Artist Interview with Dawn Pearcey

Today's artist interview is with mixed media artist Dawn Pearcey, based in Victoria, BC. I just love the way refinement, edginess, angst and humor all blend together in Dawn's work. I hope you enjoy it, too!

Where in the world are you located? What is it like being an artist there?

I live in Victoria, British Columbia, a small city on the southern tip of Vancouver Island, off the west coast of Canada. I’ve been here four years now, after many years spent in Toronto, Ontario and a childhood in Saskatchewan. Victoria is a location of natural beauty, with lots of artists here being inspired by the ocean, trees, and gorgeous colours. I love having nature so close in my daily life, but it doesn’t inform my art in an obvious way - just that it creates the calm mental space for me to trail off into imagination.

I think for a lot of artists, there’s a tension between feeling called to be an artist and the pull to have a sensible career. Have you always known that you’re an artist? How has your art career evolved?

Art making has always been the significant part of my identity and coping, and I was a child who drew, glued, sculpted mud pies, and wrote in journals. But art was spoken of as a hobby, and those who studied it at university were doing so as part of a teaching pursuit. Rarely did anyone speak of self-taught professional artists. University was not an option for me, due to finances and mental health troubles, but I had early public success with my paintings, and received many commissions. I stopped making art for a long time, and then in Toronto produced a number of book cover illustrations for the ‘tween market - this got me painting again. I also worked in a large art supply store that provided inspiration and experience both in materials offered and information shared between coworkers and customers. But then I decided I needed a ‘real job’ and returned to college to resolve my lack of education by studying library technology and information management. I loved what I learned, but work was difficult to find so I turned all my new skills towards creating a website and venturing out into the internet for an arts
community. Currently, I am creating a lot of art without the pressure of trying to sell it, and am just beginning to think about the business side of art again.

Can you talk a bit about your process? How has your work evolved over time? What are you working on right now? What’s new or different about it?

In my early success, I painted animals in indoor settings - cats on pillow-strewn sofas (because I wanted to paint the textiles) and zebras standing alone in empty rooms (my comment on loneliness). After doing the book cover work I realized how much I liked painting people and faces. I began composing pieces that were more like my journal meanderings, always playing with text (I loved repurposing newspaper clippings). I began straying from the confines of pure watercolour (and the stiffness I seemed to bring to it) and added gouache, acrylic, pencil, and varnish to my pieces. I paint on Arches watercolour paper, adhering it to cradled panels for easier hanging. I scratch, sand, and paint over areas, and all this adds an emotional content to my work, a warmth that was missing before. I love paper and water-based media. I also do a lot more work just for fun, on paper in a repurposed cook book.

Are there certain themes that show up in your work over and over again?

My work is most often psychologically themed. I use writing from my younger self to set an idea, usually revolving around angst or depression….but with a humorous twist as well. Although I work from this insular viewpoint, I’m finding my work hits a spot with lots of people. The best thing is when someone lets out a laugh.

What is your studio practice like? Do you have any rituals or routines that help you get into the creative zone? Do you ever get creative blocks? How do you get unstuck?

I work in a second bedroom of our apartment. My husband is also an artist, and I love all the various tools and supplies we have - inspiring simply to look at. I’ve always worked small due to space and storage needs, so my desk is a small area that I like to tidy each time I begin a session of painting. I get a podcast or talk radio playing, make a coffee, and begin sorting through my ephemera and notes. I quickly create mess and lost pencils, however. My problem with blocks is more about abundance and rambling ideas that I forget I’ve already begun. I’m currently trying to find cohesion in my concepts, colour palette, method, and completion. My other block, as with lots of artists, is the naysayer inner self: what’s the point of doing this? I find listening to other artists speak about this frustration is encouraging, especially female voices, in books and on podcasts.

I really love your self-portrait series. Can you talk a bit about what that series means to you?

