Dawn White Beatty

Story by Kate Squissato.

The following was written in collaboration with McMaster University’s Art History 4X03 course, Winter 2020. Lead by Dr. Angela Sheng and BCL’s Alexis Moline, students conducted first hand research on their chosen subjects and many had the opportunity to meet with the artists in person. BCL gratefully appreciates the care and dedication the students demonstrated in forging personal and engaging stories in collaboration with the artists in their Hamilton community.

Born in Hamilton in 1952, artist Dawn White Beatty has lived her entire life in the North Burlington-Hamilton area and has been working as an artist there since the 1980s. She is a strong member of the arts community, having worked with numerous local artists and groups over the course of her “careers as: artist, arts educator, artist/curator, arts and arts administrator”. However, Beatty never made a conscious decision to be an artist:

“I think I’ve always been an artist. The thing that probably started it was my glasses. My vision and my glasses. I’ve been wearing glasses since I was three years old and I probably needed them before that. And so, starting there, I was looking closely and slowly, at everything I guess. I’ve always just looked and stood back and weighed – I’m a slow thinker too, I like to take considered decisions. I think that just made me the person I am, observing and interpreting things.”

Dawn White Beatty. “I am the Garden” (detail: casting a mold at Temagami). 1994. Handmade paper cast masks, papers made from garden materials from the artist’s garden. Courtesy of the artist.

Beatty began her artistic education at the Dundas Valley School of Art, taking numerous classes including life drawing with Stan Hughes. While there she was “introduced to experimental drawings, sculpture and painting practices and self-directed studies and inquiry learning”. The first course she took at Sheridan College in 1975 was with a Burlington artist, Gery Puley, who is well known for her watercolours; though it was not always at Sheridan College, Beatty continued to study with Puley until 1982. Beatty later graduated from Sheridan College with a diploma in Graphic Design in 1989. Puley introduced Beatty to the Burlington Art Centre where Beatty got to know the artists that were there as it was starting up. From there, Beatty became associated with artist run centres in Hamilton and was a student to many visiting Canadian and international artists at the centres, at the Dundas Valley School of Art and the Burlington Art Centre through workshops over these years.

Beatty’s work “explores multiple mediums and themes in her search for expression”. Much of Beatty’s work process examines small details and recreates them on a grand scale, piecing together the individual images to make something much larger. The content of her work often focuses on nature, and she has found much inspiration in the Temagmi area of “old growth forest and canoe lakes in Northern Ontario”:

“This is where I learned…well I didn’t learn it…the forest taught me…and the lake taught me…to pay attention…and after nature taught me the big things it started teaching me the equally important, smaller things. It really taught me how to see itself closely. How to see a thing carefully, how to look closely at it…which also taught me how to look more closely at everything.”

But important to Beatty’s work is not only the inspiration she draws from nature; equally important to her is a confidence in herself: “I think as an artist you have to have within you something like that, a developed purpose, so that you can keep making work…you have to have a faith in yourself.”

Since 1982 Beatty has taken part in many group exhibitions and produced a number of her own including A Personal View 1982, Fabrications 1985, Watergardens 1990, Pardon my Garden 1991, and there and back again at the SOHO20 Gallery in New York City in 1996.

An article on Beatty's exhibition in Soho. Hamilton Spectator, May 14, 1996. Photo courtesy of the artist.
Dawn White Beatty. "Swimmers I & II". 1996. Oil stick, oil pastel, conte on mylar. Installation as the SOHO20 Gallery in New York City. Courtesy of the artist.

One of the most important groups she was an active artist-member of, was the Bay Area Artists for Women’s Art (BAAWA) group. BAAWA was put together in the late 1980s by V. Jane Gordon and other feminist artists under the umbrella of the Hamilton Artists Inc ARC (HAI). BAAWA was a feminist collective that Beatty became a part of through her association with Gordon. The two women connected through their sons’ school, Mary Hopkins Public School in Waterdown, while judging the school kite contest. A few weeks, later the women were working together in their new shared studio in a building that was once known as The Jam Factory in the Waterdown village area. Beatty and Gordon hosted life drawing sessions with other artists in this space as well as visiting artist talks, collaborative projects and events. Eventually the “core of the feminist group developed during those life drawing sessions [while] getting to know each other”. All of the artists shared information with each other and for Beatty these women were teachers: “the feminist artists that I came to know in that time period, all taught me many many things”.

An early exhibition The Flower Show (1993) was generated by V. Jane Gordon’s response to art historians’ and critics’ dismissal and exclusion of women flower painters throughout time: “she set us the challenge…all of us in BAAWA…of producing some really strong works around the notion of flowers, and the role, importance and power of the domestic within a feminist context…it started at the Hamilton Artist Inc. but it was also a travelling show”. For the exhibition, Beatty created a work “Bed of Roses” which was an iron bedstead with a “threateningly prickly-rose clipping mattress, a suspended bridal veil as a canopy, and a dried and fragrant potpourri-stuffed quilt overhanging the mattress as matrimonial bedding”.

Dawn White Beatty. "Bed of Roses". 1993. Iron bedstead, rose clippings, bridal veil, fabric, dried flowers, embroidery threads, meathook plaster-coated slippers. Courtesy of the artist.

