I met Dawline-Jane Oni-Eseleh back in 2012 when I began teaching business classes for illustrators in San Francisco. But I really got to know Dawline when she was a “live studio audience” student for my taping of my CreativeLive class Become a Working Artist. I remember recognizing immediately that there was something special about Dawline — a determination and resolve and obvious passion and talent that made her stand out. Dawline has always been an artist, but in the last few years, she has taken her art practice to entirely new places. She is incredibly prolific and inventive. Last year, she left her long-time job as the manager of a popular art supply store in San Francisco to become a full time working artist and art teacher. As a friend of Dawline’s and a follower of her work online, I am continuously impressed by her ability to produce interesting work day after day. Last night on Instagram she wrote, “When I don’t make time to draw, paint or carve a block, I get super cranky. I feel it in my neck and jaw.” She shared an image of a piece she made yesterday that, while she wasn’t happy with it entirely, she felt better, because she had pushed through and made something.
Dawline lives and works in Oakland, California. Her current work is focused primarily on what she calls “the shifting urban landscape,” and she has taken a deep dive recently into work about her family. She is an avid observer and prolific photographer, who employs a vast catalog of visual notes and memories as the fodder for her work in drawing, painting and printmaking. She uses a range of media including relief print making, pen and ink, photo transfer and encaustic. What you will find below are not only images from Dawline’s prolific and diverse portfolio of work, but her thoughts on diving deep into subject matter, abandoning her dream to become a Solid Gold Dancer, leaving your day job to pursue a career as an artist, her love of teaching art, and the grit it requires to make a living as an artist, especially when you are first starting out.
Lisa: Tell us about you. Where did you grow up, what role has art played in your life? What was your path to becoming a full time working artist?
Dawline: I grew up in the Mid-Hudson Valley region of New York, about 2 hours north of New York City, the third of four daughters. When I was very young I was strongly influenced by the activities of my two older sisters – they were always writing and illustrating little books, creating plays for us to perform for our parents or playing instruments. I remember being a very sensitive, day dreamy little girl who bored very easily, so those types of activities gave me something to focus on.
My parents had reproductions of art on the walls growing up – one of the ones I remember clearly was “Four Studies of the Head of a Negro” by Rubens, and a book of “The Helga Pictures” by Andrew Wyeth. I looked at that book for hours – I couldn’t have been more than 5, but it was the first hint that art was something that someone could do her whole life, and that one could focus on a single subject for years. During my formative years, I was always involved in some visual or performing art program at school, whether it was glee club, school band, creative writing, or art class. As kid who loved to express herself but wasn’t sure how to do it verbally, it gave me a tremendous opportunity to be social and be “heard”.
Lisa: So did you know you wanted to be an artist?
Dawline: I always figured I’d be an artist in some shape or form. Initially, in elementary school, I had designs on becoming a Solid Gold Dancer with regular appearances on Soul Train, but I later settled on the more practical career of architect because I loved drawing houses so much. By the time I got to high school I decided that I wanted to design album covers, and spent hours practicing the logos and portraits if my favorite metal bands in #2 pencil. Art was a constant in my life, and I saw it all around me, but it wasn’t taken seriously as a practical career choice by adults around me at that time. Nevertheless, I persisted and took as many different art and literature classes as I could, applying to and getting into the art school of my choice at the end of my junior year, much to the chagrin of my dad. That was the beginning of a very long battle between doing what was “practical” to support myself, and developing my artistic practice. The rest is history.
Lisa: One of the things I’ve always been impressed with in you is your discipline. I was going to say you have an “insane” work ethic, but I corrected myself because I don’t want to in advertently pathologize any commitment to living a disciplined creative life (though I often describe my own relationship to my work as insane)! So let me rephrase by saying you have an incredible work ethic. You make and share work nearly everyday. You are incredibly prolific. What drives that in you?
Dawline: Ha! It is a little insane, and I think it is part of that now internalized struggle to prove that, yes: art is fun, art is passion, and art is valid as a life’s work. I try to give a little bit to nurturing my career every day, rain or shine. It’s also practical – since this is my way of processing information and expressing things that are on my mind, a day without making art would almost be like a day without talking to anyone. Those periods when I can’t make artwork for whatever reason feel a little bit like solitary confinement. I’m too much in my head without an outlet. It’s both vice and virtue.
Lisa: Tell us about the themes and major influences in your work. How do you come up with ideas for what to draw and paint and make?
Dawline: For the past few years my work has centered around themes of home in all its various meanings and iterations. I used to have these recurring dreams about houses, and I wanted put this imagery down on paper. I started with literal images of houses, much like the type I used to draw as a child – triangular roofs, square windows, rectangular doors, all very symmetrical. As I repeated these forms it evolved into a meditation on place and the stories behind them. As I did more research into the subject and discovered Carl Jung’s theories on dreams and the idea of the house as self, I started to dig a little deeper into my thoughts, and these images became conversations about different facets of my life. I started to integrate different pictorial symbols into my work – clouds, waves, lightning bolts and even Depression era pictographs to compose images that could be taken at face value or examined more closely. In recent months, I have gone very literal with my “home” imagery, and I am currently working on a body of work that depicts members of my immediate and extended family. It’s a story told without a set chronology.