I’ve often sourced face ideas from fashion magazines - I love the creativity and light in them, but they’re not an inclusive array of faces, and the images are not mine. So I would mix hair from one person, a face from another, etc., and usually, end up with someone “slightly off”. I’ve had a lifelong aversion to being photographed, and often caused problems as a child with this - I can’t imagine growing up in this age of selfies. But back in 2010 I took my pocket camera out one day and tried taking self-portraits. I found myself adopting a character in order to gaze at the lens in a direct way. I expanded that to wearing costumes and makeup, but only with inexpensive items, I had at home. I would stage locations and light, and then quickly put everything back together before Malcolm came home. One day he walked in unexpectedly while I was trying to be an extra on Jersey Shore. And so I began to share my photos with select people, who marvelled at how I actually seemed like the person I was pretending to be, male or female. I edited the photos, simply enjoying pushing them to an artier level. Then I began painting them - using myself as a reference to create painted characters. As a fan of Cindy Sherman, I figured this was just about that, but in reality it woke up my younger self who struggled with physical panic, eating disorders, self-harm, identity - a self held in check by a reserved, soft person who loves humour and oddity, and always wanted to be an undercover detective. I realized that as an artist I could express myself through all sorts of personas. I began writing again, winning a Flash nonfiction award a year ago for a piece about a psychiatric ward memory. I’m continuing that series, called Summer Science, as a running partner to my recent portraits. I feel like I’m a combination of curiosity and anger right now, and it’s actually been inspiring rather than stifling.

Are you a full-time artist or do you also have a day job/ side hustle? If you do have a day job, does it tie in with your art practice?

I work four days a week for a wonderful organization (Victoria Women In Need Community Cooperative - WIN) that runs four resale shops whose funds go toward programs that help women achieve self-sufficiency and wellness. I work in the processing warehouse with donated
housewares items, books, and art. This job brings meaningful purpose to my day, as well as fun in the tasks and coworker relationships. Because I handle a lot of vintage books and magazines, I am constantly being fed with ideas, quirks, and material. I’ve reached my own state of self-sufficiency and healthy self-esteem with this job, and it’s all coming out as a confidence in my art and an ability to be effective in a bigger society.

Let’s talk about work/life balance. How do you balance family life, studio time, business and time for yourself?

I always admire creative parents who balance raising children and studio work, but for me, the biggest challenge is around time management, mostly of social media  practices. I’m trying not to dwell so much on the issues of media presence, and just get some work done. Fridays are my one full studio day, but I often end up working in patches of time late at night or throughout the weekend. I can get lost in my painting, so I’m trying to figure out the balance with social time spent with others and exercise. I find many things distracting, yet when I’m immersed in a painting I’m focused and happy. This year I joined THRIVE Mastermind and the community of female artists I now have to interact with has been rewarding. The business side of my art practice has fallen off, so I’m hoping to get back into selling and showing with the help of THRIVE community members and the fabulous connections - art and personal - that I now have through Instagram.

What does being an artist mean to you?

It’s a way of experiencing life, with curious attention to tangible details and imagined visuals. The act of creating is necessary, a partnership process between hands and mind to externalize this interior world. Art is a mirror, a window, a door, even just a crack, sometimes. On my website I describe it as a navigational process to find our route away, or toward, our self.

If you could give your 20-year-old self one piece of advice, what would it be?

The kernel of self (no matter how teeny it gets) that holds fast under all the weight of advice to improve, modify, be someone else, is indeed the nub to believe in. Cast aside self-hatred quickly - there’s so much more to your story, your art, life, than that.

Thank you so much for sharing your work and your story, Dawn! To learn more about Dawn Pearcey, please visit her website or follow her on Instagram.

Do you have any questions or comments for Dawn? Add them to the comments below!

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  • Dawn! Hi! How is it that I didn’t reply to your comment earlier? Yikes. I guess now is as good a time as any. Thank you so much for your thoughtful, open-hearted answers and thank you for letting me share your gorgeous work! xo -Jess

    Jessica Molnar
  • Thank you, Jamie and Thomas! I’m so glad that you enjoyed this interview. Dawn is a fascinating person and an incredibly talented artist:)

    Jessica Molnar
  • Beautiful questions…Beautiful answers…

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