As well as being a feminist artist, Beatty is “definitely” concerned with social justice and has taken up numerous other causes: “I started as a feminist, but mostly exploring ‘my-self’ and I came to understand that there is a bigger world out there than myself and that I needed to embrace the problems of the world”. She feels her work speaks most deeply to “environmental preservation and learning how to see deeply; because when I learn how to see, I see how precious things are”. Beatty attempts to use her art to show people the importance of all things:

“The backstory of the way I see small parts and enlarge them drastically is that I’m trying to show by example what happens when you slow down and look at things over and over again and learn how to love the wondrous complexity of even the smallest of parts”.

Dawn White Beatty with her work "I am the Garden". 1996. Handmade paper cast masks, papers made from garden materials from the artist’s garden. Courtesy of the artist.

Beatty showed “I am the Garden” at the feminist gallery SOHO20 in New York City in 1996. This work began her ongoing exploration of paper making and cast paper from natural domestic and wild garden materials. Beatty made a plaster cast of her face and researched and developed a technique to make papers created exclusively with materials from her garden and then laid these into the cast to make a total of 60 masks. The piece was first shown in 1994 having been created for the exhibition Essential Threads at HAI. She was the artist/curator of this exhibition, which was a “curatorial experiment of the 1994 HAI Programming Committee”:

“Important supporting and exhibiting galleries and artists in Hamilton, provided exhibition spaces, workshop opportunities and gathering places for artists in the city at this time. Among others, The Hammer, the HAI and artist/arts administrator Bryce Kanbara’s projects all infused energy into the art scene for me and others…”

One of the most important pieces Beatty created was shown for the first time at The Hammer Gallery in 1994. Along with HAI, The Hammer was a large presence in the Hamilton art scene for about 10 years, “the Inc and the Hammer, that’s where you went…to see challenging work and connect with other artists and arts related people…”. The Hammer was an important gallery space because it “primarily showed regional artists, so you got really tough, strong work there”. Beatty’s “The Margaret Laurence Table” is still one of the most important pieces she created: “this is like my little power battery here, whenever I need some juice I come here and rub this table and Margaret Laurence is there magically”. Beatty was inspired to make the piece due to an obituary Pierre Berton wrote about Margaret Laurence in Maclean’s Magazine:

Dawn White Beatty. "The Margaret Laurence Desk" (detail). 1980s. Courtesy of the artist.

“It was all about how, whenever she did a talk she needed to have a writing table in front of her so that she didn’t have an open space between her and the crowd, she was nervous. I thought at that time, ‘I can identify with that’. And so I made this table. I bought it at a junkyard, stripped it down and refurbished it and then I covered it totally in text.”

The table is covered in Beatty’s favourite paragraphs from all of Laurence’s novels. Laurence’s voice was a “sort of silent partner, a mentor” to Beatty in “looking at things in a feminist way”.

In 1999, Beatty created a large, multiple part work entitled “Imminence” about “going over an edge…confronting an unknown void…embracing it and feeling it simultaneously” that was part of a “turning point exhibition” for her for two reasons:

“First, its content: my large personal issues it addressed, explored and faced due to the fall, and also the collective cultural and social fears of that particular time, induced by the momentous change of the millennium. Second its physical presence: As my first large-scale multipart work it challenged my skills as an artist, storyteller and technician to bring it into being…”.

Intimations was a collaborative show at the Art Gallery of Hamilton (AGH) that was on display as a part of the Countdown exhibition, an homage to the new millennium. Countdown consisted of “six exhibitions of regional artists curated by Senior Curator Shirley Madill for the AGH”. A collaborative between Beatty and two other artists, Intimations was the final of the six exhibitions and was on display at the turn of the millennium. Studio partners and fellow artists Jane Adeney and Juliet Jancso also exhibited large scale monumental works for Intimations. Beatty’s work “Imminence” was inspired/infused by an accident she had recently experienced:

“In the late 1990s, I had a studio downtown in a fourth floor walk-up space on King Street with really step stairs and at one point I had a fall backwards down those stairs…and actually that’s what this exhibition that was at the Art Gallery of Hamilton was all about…not just that bad experience, but the whole notion of going over that edge that you don’t know about, either in time or space or dream even…that strange moment of disoriented flight…the wonder…the fear of that moment…before gravity and inevitable impact and pain…the imminence of that…and the surprise of it all…”.

Portrait of Dawn White Beatty by Jim Chambers. Courtesy of the artist.

The Last Words, from Dawn

As I wrote out these notes for you Kate I kept feeling that they needed a tie-in to my present being 20 years later, if not for the website, then just as a finish to the assignment for myself…

I have never paused in that timeline of making art and my most recent works and current work have all been built on those groovy foundations forged in the 1980’s and 1990’s in the Hamilton art scene and the world at large. Many experiences have been simmered and pondered in the soup pot of my work and spiced by the artists that I have encountered with love, respect, awe and challenge along the path…

In the new millennium I have enriched the mix with complex collaborations with preschool children and other artists, world travel experiences and an intense relationship with the boreal forest and waters of the Ontario north and the limestone backbone of the Niagara Escarpment that supports me, my home and studio.

It seems, with reflection, that my path through time and the arts has been fluid and open…as it continues along and around I see that I have accumulated ideas and materials, experiences and treasures, artworks and failures in an ever expanding way, like the branches of a tree growing and sometimes pruning itself.

At the same time my path also seems to have curled inward over time, like the spirals of a shell or the water in a drain…becoming more focused, detailed, precise, and at peace … joining things and thoughts and works and marks together and making art about that magical essence that I sense everywhere.

Thanks for making me take a good look at that path again…

Dawn White Beatty
-February 24, 2020

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