In an inauspicious one-story house in the middle of a Dallas suburb, Dawn Waters Baker reaches to fold another child's shirt from a pile of clean laundry. In her simple task, she joins mothers the world over, folding laundry on a quiet afternoon. This unassuming, gentle woman is the same Dawn, the artist, that I saw last year surrounded by an admiring public at the Mary Tomas Gallery in Dallas Design District, standing amid her grand paintings of Big Bend National Park. I remember her landscapes: large and striking, atmospheric, reverential. They were silent, awe-inspiring vistas of the mountains and skies painted during her Artist's residency that fall.
This is also the Dawn I listened to four years ago, as she gave an artist lecture to a Chinese congregation---which moved me to tears. She told of her experiences with the less fortunate and of their suffering. Her message was one of compassion and hope. She spoke as a woman closely connected to people, and to the earth.
Dawn has been creating artwork all her life, and her skies, waterfalls, and earth-and-tree paintings are collected by private owners, businesses, and Universities in the Dallas area. She has shown work at Kate Shin Gallery in New York, NY, Joseph Gierek Fine Art in Tulsa, OK, and White Stone Gallery in Philadelphia, PA.
Today I follow Dawn into her studio---a small 15X18 foot carpeted bedroom just down the hall. I am stopped at the door by an almost mystical blue and grey landscape, with tangled trees fading into the fog on an easel three feet off the floor, the width of which is about as large as the room can hold. Dawn has just enough space in her studio to turn around and grab a new brush from her stash. If she wants to look at the painting as a whole, from a distance, she has to step back into the hallway, and sort-of squish against the wall, which I do to capture a photograph.
Dawn introduces me to her current work--a part of an upcoming show featuring intuitive landscapes as a response to the difficult history of the Civil War.
"Can we understand ourselves as Americans without the Civil War? How do we remember it as we change? All these questions stir and churn through the pot of America whether we want them to or not. It's this horrible thing...but we became the Americans we became because of that war."
The tree in the center is a strong, deep blue-brown, with veins that evoke images of scars and suffering. The background is inhabited by barren trees, fading in the distance. "This part here, is bothering me," Dawn says, as she points to a part of a log in the foreground. "I may have to redo that." Looking at the leafless trees, the subtle fog and tangled branches, I am drawn into that world of questions, of suffering, of life and death.
I take a deep breath and look around the studio for other notes of the inner life of the artist. I notice color studies and copies of the work of Georgia O’Keeffe and Emily Carr---two artist who inspire Dawn's work. Photographs of family and notes from her daughters adorn the bulletin board in the corner.
"My little Keeva painted this one yesterday," Dawn holds out a little 5X7 oil study of a sunset by her nine-year-old daughter. "...and she is entering it in something. She did a great job didn't she?"
I agree, convinced Dawn's daughters, twins age nine, and one middle-schooler, have the same creative gift as their mother. Her children, however, are growing up in a world much different than what their mother experienced as a child. Dawn was born the third child of missionary parents in the Philippines. I sit back as she tells of her early life living on the other side of the world...
"I was born in Makati, it was just a part of Manila. Until I was about ten years old, I grew up in the provincial town, which is very rural. We had built the church, and all around the church was rice fields. There was a Catholic church about two miles away but that was it....for miles and miles...and then there was a volcano. We sat under the shadow of that volcano. It was very beautiful there, very beautiful: the fields, the air was clear. I can remember just being affected by nature, quite a bit, as a little girl. And then from, oh, about fourth grade on, I was in Manila, and Manila is a very sprawling city, a lot of slums, massive amount of people. So, there's always these two themes, I feel like, running in my life. There's this beauty of nature, but this enduring suffering of people, especially the people who are very overlooked.
"My brother was also born in the Phillippines but he died when he was a baby. He's the middle child; my sister, then him, and then me. He's still buried there, on one of the islands there.
"We used to ride our bikes, my sister and I. There's no paved street. There's all dirt roads. We used to ride our bikes up to the Catholic church, because the Catholic church had a paved parking lot. It wasn't really for cars, but it was just... a nice flat, you know, place to bike. I just loved going as fast as I could around that, and then you know, you feel the wind in your face. I can still remember the colors of, of just the sky. The volcano was so beautiful. A lot of people think of volcanoes, as like, like in Hawaii, what do we see, an active volcano that is very grey. But this one is not. It's purple, lots of purples and blues. And of course the green was so vibrant, so beautiful. My pleasure of the memory is that landscape."
