Poetry and painting paired with purpose
With David Laing Dawson, the words and the paint are working together
I don’t understand the bird In all its feathered lightness Facing, I think, without fear The vast ocean and the ominous cloud. David Laing Dawson wrote this poem. A painting, “Feathered Lightness,” goes with it.
“The painting comes first,” he tells me. “And then, later, I sit staring at it and let a poem form in my mind.”
Dawson’s paintings and poems constitute A Feathered Symmetry, an exhibition at Gallery on the Bay.
Painting and poetry have had a strained relationship through the centuries. Ancient Roman writers, for instance, declared poetry to be above painting. But in the late 15th century, Leonardo da Vinci, a painter, believed painting was superior to poetry.
And then there’s Dawson, a Hamilton psychiatrist, novelist, playwright and artist. His paintings and poems work together.
“The poem is not an explanation of the painting, but another art form echoing what might be in the painting. This time using the sounds and rhythms of words as well as their strict meaning in the same way a painting uses the shape and rhythm and colour of an object as well as its strict references.”
“Feathered Lightness” is a strikingly simplified landscape. Dawson divides the space into two distinct horizontals: water and sky. The water, which takes up one-third of the space, is highlighted with little white lines that recall the tops of waves. Golden yellow sky dominates the composition. A cloud hovers on the left.
The poem suggests we see the water as an ocean, feel the cloud as ominous. A small bird rests on a branch on the far right.
“The painterly problem is how to put a bird in a landscape without it taking over. So how to place it, and suggest it, so it becomes part of the painting without dominating and fixating the eye. Hence the birds are quick brush strokes placed where needed in the composition, identifiable enough to evoke, but not take over completely.”
In “Dormant River,” Dawson creates a landscape from four horizontals: land, water, land and sky. The two land zones consist of green, blue, yellow, pink and mauve circular forms showing the marks of a fan brush. Water and sky are, by contrast, plainer.
Similar circular forms reign supreme in “A Confederacy of Circles.”
“I think of them as the opposite of the vista: nature up close, under a microscope,” he says.
Unlike the sense of order imposed by the horizontals in the landscapes, this composition seems anarchic, as circles bump into one another, overlap and push others out of the space.
“Each of the circle paintings is constructed on an older painting with some of the older painting visible. Keeping the objects and shapes to circles certainly simplified the problem of composition, and allowed a free exploration of colour, texture, rhythm.”
Just as poetry and painting work together, so do the two painting types.
“For a while I alternated between a landscape and a circle painting, or started with an option of going either way,” Dawson says.
“Painting the circles maybe helps free up the landscape paintings, reminding my brain that in a painting, form, line, shape and colour relationships are more important than accuracy.” Regina Haggo, art historian, public speaker, curator and former professor at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand, teaches at the Dundas Valley School of Art. email@example.com
David Laing Dawson, Feathered Lightness, oil on canvas, 24 by 30 inches, $1,700.
David Dawson, Dormant River, oil on board, 24 by 30 inches, $1,700.
David Dawson, A Confederacy of Circles, oil on board, 24 by 30 inches, $1,700.