Sky Cathedral by Louise Nevelson, inspiration for Amber Dawn’s performance at VA/BF

Artist Profile: Amber Dawn


by Stephanie Fung


Amber Dawn, who will be performing “I Fell in Love with Black” at the 2013 Vancouver Art/Book Fair, is a writer based in Vancouver. Her performance is the first component to be released in OCW #21: Feminisms, a five-part publication curated by Tracy Stefanucci that explores women’s representation in the visual arts, literature and publishing. Each segment of the intermittently published artist magazine will be envisioned by a different female artist and will include an in-person engagement as well as a print component. Other artists featured in the project include leannej, Heidi Nagtegaal, Alex Leslie and listen chen.


Adapted from the short story, “The Nevelson” (forthcoming in Plenitude Magazine), “I Fell in Love with Black” tells the story of romantic attraction between seven-year-old loner Bailey and Sky Cathedral, a Louise Nevelson sculpture housed at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, NY. Told as a magical realism script reading and slide show, author Amber Dawn celebrates women artists and love in strange spaces.


Dawn’s latest novel, Sub Rosa, won the Lambda Literary Award. She has also published the memoir How Poetry Saved My Life and edited the anthologies Fist of the Spider Women: Fear and Queer Desire and With A Rough Tongue: Femmes Write Porn. She was the 2012 winner of the Writers’ Trust of Canada Dayne Ogilvie Prize for LGBT writers and currently teaches Speculative Fiction writing at Douglas College. 


Project Space: How would you describe your experience of working as a female artist and writer? Has this experience been shaped or made more complex by other labels you identify with?


Amber Dawn: This question is always a humdinger for me. My life is so utterly that of a woman’s. I’ve never even attempted “playing in the man’s world” so to speak. I grew up around women with very few adult men around and even fewer male mentors or role models. My mother was a living caricature of a starving artist turned zany high school art teacher. She introduced me to the practice of taking particular note of the work of women artists found at my favourite art gallery, the Albright-Knox in Buffalo, NY.


As an adult I’ve worked in women and queer-driven spaces: women’s centres, anti-violence services, feminist presses/publishers, artist-run collectives, etc. I’m married to a woman. When I write, I have women readers in mind first and foremost. I’m living in a very womb-like metaphor, I suppose, by choice. I believe women, especially queer women, are uniquely situated to question the world and the structures that hold power, and to express themselves from both a place of great strength and tender vulnerability.


PS: What was your personal interpretation and initial response to the broad prompt of “women’s representation in the visual arts, literature and publishing” for the Feminisms project?


AD: I immediately thought of hearing the Rosalind Prize for Canadian Women Writers announced last year (in October 2012). The first line in the Globe & Mail read, “How is a new literary prize born? Out of frustration, it seems . . .” The article then goes on to outline some of the gender disparity in publishing, literary criticism and prizes. For example, there have been only twelve women Nobel Prize winners for Literature since 1901. We are surrounded by statistics like this. Only four women have been nominated for Best Director at the Academy Awards, and only one has won. Women artists make up less than 12% of the Tate Modern’s Collection. And so we—women artists—should be frustrated.


PS: How did you come up with the idea for this performance?


AD: Recently, a friend asked me to write a piece of fan fiction about a contemporary artist or artwork. Intimidated, I almost refused the project because I am not schooled in art history. What do I really know about art? But I drew upon my personal childhood experience of frequenting the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, NY, and wrote a fan fiction story called “The Nevelson” about falling in love with a Louise Nevelson sculpture. My performance, “I Fell in Love with Black,” is an adaptation of that story.


PS: Does your performance challenge any assumptions people may have about feminism or identity?


AD: I find Louise Nevelson a particularly heady artist. When I was researching for this performance, I’d often become overwhelmed while listening to her speak at interviews and appearances.  However, to look at her work, to me, is to be invited in. Her work is somehow so elegant, yet so accessible. My performance demonstrates this accessibility. That art can be open and inviting and simple. It’s okay to “feel” art, and not “critique” or “understand” it. My performance protagonist is a seven-year-old girl, full of wonder and fledgling emotions.


PS: How would you describe your own personal feminism?


AD: Feminism is a broad and dynamic approach to life. So broad and dynamic that I could easily dedicate pages upon pages to describing how my feminism propels me through this world. The question is too big. Instead I’ll talk a bit about the feminism found in my performance:


Louise Nevelson is an outstanding example of a woman who made it in a “man’s world.” Her earlier sculptural work was shown at the Museum of Modern Art (this is one of the fine art institutions that the Guerrilla Girls continually take to task for lack of women artist representation) and by the late 1950s MoMA had begun to purchase her work for their permanent collection.  From the Whitney to the Venice Biennale, she garnered recognition, but even with this success her work was often deemed “masculine” by critics. Nevelson continually challenged “masculine” and “feminine” ideas of art. In an interview with the Feminist Art Journal she declared, “I am a woman’s liberation.”


But my performance’s protagonist is not Louise Nevelson. It is a seven-year-old girl from a poor single-mom household who is discovering a creative voice of her own. For me, the little girl is the real feminist hero of my performance. She demonstrates that feminism belongs to us all, and that feminist thinking and activism can be quiet and humble, just as well as grand and famous.


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