"I can remember the snacks, always having snacks. We were always eating these things called Cornicks there---a kind of little corn nut, and they had garlic on it, and it was always so yummy. They're like those things you get at gas stations, the little corn nuts---but they're better softer, not as hard, salty, real salty. My mouth is watering just thinking about it. We were addicted to those. And my sister and I---we would drink coke from a baggie. So you'd get a coke, and they'd pour it in a baggie, and with a straw, and you'd hold it at the top, and that way you didn't have to pay for the whole coke. And so, my sister and I would get cokes and eat Cornicks. It was fun just to get out. It was fun not to be inside.
"We live in the church so we would play around the church, play around the piano, play like we were preaching. We'd get in back behind the baptismal place, we'd pretend like we were baptizing. We had a lot of free time, because were homeschooled, so my day was over by noon.
"We had a lot of Filipino friends. We played with our Filipino friends. I wanted to feel like I was the same, but, of course, everyone wants to touch your skin, but whenever we would go out they would, "Wow! White girl!" and say things, and want to touch your cheek. So I was always made sure I knew I was white....and I was very shy, introverted. My sister is very outgoing, so she just fit right in. Not me. I always felt like I was friends with them because my sister was friends with them, because she's fun. They were nice to me though.
"But, there was always a huge difference between the way I lived and ate, and the way they lived and ate. My friends lived in a very small place, or they had a wooden kind-of lean-to place. And they ate snacks and things, but.... of course, I had a house, and a bed, and it was very privileged. I could tell right away, there was a big difference between me, and them. I think I felt guilty, a lot, as a kid. I think I even felt, sometimes, like I should give away my things. I can remember having so many Barbie dolls, that I would try to give away my Barbies. I must have had twenty or something, because everyone would buy me one. Like, my grandparents, and my dad and mom if they'd go , up to the city, they'd buy a new Barbie doll. My sister and I, we had weddings, for Barbie. You know, and all the Barbies were in the crowd, Barbie was the Priest. We had a lot of pretend life, a lot of imaginative life, which, I'll say, it helped, being a creative person."
"I can remember drawing a lot as a kid. I think the first time I tried to draw outside, I tried to draw a tree, but I was real frustrated at myself, because it looked nothing like it. My sister was very good at drawing figures, like people. She liked fashion would always draw these women and clothes, and fancy dresses, and movie looks. I would think, "Wow she's awesome.' So I would try to copy her all the time, but I got really bored of that. I thing I was always drawn to nature. I think I was. So I started drawing dogs. I liked animals a lot. It was really hard to live in the Philippines because of how they treated animals, so if you're an animal lover.... I can remember a man, a farmer, pulling a water buffalo, in the field, and he's pulling the ring in his nose and the nose kind of broke. And I can remember crying, thinking, 'STOP! Please Stop!!!' Just stuff like that.....I can't go there. We would be driving down the road and I would purposefully not look at the animals, because I would get upset. My heart would....I just...hated it. The kids would catch cockroaches and tie strings to the cockroaches and let it fly until it dies. They were real hardened. They're very poor people. So they will use anything. They will cut any wood cut any tree, harvest any fish, it's just to eat, and survive. And that gave me compassion, after a while....learning about, what they go through. And God was speaking to me about when he comes and he makes things right.
"But I will also say, they are some of the warmest people you would ever meet. I can remember going into little Nipa Huts, which are made of grass thatch. We would go inside and my father would be welcome to sit in the nicest place. We were given the best things in their home: the best cups and the best drinks they had, because that is what they had that day. I can remember thinking, you know, how wonderful they were, just very hospitable. "
The church Dawn grew up in is now a hub in the region for Compassion International, and is run by locals, and they share food and games. I asked Dawn what it was like attending art classes in middle school in the city.
