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Bird Watcher: A Conversation with Dawson Phillips

Dawson Phillips talks about his upcoming show “Objectivity,” his artistic practice, his inspirations, and birds in this interview.

On The Hill
On The Hill
Bird Watcher: A Conversation with Dawson Phillips
Charlie Usadi

Charlie Usadi

November 17, 2023
7 Minutes

Hi Dawson (@dawson__art)! I have known you for a while because we took VISAcourses together, and I run into you in the Environmental Studies building, but the main reason I thought it was a perfect time to talk with you is because you have an upcoming solo show going up this Friday in List. It is your second solo show, and similarly to your first, it included your incredibly detailed and accurate rendering, experimentation with similar motifs in a variety of media, and a central thematic relationship to nature. Before discussing your work and this exciting show, the way I like to usually start my interviews is by having you introduce yourself. When you're not actively at work in the studio, where can we find you on campus?

Hello! My name is Dawson, I'm a junior at Brown, studying VISA and Environmental Studies, and I'm from Austin, Texas. When I'm not in the studio, right now I'm either in class, sleeping in Grad Center, or I'm in the studio (laughs). Otherwise I'm in the Urban Environmental Lab a lot of time, I study in the Rock, or I am off campus. I like going on walks. I like going to Swan Point Cemetery to go birdwatching. I like going to India Point and walking around the neighborhood.

Swan Point Cemetery, Monoprint, 2023

How long have you been making art? 

I've been making [art for] as long as I can remember--I've always liked drawing, and I've always liked birdwatching, so I've always liked drawing birds that I see. One of the earliest things I remember drawing were a bunch of birds, partly because I liked reading Harry Potter. I liked the idea of having a little bird friend (laughs) so I started drawing my owls.

Could you talk about the decision-making process of why you chose to come to Brown? As a VISA concentrator at a school right next to RISD, I always get asked why I didn't choose to go to an "art school".

Yeah, so, I came to Brown because you can study whatever you want. It's a unique opportunity as an artist to concentrate or major not only in art but also something more academic-related, and I've always felt like I'm just as much of an artist as I am a student, an academic and a "learner". So yeah, Brown was a good opportunity to mix those things. I'm also not sure I want to be a professional artist--though I would love to have that opportunity-- and I think Brown has a good way of still exposing me to professors who give me good feedback to learn as an artist and grow, while still being able to develop other parts of myself.

In terms of that academic and artistic balance, your work represents well they can influence each other. Can you talk a bit about your experience so far at Brown and within the visa department, Any courses or professors who you've learned a lot from?

Yeah. My immediate thought is Isabel Mattia, who taught my visa 100, and my upper-l drawing course. She is now a professor at RISD, she no longer teaches at Brown. She put a lot of effort into learning about her students as people as well as their artistic practices, and especially having her a second time in drawing I felt like she gave really great feedback and pushed me to grow. 

I would love to talk about your upcoming show-- your second solo show. Could you describe the works included in the show, and thematically what it speaks on?

Yeah, so the show is called “Objectivity”. Visually, it's a collection of drawings in graphite, and pen--they're all black and white. I'm also working on a drypoint copper plate right now--may or may not be finished by the show (laughs). The subject matter is a combination of bird specimens. I took a lot of imagery from the Field Museum in Chicago as well as museums that I've been to in person, taking photos of either dead birds specimens or bird feet and legs and claws etc. I am contrasting [those images] with similarly depicted parts of my own body and human body. So I have like a big ear, part of an arm, a leg, and a hand in various stages of motion. And I also have each of my fingers. 

