De­bra Dawes’ paint­ings have a vis­ceral ef­fect on the viewer. Her work ap­pears cere­bral but de­rives from ex­pe­ri­ence and emo­tion. Her paint­ings mostly con­sist of geo­met­ric sys­tems, colours, varied scale and sub­tle painted marks hav­ing minute al­tered tones.



At high school I had a fab­u­lous art teacher, Mrs Saul. She was really com­mit­ted, not just in de­liv­er­ing the cur­ricu­lum, but in what she brought to the class­room from her life. She pre­sented as some­one who was cu­ri­ous and did out-of-the-or­di­nary things. I wanted to be like her. The other mo­ment was on my sec­ond trip away in the late 70s, on a cargo boat car­ry­ing live sheep from Perth to Singapore. It’s funny to re­mem­ber it. I was on the deck of this ship with the stench of the sheep in my nos­trils look­ing out at the moon. What­ever it was about that com­bi­na­tion of the sheep and the moon I don’t know but it un­hinged a deep long­ing. I said to my­self, OK when you get back, you’re go­ing to do what­ever it is that you need to do, and so I did.

You have said you think of your role in art teach­ing as fa­cil­i­ta­tor.

Ev­ery stu­dent you en­counter has dif­fer­ent ideas about what they want to do and dif­fer­ent ways of want­ing to do it. I was very conscious of my role be­ing to en­cour­age and fa­cil­i­tate their process and their think­ing, guid­ing them to be­come more aware of who they are and how they’re work­ing within their own world. And to go be­yond their own world, to be cu­ri­ous and to dis­cover more about how their own works might fit within a broader field of aes­thet­ics and cul­ture. To un­der­stand they are not work­ing in a vac­uum, to make their ex­pe­ri­ence richer, and their knowl­edge deeper and broader.

Why the move to Mur­ru­rundi, af­ter the Syd­ney Col­lege of the Arts?

To sup­port my family and to be able to af­ford a place with enough stu­dio space for my part­ner (artist Jelle van den Berg) and me. We’ve been here since De­cem­ber. It seemed like this is the place to be for now.

What have you and cu­ra­tor Gary Sang­ster no­ticed in the devel­op­ment of your Tam­worth Re­gional Gallery ex­hi­bi­tion?

In all the works I have made, the act of mea­sur­ing up the can­vas is sig­nif­i­cant. It be­comes mean­ing­ful too when we think about mea­sure as a crit­i­cal tool, as a means to an­a­lyse and cri­tique which is also a con­sis­tent thread through my prac­tice.

Have is­sues al­ways been an im­por­tant part of your work?

Yes, start­ing in the 1980s with fem­i­nist the­o­ries of the time. The par­a­digm pro­vided a way of ex­am­in­ing ex­pe­ri­ence and still re­mains sig­nif­i­cant as a way of look­ing at all kinds of power re­la­tion­ships.

Is work­ing with video a new devel­op­ment be­cause of Mur­ru­rundi?

Po­ten­tially, but video was es­sen­tial in re­al­is­ing ‘Squar­ing off the Moun­tain’. It couldn’t have been cap­tured in any other way. For four months I’d rit­u­al­is­ti­cally walk a track de­ter­mined by the re­la­tion­ship be­tween points of ref­er­ence in the land­scape and the lens of the cam­era. The idea was to walk the frame of the cam­era’s viewfinder, to create tracks. Ob­serv­ing an­i­mal tracks on the prop­erty added a cu­ri­ous

In all the works I have made, the act of mea­sur­ing up the can­vas is sig­nif­i­cant. It be­comes mean­ing­ful too when we think about mea­sure as a crit­i­cal tool, as a means to an­a­lyse and cri­tique, which is a con­sis­tent thread through my prac­tice.

aside to the work – an­i­mals al­ways walk the same track. I walked the track us­ing my body as a tool for draw­ing. The video has two parts. One was shot with a video cam­era de­pict­ing fore­ground, midground and back­ground, the other with a drone cam­era. The shot from the drone refers to a more mod­ernist par­a­digm of flat­ten­ing the sub­ject and per­ceiv­ing the fig­ure in the land­scape. It also re­veals the track.

