicated painter of the Land. My homesickness for that place—an intense longing for the mountains and mesas of northern New Mexico—is what drove me to painting land-based imagery in college. Escaping to New Mexico via my paintings was an antidote to my homesickness.”
It was also in college where Dawn started to explore a radically vertical composition with her paintings. “I don’t know where that interest in verticality comes from. Perhaps it’s the subliminal impact of long vertical 19th-Century Chinese scrolls we had hanging in my home when I was growing up. But I’ve always been drawn to a vertical format, especially when depicting landscape.”
Dawn achieved her Bachelor of Fine Arts (BFA) with honors from Miami in 1988 and two years later moved to Philadelphia to enter the Graduate School of Fine Arts at the University of Pennsylvania (Penn)
Penn had a reputation for attracting “landscape painters,” for the chair of the program was modernist landscape titan Neil Welliver. Dawn had a friend already at Penn who arranged for her to meet with Welliver before applying to the program.
Welliver, according to Dawn, was an intimidating, opinionated man who didn’t mince words. When she showed him her portfolio (two sleeves of Kodachrome slides), he looked at them, then looked directly at her and stated, “You’re a good painter. If you apply to this program, you’ll be accepted.”
Penn’s MFA program was unusual in that there were no required academic classes. Rather, students were expected to be in their studios painting at least five days a week, eight hours per day — essentially treating their art like a 9 – 5 job. The students would have one-on-one studio visits with faculty and “visiting critics” — professional artists, instructors from other schools (Yale, Cooper Union, Temple), and guest lecturers. At semester’s end, each student presented their work to the school during open critiques. “It was an extraordinary to put your work out there and talk about it in front of this crowd of people, not all of whom were supportive or agreeable. It was hard; some students broke down. But I sort of fed off of it; the engagement was exhilarating.”
Sadly, Welliver suffered a stroke before Dawn entered the program; his replacement was artist and Cooper Union faculty alum Bob Slutzsky. “Slutzsky had a quiet but huge impact on my artistic development. He challenged me to break away from traditional landscape painting and start exploring abstraction. I remember I had all of these photographs of New Mexico thumb-tacked to my studio walls, and was working on a very straight-forward representational traditional oil painting of one of them. Slutzsky came in, looked around for a few minutes and asked, ‘Have you ever explored abstraction?’ to which I replied, ‘No, not really. I feel like that’s kind of a higher form of art-making that I’m not quite ready for.’ He nodded and said, “I think that’s a common and unfortunate misperception among young artists.” He considered the painting I was working on, and then gestured to the photograph of New Mexico mesas and sky that I was trying to copy. ‘What if you took that photograph and cut it up into pieces and rearranged them—would it still be the same place to you?’ My response was immediate, ‘Yes, of course it would be.’ He nodded softly and said, ‘Hmm…..Interesting,’ and left.
“Next thing I knew I was cutting up that photograph.”
Slutzsky further pushed Dawn’s creative development when he offered a graduate course in collage. “Collage introduced me to new concepts of texture and design and what makes for worthy art materials [Answer: nearly anything]. I found myself looking for—and finding!—collage materials everywhere: from sidewalk trash to garbage bins, to peeling wallpaper to dried teabags and ticket stubs. It was like discovering painting for the first time, except this time I was painting with bits of paper. I began cutting up photographs of master paintings from art books and calendars to create small collages and then used them as studies for a series of colossal vertical paintings—9′ x 3.5’—of roughly abstracted landscapes.”
While at Penn Dawn also assisted artist Leonard Stokes in teaching a popular color course based on artist Josef Alber’s treatise The Interaction of Color. Through studio exercises comparing and contrasting color swatches, the essential takeaway of the course was that color is relative. Dawn took the class her first year, and helped teach it the second; it transformed the way she looks at color in everything. “Thanks to the exercises of that class—and now several decades of mixing paint—I see color and color relationships everywhere, all the time; I can’t not notice it.”