"I had a teacher where we would do ceramics, collages. And I can remember, I was terrible at everything. I was terrible at it! I remember thinking, 'I really suck at this.' I mean, ripped paper even! But---I was good at drawing. I think that was because, when I got home, I would draw. I liked being alone. I can't explain it, it was, just, a kind of a release from the long day of being around people. In fourth grade I was adjusting to, you know, the kids. Being around other kids, and having friends....at this big missionary school where everyone knew each other, with girls grown up with each other since kindergarten. It was just hard to get in that, to fit in. My friends up to that point had all been Filipino. And the way that they treated me at times...I was different. I was so shy that I wasn't really friendly myself. It had always been me hovering around my sister to have friends, and when she was gone I didn't know how to do it. I didn't know my place. The church was a relief, because, it was all Filipino. But when I would go to school, it wasn't fun. I remember boys being like, 'What are you trying to draw?'
"But we had a year long furlough because my sister and I had tuberculosis. We had to stay a year to clear the lungs. We stayed in Denver, because it was a dry climate. It was very cold. I remember thinking, 'Ohmygosh it's cold!!!' It was a very hard year. My parents were let go from the mission board they were under, because we were staying too long. I can remember shopping at Goodwill for my coat that year. It was a flip. We lived on the top story of a house, with another family on the bottom floor. So, I was very poor, compared to the other kids at the school, and I felt very different there. But there, school was wonderful, and everyone liked me! I came out of my shell....maybe because I thought, I'm only here for a year, I don't know. That was the year I won the award, in sixth grade, where I drew a ram---I got an award for it. It wasn't really hard for me. I got enjoyment from it. My dad even framed it."
"Then we left and came back to the Philippines. In seventh grade I fell in love with dragons, and you know, knights, and all this kind of stuff, and I even got called to the principal's office, and he said, 'Are you ok? Are you worshiping the devil?' and I remember thinking, 'Uh, no.....I'm not worshiping the devil, I'm reading fantasy books.' I read a book called, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. It's about the plight of the Native American. Oh my gosh, that book..... Every chapter is about a different tribe, what they went through. I became obsessed with Native Americans, so all I drew for a long time, was horses, and Native Americans...I even had a map. I was always attracted to the landscape."
"I always liked art so I thought... I just remember telling people, I'm gonna do art...even in Middle School I always told people, I'm gonna do Art. I always got awards for it. If there was one place where I could shine, it was that. I got awards for it, and I could hide behind it. I didn't have to go in front of them and talk. I think it was about eighth grade, my art teacher put my art up in the front of the school, so it was behind this glass: it was this guy with a sword, who was killing a demon....it was cheesy, it was so cheesy. But I had some Native American things too. And people were attracted to the work. It was me trying to find myself, find things I like to do."
"I had an art teacher who believed in me: Mr. French, kind of a short guy with a beard. He was my art teacher from about seventh grade to my senior year. He was real moody. There were days he was real pleased with me, and days he wasn't as happy with me. I had a friend in class, his name was Caleb. Caleb was a great artist, really. You talk about someone who could think of something with his mind and just put it out on paper. And I always felt he liked Caleb, he liked him. He would tell me, 'Dawn, you've gotta stop copying things...stop copying pictures... you gotta do it yourself.' And he was right---but it hurt my feelings. He wasn't ashamed of my dragons! He put one up in his office!
"Whenever I thought about art, I wasn't sure what I would do with it, like, would I be an illustrator? I wasn't sure what I would do with it. But I was finding my way."
In college, Dawn had a professor who challenged and inspired her growth with difficult questions and new directions. The teacher was called Lemme, and she was known to scare off students with her heavy workload.
"My teacher Lemme was difficult. I had people who would say, 'Don't take her classes, they're hard.' She required us to do twelve paintings a semester. She the very first person in my life who asked, 'So---what are you doing? Are you showing off? Why do you draw?' And I said, 'I like it...?' That wasn't a bad answer, but she was the first one to say, 'You know this is a spiritual act, right?' ....And so I started praying when I painted. She was so great, she would say: 'Stop doing what you know. Let's do something you don't know..." She wanted me to try a gamut of things. I remember her saying, 'Let's do some abstract things.' And I wanted to be Mark Rothko---I was like, 'I'm gonna Be. Mark Rothko. I'm gonna whisper these layers...' But then you do it and you see, Oh. It's just me. Oh well. But I loved it. I still, to this day, love his work. Let me say this, the reason I love it... is you feel his paintings. I always tell people, you have to see a real Rothko, you can't see it in a book, because a real one is big. To be small in front of him, is like.... it's like being in front of a landscape. And I remember the first time I saw Grünewald's Tryptich, in a book, it was Jesus on the Cross. And his skin was just ...horrible, it was just........ I cried. I thought, I want to paint things that move people....not to tears, but you know, move people."