Downy Woodpecker (Picodes pubescens) [Field Museum specimen S19-3035, ventral view], Graphite on paper, 2023

I'm very interested in the ways that we view nature, and we learn from nature and how a lot of times in science-- biology, especially--that means removing nature from its context in the natural world, making everything as static and clear and "objective"--supposedly--as possible. To me, I find that to be a very incomplete way of viewing the natural world. As I mentioned, I'm a bird watcher, so when I see these dead bird specimens, I think that's like the worst way to learn about them.  That's not how I relate to birds and the natural world at all. It strips it of any emotional value, which I think is a very valid and important way to learn from the world around us--connecting with how it makes you feel. So with the exhibition I'm taking those bird specimens, and I am applying that way of learning about the world to a human body and asking the question: "Is this a valid and appropriate and complete way of looking at anything?" Maybe you do learn things from that way of viewing the world, but it also omits and conceals just as much as it reveals. That was my goal with the exhibition. 

Could you speak a bit more on the intersection between art and the environment? Do your Environmental Studies courses influence your artwork, or vice versa? 

Yes, my Environmental Studies courses definitely influence my visual art practice. I think the Environmental Studies Department does a pretty good job of exposing you to a lot of different fields and a lot of different ways of viewing the world around us. And some of that means like taking an ecology class, or right now I'm taking conservation biology, which are much more traditional STEM courses in some ways, and so they do kind of reflect the way of viewing the world that I'm critiquing with this exhibition. But under the same curriculum, I'm also learning about people's movements, other academic fields, and ways of viewing the world that can either complement or be completely incompatible with that very kind of scientific way of viewing the world--that has definitely influenced my thinking for this exhibition.

Are there any artists inspiring your recent work?

The artists that are coming to mind are more stylistic influences. One artist for sure, Ethan Murrow, does very realistic, huge pencil and pen drawings that I'm inspired by stylistically. A lot of the time because he incorporates realism but also surrealism. He definitely explores relationships between humans and vast expanses like the American West-- our relationship with nature in that way--which I find very interesting, especially learning about the environmental history of the US and North America and how that relates to colonialism and Manifest Destiny. So there's both. He's someone who definitely influences me stylistically as well as conceptually.

Red-winged Blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus) [Field museum specimen S19-1400, ventral view], Graphite on paper, 2023

I associate your work most strongly with incredibly well-rendered graphite, but you work a lot of different mediums into this show and the last show I saw of yours. Could you speak about your relationship to media and how you work with them. Do you have ideas and immediately know what medium you want them to exist in? How does that relationship work?

So I feel most comfortable achieving realism with drawing and with graphite. So I don't know if the idea comes first or the medium comes first, but I have different skills with different mediums. I focus a lot more on texture and form when I'm working with graphite because I feel confident in my ability to capture them accurately [in that medium]. For example, the weird kind of feathery textures of  birds in this show, I would have no idea how to achieve another medium [besides graphite]. But I also really enjoy printmaking, relief printmaking with linoleum, and also recently I've been experimenting with etchings and dry-point. [Those are] definitely drawing-adjacent, but my expertise limits my ability to capture what I want to with those mediums, which is kind of exciting and also changes the way I approach my subject. 

Could you speak a bit more on realism as it relates to your work? I know you're able to achieve incredible realism, but in your last show you did play with your subjects, and you warped things in ways, worked conceptually--could you speak about how playing with realism and warp emerges in your work?

Yeah, for the most part, when I go for realism, I do try to incorporate elements that can't be achieved with something like photography--my own point of view comes through in the subject matter, even if it is rendered realistically. I do get questions a lot of the time asking "Why do you choose realism? Couldn't you just do that with Photoshop? Could you not incorporate more of the media into the work?" With this exhibition, I'm kind of leaning completely into that realism they ask about--I'm adding very little to these bird specimens and drawings, in an attempt to render them as objectively as possible, though of course I'm still obviously limited by my capability and material. I'm really excited to see how people interact with these pieces because they are as realistic as I can make them, but you still see pencil marks and stray marks that I can't erase from the paper because I've made a mistake. In that way that reflects my concept just as much as altering the image itself would, because I'm aiming for an objective image that's very systematic, just like these scientific ways of viewing the world, but it's still flawed--a reflection of my limitations and my bias. 