In 1992 the Penn faculty awarded Dawn a fellowship to attend The Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture, an intensive nine-week summer residency program for emerging artists in Maine. “It was an incredible vote of confidence that my faculty chose me. Skowhegan ended up being one of those intense experiences that continues to nourish you for the rest of your life. What Philmont’s backpacking program was for me as an outdoorswoman, Skowhegan was for me as an artist. It pushed me and stretched me. It was nine weeks of making art, discussing art, critiquing art—all with some of the most brilliant creative minds out there, and all in the middle of a serene New England landscape. It was extraordinary.”
The following spring—1993—Dawn received her MFA from Penn.
life in a new mexico landscape
In September of 1994 Dawn drove from Philadelphia to Taos, New Mexico, her car filled with paints and her giant oak easel strapped to the roof of her car. New Mexico has been her home ever since.
Like so many people fresh out of school arriving in Taos, Dawn spent several years working odd jobs, just trying to make ends meet. Art-wise she was dividing her focus between abstract collages and traditional landscapes in watercolor and pastel. “I was very limited in the scale of the work I could do, as I only had a very small room for a studio. So with the collages and watercolors, I was creating these tiny works of art—some smaller than a playing card. With the pastels, I was creating fairly traditional landscapes of northern New Mexico but in a dramatically vertical composition. I called them “passages” as they suggested doorways or passageways onto the land.
After three years of working odd jobs, Dawn received a phone call from the Philmont Staff Association (PSA), the alumni organization of former Philmont staff members. They were in need of an executive director, and wondered if Dawn might consider applying.
She did, and went on to be the PSA’s first executive director, running the organization for nearly six years. “What was great about the PSA job in terms of my art career is that through osmosis it introduced my art—especially my landscape work—to a large and very enthusiastic community. To this day Philmont people comprise the majority of my landscape patrons.”
Another benefit of working with the PSA was that it necessitated Dawn honing certain administrative, desk-top publishing and design knowledge, as she suddenly found herself responsible for designing and publishing their bi-monthy magazine. “In turn those skills gave me the know-how to create my own marketing materials for my art—from show announcements and postcards to image work and press-releases.”
After nearly six years directing the PSA (and more than tripling its membership), Dawn’s time in her studio had dwindled to the point of frustration; she wanted desperately to focus on her art. She therefore resigned from the PSA in 2003 and immediately set about learning website design and created a website for her art. She joined a local Taos gallery and converted a section of her home into a gallery as well. With her house on the main artery connecting Taos with points east, she welcomed a steady flow of gallery traffic as patrons made their way to and from Taos.
It was also during this time that Dawn expanded her creative pursuits to include soap-making, eventually offering over thirty varieties of small batch hand-crafted soaps for sale in her gallery.
But painting was beckoning her. “I just had a hankering to get back to real painting. I did very well with the pastels, selling scores of my vertical landscapes. But I reached a point where I wanted to move beyond what I was able to do with the pastels; their fragility and need to be framed behind glass was limiting. I wanted to smell oil paint again. And too, I wanted to work paint into my collages somehow, but I wasn’t entirely sure how to do that.”
Fortunately right around this time her friendship with artist Joan Fullerton was deepening. “Once again osmosis came into play, and I was able to (and still do) learn some great mixed media techniques from Joan.” Together they took a workshop with artist Darlene McElroy in Santa Fe, who introduced Dawn to yet more materials and processes for creating layered and textured effects in mixed media.
poetry, abstraction & textual landscape
In 2007, after a seven-year battle with breast cancer, Dawn’s mother died. “I poured myself into mixed media painting.
For a while there I was drawn to more figurative imagery—especially the female form. I also started writing my thoughts into my paintings; expressing my grief and regrets, and then painting over and concealing the words. Something about this process allowed me to release my sadness and work through and give voice to my sorrow. Painting helped me—a lot.”
Meanwhile, after living in Taos for fifteen years, Dawn moved to Santa Fe; a couple years later her father died, and painting again became a means to work through her grief. This time though she also turned to poetry.