Is there ever a col­lab­o­ra­tive en­gage­ment with the sub­ject of your paint­ings?

‘Med­i­ta­tion’ was a col­lab­o­ra­tive work. I have to go back to when he was first in­car­cer­ated at age 20. I can’t name him for his own safety. The idea of in­car­cer­a­tion is not just the phys­i­cal in­car­cer­a­tion, it’s a spir­i­tual in­car­cer­a­tion, psy­cho­log­i­cal and emo­tional in­car­cer­a­tion. The idea of ‘Med­i­ta­tion’ was about con­nec­tion. It was a way of tran­scend­ing the in­sti­tu­tion. He would be able to set his mind free to some ex­tent, to think about some­thing that wasn’t hap­pen­ing to him, to give him a colour on which to rest his mind. The process in­volved send­ing and re­ceiv­ing a colour. At 9pm ev­ery night he would se­lect a colour from a small range I had sent him. He would med­i­tate on the colour for 15 min­utes and at the same time I would med­i­tate and re­ceive the colour. We did this for about a year and recorded the out­comes of the ex­per­i­ment through the let­ters. The work ‘Med­i­ta­tion’ be­came a record of the process.

Can you dis­cuss me­mory in your work?

Well, I can dis­cuss this in re­la­tion to ‘Gray Spec­tra’ which came about while I was re­search­ing my pa­ter­nal great grand­mother’s his­tory. I was try­ing to deal with the new in­for­ma­tion com­ing to light about her story, and re­fram­ing my per­cep­tion of her via family anec­dotes. So it was a process of un­cov­er­ing de­tails about how she came from Ire­land at the age of 18, ar­rived here and be­gan her life, and the var­i­ous tragedies she had to en­dure in her life. While I was col­lect­ing this in­for­ma­tion I was di­aris­ing in the paint­ing ‘Gray Spec­tra’ so I would lit­er­ally paint five lines a day like you would in a diary, ex­cept the im­age would emerge as a ging­ham struc­ture. There’s a dis­tinct in­ter­play be­tween the back­ground and fore­ground. There’s push and pull in the struc­ture of this paint­ing, which started to take on par­tic­u­lar mean­ing of how me­mory and past al­ways im­pose on the present.

Do you gather ev­i­dence to sup­port your ex­pe­ri­ences?

It de­pends on what is re­quired. The paint­ing ‘At Her Majesty’s Plea­sure’ had a ra­tio­nale that was very much about ex­pe­ri­ence and dis­be­lief about what I was en­coun­ter­ing in the cor­rec­tional ser­vices sys­tem. I was hear­ing di­rectly about what goes on in gaol both through the let­ters and con­ver­sa­tions. It wasn’t my ini­tial in­tent to use those let­ters, they were some­one else’s words and ex­pe­ri­ences. I felt it was im­por­tant to put the au­then­tic­ity of the con­tent into some form. I wanted to make a point about our re­spon­si­bil­ity as a com­mu­nity, not just my ex­pe­ri­ence. I came across Jus­tice Na­gle’s Re­port, from 1978. One of his fun­da­men­tal premises was that pris­on­ers should be per­ceived as ci­ti­zens with le­gal rights and pro­tec­tion. As he says, “Pris­ons be­long to the com­mu­nity; the com­mu­nity has the re­spon­si­bil­ity for those it im­pris­ons.” The prob­lem is we don’t. And there it is in a nut­shell.

The scale of your work is fre­quently larger than you.

The scale can vary dra­mat­i­cally in my work. Large-scale works pro­vide an im­mer­sive ex­pe­ri­ence. Your pe­riph­eral vi­sion lessens when you come close to a large work, you lose a sense of where it ends. On a small scale, an in­ti­macy is es­tab­lished be­tween the work and the viewer; one comes close to see and en­gage with the work. I like phys­i­cally to draw a viewer in, and to move them back and forth, so they look and en­gage.