It's a really elegant metaphor for the human hand and our historic relationship to the natural world which is very imperfect. I think you described that beautifully. In terms of your subject matter, something I find really unique to your work is that you're very loyal to the visual symbolism you use. This symbolism most immediately being that of birds which you push in wonderfully subtle and intriguing ways. Why do you think these symbols have remained so strong in your practice? Do you worry you'll one day potentially exhaust the creative potential of them? Or do they remain a consistently generative way of beginning your process?

I'm drawn initially to birds because I'm a bird watcher--that's the part of the world that I enjoy looking at the most, and it's how I relate to a lot of places around me. So I just enjoy that subject matter in that way. Every bird that I see and interact with has a connotation to me. For example, some remind me of home, especially moving to college. I found that certain species remind me of my backyard or hiking on the Greenbelt in Austin. Coming to school, my first year--my freshman year--I was depicting certain bird species because it reminded me of home. And I've also experimented with birds as symbols of other things that I'm thinking about--I've I found that [working from a symbol] can be a subtle way to explore more intricate themes in a way that I find limiting in the right ways to push my creativity, but I'm not worried about the subject matter running out of ideas just because there's so many birds, which I think that a lot and represent a lot of different things to me. I found that I can make symbols out of things that don't necessarily mean what I'm making the mean [in my work], but because I render them in that way or choose to depict them in a certain way, they now become symbols of what I want them to mean.

Cock with Crown, Graphite on Paper 2022

Yeah, you really push the possibilities of what can seem like a relatively limited visual reference--though birds do evoke so much culturally--I'm constantly inspired by just how you use this appreciation for birds to speak on so many different themes. Your last show, which I've alluded to a few times, had similar imagery to the one that's going up this Friday. Could you talk about what you think your first show represented in your artistic practice in comparison to this one? 

My last show was much more interested in gender-- expressing my relationship to masculinity and sexuality as well as how society views these two themes. I distorted imagery much more [in that show], it's clear that they're not photos. I had these goose-necks that were tied into knots, or like tangled together, or flying upside down. It was much more surreal in subject matter, even though it was still using birds as symbols. Comparatively in this show I stick much more to reality in how I depict my subjects. I am hoping that people read into it just as much as they would my other pieces, just because I'm trying to instill just as much meaning in this work even if it's not as [visually] out of the box in the way that I'm depicting subjects.

Entangled, Pen on paper, 2022

There's an inherent disconnect central to artwork. When you're creating a work and conceptualizing it you can never really fully control what a viewer who approaches your work is going to take away from it, how they're going to interpret it. You have the benefit of being able to render incredibly well, but despite that, you can never evade varying interpretation. Could you talk about your perspective on that?

So I definitely think what's reflected in the style of my artwork is that I want to control every single detail, and I want it to look exactly how I imagined in my mind, and I want it to come across to the viewer exactly how I want it to. In that way, my last exhibition definitely had a message--like it's still open to interpretation, but I was definitely trying to communicate one thing. On the other hand this exhibition--even though I'm rendering everything just as meticulously as I tend to--is more of an open-ended question. I'm presenting all of these things together and wondering what people are going to get out of it. The ideas that I'm exploring are not things that I have an answer to, so in that way, I'm excited about the subjectivity of people's experience in this exhibition (laughs), which I find to be kind of a relief, because I'm not quite as worried about how it's coming across. Even if someone looks at [my work] and says, "Oh, it's just a bunch of body parts and birds and that's kind of boring,” I'm ok with that.

I love that you've said that. I believe that rather than worrying about controlling perception, when an artist realizes that one of the greatest strengths of artwork is its interpretability, it's incredibly freeing. That was a really big moment for me personally in my practice, so it's cool to hear you emphasize that. It's been so wonderful talking with you, I am a big fan of your work and look forward to seeing the show! Last question--maybe the most important--where can people find you? 

Instagram is the main place where I post my art @dawson__art. I have a website that I don't update well (laughs).

And! You're about to have the show in List--when will it be up?

November 10th to 16th in list Art Building room 221, on the second floor. 

Yay! Everyone should go check it out, thank you again for chatting with me.

Thank you!

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