"I was finding myself. I did a lot surreal work. Even when I graduated from college I had this art degree, and I thought, now what? I didn't want to be an illustrator. I didn't want to be an art teacher. I can remember my dad sitting across from me in a restaurant saying, 'Well Dawn, you really need to think about, maybe going into teaching, maybe, art you know. I think you'd be a really good teacher.' I can remember looking at my Dad with tears in my eyes and saying, 'I just want to be an artist.' I told him, I said, 'If I have to work as a secretary, I'll paint at night.' And I did. I was a woman's housekeeper for three years. She even took me to Paris with her, and Rome, and it was great, I got to see all this art. Then I was a paralegal, it was stressful. I didn't know how stressful it would be. I thought I would be like a secretary, just take the notes. But I'd be sitting there with people all day, and all I wanted to do was go home and paint."
It was around this time, that Dawn met her husband, Kendrick, an engineer. She had applied to graduate school at the Art Institute of Chicago, but it turned out the institute wasn't her destiny.
"I can remember the first time he saw one of my surreal paintings. It was a woman, a blue woman. And it was called worship. It was kind of like she was dancing in a way. And he goes, 'Where are her hands?' And I remember thinking in my mind, 'Wow he's a jerk. I'll never date him.' And then I married the guy and had three kids with him.
"But after I married I didn't know what to do, I would just wonder around the house, do chores, make work, play video games..."
It wasn't until Dawn started getting into some art festivals, at about twenty-eight, that she began to find her way.
"I started painting the sky over and over and over, and I'd go out all the time and look at it, until it finally started to look like the sky. I remember the first few that I thought, 'THAT is TERRIBLE!' So I got rid of those. But, I started looking at my work and I was like, 'This is all like Hallmark card stuff. This is cheesy. I want to say something. It was all like, pretty, pretty. I thought, I want to say something.'"
"So I met a lady, her name was Susan Hooks, a curator who owned a gallery at the time, she's a consultant. I remember the first time she called, and I was shaking because she had told me, 'I'm gonna rake you over the coals, you'd better be ready.' So I'm shaking and she says, 'Get rid of this, get rid of that.' I had four styles, surreal, puzzle, drawings. and landscapes. And she said, 'Dawn you're a conundrum to me, because all four styles are good, but I can't tell which one is YOU so let's talk.' She said, 'Tell me whose your favorite artist? And I said, 'Well, Georgia O'Keefe, Andrew Wyeth.' ---All landscape painters basically---So I started to talk about the landscape and she said, 'HOLD it right there!' I remember her saying that, 'Hold it right there!' and she said, 'Your voice changed when you started to talk about the landscape.' To have someone, speak to ME what I needed to hear! ...She said, 'Now----you need to really go into it. You're surface-ly giving it to me---but you must go into it."
Today Dawn has painted nearly 1000 paintings, 300 of which are featured on her website, displayed in galleries, or sold. She is a member of the Artists of Texas and continues to paint each day. Dawn also volunteers once a week in Juvenile Detention with girls in an oil painting program for young boys and girls that have been trafficked into Dallas or have been caught with drugs. She teaches them life skills and art. It is one of her favorite things to do.
"This is the kind of life that to me, is really mattering, where I am just simply trying to love people around me, through that means. Whether that means I am a great artist or not, I'm pretty sure I'm not, but I think, I love doing it. Yes, deep down in my heart there is this voice that is saying, 'I want to be good at art.' You know, I think all of us would admit---absolutely---we want to be great at our craft, we want to be excellent at what we do, sure, sure. But, at the end of the day I also want people to know that I love them, that I cared about who they were."