Your grid ap­pears to be a re­li­able friend.

What I nor­mally do is lay it down and then work against the na­ture of the grid to dis­rupt the sur­face. It’s like a tool to rein­vent con­tra­dic­tion.

Where does your aware­ness of colour come from?

Colour for me is an in­tu­itive thing. Why I choose one colour over an­other, I don’t know. There are some things I ac­cept, they come from a place you can­not ra­tio­nalise. I am very aware of dif­fer­ent lev­els of con­scious­ness when work­ing. And part of the learning is leav­ing it alone.

You work on the sides of your paint­ings?

This harks back to the 1960s. The paint­ing be­comes an ob­ject. I have done that once with a se­ries of works ti­tled ‘Hound­stooth’, in 1991 and ‘On the Edge’ in 1992, where I in­cor­po­rated the sides of the paint­ings. I’m more in­ter­ested in the tra­jec­tory of paint­ing and the il­lu­sion of paint­ing. I don’t want to con­fuse what I’m try­ing to do on the sur­face of the paint­ing with some other way of think­ing about paint­ing. The can­vas is an ob­ject, but on the sur­face of that can­vas is the prac­tice, his­tory and the­ory of paint­ing.

Can you dis­cuss the ‘Star­lite’ paint­ing?

I had re­cently moved to Coledale, NSW. I had a stu­dio in a li­brary next to the RSL club. Ev­ery day I saw this pat­terned wall made from besser brick. Cu­ri­ously, it had a lot of el­e­ments in it that re­lated to my pre­vi­ous work. It has some as­pects of the dec­o­ra­tive, the ev­ery­day; it did things with your eyes. That starts to seep into your con­scious­ness. Through that process of be­com­ing aware of besser brick, and be­com­ing aware of the blind spots that we have to things, I be­came com­pelled by besser brick wall. I painted each block, the same scale as the ac­tual con­crete block for each paint­ing. It’s put to­gether and is ren­dered ac­cord­ing to the perspective of where I stood in re­la­tion to it.

Is 15 years an un­usual time to in­vest emo­tion­ally in an un­fin­ished paint­ing?

I don’t know if it’s un­usual or not, it is what it is. The paint­ing you are re­fer­ring to is still in the stu­dio and it’s un­fin­ished. That paint­ing dis­turbs me; it may never be fin­ished, it’s so emo­tion­ally charged I don’t know what to do with it. And it ac­tu­ally doesn’t need to be on a wall, it may never be on a wall. There are dif­fer­ent emo­tional in­vest­ments, in what you be­lieve and what you do. I have to be emo­tion­ally in­vested in what I do.

And the need for math­e­mat­ics in your work?

It comes from try­ing to get it right. Some­times it works, some­times it doesn’t. There’s no par­tic­u­lar the­ory. It’s about the process of mea­sur­ing in re­la­tion to the scale of the can­vas. And if my sys­tems come un­done I have to re­spond to it and make de­ci­sions about what I do with it. Life im­poses it­self and then it be­comes in­ter­est­ing. We are all flawed. Mostly, it is about try­ing.­


Tam­worth Re­gional Gallery 8 April – 3 June, 2017 www.tam­worthre­gion­al­

De­bra Dawes is rep­re­sented by WESWAL Gallery, Tam­worth, NSW www.we­wal­

02 Gray Spec­tra (light), 1996, acrylic on can­vas, 2025 x 3675cm

03 from clock­wise Ma­genta 04-08, 2008, oil on can­vas, 61 x 50cm

04 clock­wise June, 2004, oil on can­vas, 180 x 260cm

06 Still from Squar­ing off the Moun­tain, 2015, dual-chan­nel dig­i­tal video pro­jec­tion, di­men­sions vari­able

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