“I was one of thirty artists invited to take part in Odes and Offerings a unique art exhibition in Santa Fe pairing thirty visual artists with thirty poets. The artists were to incorporate into an artwork a poem by their poet. It could be a line, a stanza, or even the whole poem. The goal was not to interpret the poem, but simply to incorporate words from it.
I was paired with poet Barbara Rockman, and selected her poem, Letter from Georgia O’Keeffe to Alfred Stieglitz Upon Seeing a Photograph of Her Hands. Barbara’s words were powerful, and I loved the way that, by ghosting the poem within layers of paint into my painting, some of her words were hidden and others reveled.”
That experience proved a turning point in the way Dawn crafts her paintings. “I was—and remain—completely enchanted by the incorporation of words into painting. Although I had been incorporating bits of text into my collages for years, now the words were becoming a really key element, a whole ‘nother visual texture, and also adding a layer of depth, prodding or inviting the viewer to pause and go deeper into the painting.”
All this while though, Dawn continued to spend part of her creative energy painting traditional landscapes. “There’s something magical about attempting to capture the land out there, something meditative. It makes me peaceful; I never tire of it.”
And yet, Dawn wanted to do something different with landscape painting, something beyond a straight-forward rendering of what her eyes see. She remained however unsure and intimidated about how to go about it.
Then in 2012 Dawn received an invitation from the director of the Philmont Museum to be part of an exhibition featuring the work of former Philmont staff members who have gone on to pursue careers in the visual arts.
“I knew this was my chance—my excuse—to do something big and bold and different.”
Dawn decided to do an immense mixed media painting based on Baldy Mountain, Philmont’s highest peak, with words from Robert Service’s epic poem, The Call of the Wild incorporated into the painting. “I chose The Call of the Wild because it’s a poem that was important to my peers and me back in our Rangering days 30 years earlier when we taught backpacking; it captures the essence of a life of adventure and challenges faced in the outdoors. While the poem is a bit doggerel, there are passages that still resonate for me, and when they emerged in the painting through veils of color, they just really took it to a new level.” Thus began of a whole new series of paintings, “Have You Gazed…”, in which she further incorporated Service’s words into landscape paintings that were becoming increasingly abstracted.
“I knew I was on to something with these paintings, but I wanted to push the abstraction more and incorporate words other than The Call of the Wild. So I started asking people, “What have you learned from your experiences in Nature?” I handed out postcards with this query, and posted it on my website and blog. I heard back from dozens of people; their responses were stunning. Some humorous, some poetic, some poignant, all deeply thoughtful.”
Around this time Dawn learned of a new creative residency program in the heart of the Oregon Outback called Playa. Her friend artist Shawn Demarest had spent a month there the previous November and urged Dawn to apply.
“Playa changed everything for me. First of all it is located in one of the most dramatically breath-taking landscapes I have ever experienced; it was spectacularly inspiring. Second, it was five weeks with no responsibilities other than to paint. I had a self-imposed rule of no outside communication except for an occasional phone call to My Man or family. Otherwise no email nor internet nor social media for the full five weeks. As a result, the depth of focus I was able to achieve during those five weeks was staggering. Third, my fellow residents—my Playa Family—was simply a terrific, encouraging, insightful and artistically savvy tribe.
“And finally, Playa is where I really threw myself into this dream of merging traditional landscape with abstraction into “textual” mixed media paintings, a theme that continues to fascinate and excite me.”
“It’s interesting, but back when I was in grad school I read John Haines’ essay On a Certain Attention to the World in which he states: Clearly. . . something has been lost in the art of nature study in this century; not simply curiosity, or even excitement, but a better word: rapture. It is an emotion that comes, not merely from looking at things, but from seeing them with a kind of veneration, as if within these objects, these vistas of water and mountain, something of the impenetrable mystery might be sensed and named, and before which one might be, not designing or dominating, but quietly attentive.
“Still these words speak to me and express what much of my work is about: A rapture for Nature. Sometimes through my art I express it quietly and softly, other times I express it boldly; sometimes I express in a ‘traditional’ manner, other times more personally and abstractly. But always, that rapture is there, guiding me as I swirl my brushes and attempt to convey through art my love of this land.”