I’m a big reader and researcher and probably watch more television than is cool to admit. A lot of times, if I come across a reference or concept intrigues me or I don’t understand I jot it down or look it up for further reading. In that way, I’m always trying to expand my knowledge base and explore the different ways we as humans seek to communicate the basic themes of our existence – love, hate, hunger, war, procreation, hope and survival. It’s in everything, from documentaries about World War II to Sharknado 4. I would say that popular culture is one on the biggest influences in my work.
Lisa: One of the questions I get a lot is “How do you come up with your ideas?” I am always curious about this question for other artists. How do you decide what to work on from day to day? What role do ongoing projects and bodies of work have in your art practice?
Dawline: Because I’ve been doing this for most of my life, figuring out what to do every day is second nature. I generally have a ton of ideas floating around my head, and I’m tasked with slowing down and focusing on one thing at a time so that there is a cohesiveness and consistency to my work. I usually take a lot of photos every day as a visual diary, which I then organize into folders by theme on my computer. I use the notes section on my iPhone to jot down stray thoughts and refer to them often for those rare times when the ideas aren’t flowing so freely. Because I work in so many various mediums I rely on bodies of work and projects to rein myself in.
Lisa: Teaching has become a big part of what you do. Tell us about what & who you teach and the meaning it has in your work and life.
Dawline: Currently I teach a wide range of age groups, from kindergarten to senior citizens, in both studio and community settings. I find it helpful to be able to step outside of my approach to creating and see things from a new perspective. My approach to teaching is geared more towards skill sharing and developing critical thinking skills, as opposed to “This is the only acceptable way to get this result.” I find it rewarding because I generally come away learning so much about the variety of expression from one person to the next, even when given the same prompts and materials. I’m currently teaching relief printmaking to all age groups, as well as intro to digital photography for elementary school students and leading interactive art exhibition tours to school age students.
Lisa: for years you worked as a manager at a major art store in the Bay Area, but recently you jumped ship to become full time artist. People ask me all the time, “How do I know when I’m ready to leave my day job?” And I always say: “It depends”. How did you know you were ready?
Dawline: When the time is right to leave, you will see a giant flashing exit sign that you cannot ignore. I say that metaphorically, of course, but it’s also very real.
My advice to someone deciding to leave their day job would be this: Be very honest with yourself about your ability to be self-directed, be objective about your work and ability to handle rejection and be graceful and keep moving forward, and think about what you would be willing to do to support yourself during lean times. Another important thing to consider is how good you would really be at being your own boss, realizing that the boss isn’t always necessarily your friend. Working for yourself means showing up consistently and on time, working long hours and making tough decisions. It can take a really long time for you to see returns in your investment in yourself as a business. Before you leave, examine your reasons for wanting to take the leap.
My reasons for leaving were many, and had a bit to do with company culture, but at the heart of it I was working 42 hours or more a week at my day job in addition to putting 4 hours or more a day into my studio practice. That year I had an art show booked every month and was getting good feedback on my work, including exposure from press and online interviews. I did a self-assessment and concluded I had no problem putting in long hours considering I was relatively autonomous at work, while at the same time good at prioritizing my art career. I focused on what I liked about my job – marketing, connecting with customers and the community, and sharing my knowledge of art materials and techniques. It gave me a sense of the different ways I could support myself as a working artist. Once I had that list down it was easy to start transitioning out of that job and focus on a positive and realistic outcome. My one exception to that advice is if you find yourself working in a toxic environment on the verge of burnout. If you find yourself in that situation, locate a lifeboat and leave asap. Once you head down the road to burnout, you put your future productivity at risk, regardless of where you land.
Lisa: You work in so many mediums from watercolor to photography to block printing. Why is working in so many ways important to you? What does your diverse art practice give to your experience as an artist?
Dawline: The simple fact is I really love exploring different materials. Maybe it’s because I tend to get bored easily, maybe it’s a side effect of working in the art materials industry for close to 20 years and having to explain different things to people with some degree of authority. If you think of art as a form of expression, using different materials is like speaking different languages. I like pushing the bounds of different mediums, but just as in speaking different languages, a beautiful poem in one language may not rhyme if translated literally into another. I enjoy the process of seeing how far I can go in one direction and then switching it up into another. It’s like a form of visual code-switching. As a person growing up in an Afro-Caribbean household in the suburbs in the 80’s and 90’s I think it’s an intrinsic part of my experience of trying to fit into two different worlds on a daily basis, that naturally shows up in my work.
Lisa: I know you would describe yourself as a life-long artist but you also readily admit that you are just in the beginning stages of making a full time living as an artist. It’s tough to keep the momentum required to do this full time, especially when you are in the first few years of your career. There is a lot of hard work, hustling, networking and marketing required, and often this is when people give up. What keeps you motivated to continue with such passion everyday? What are your hopes and dreams for yourself as your career evolves?
Dawline: I got through these first few years with the help and encouragement of my close friends and family – especially during the time leading up to and immediately after I left my full-time job. They had my back when things were very tough, and I don’t think I can ever really thank them enough. It’s tremendously important to have people that support you though the ups and downs, because it’s so easy to give up hope at any given time. The “ups and downs” part is key – because the art market can be such a competitive field there are times that feel tense when you have friends trying for the same opportunities. It seems counter intuitive, but even the little successes can be a source of stress at first – people wondering aloud how you may have gotten opportunities when they feel their work is as good or better, or conversely, spending time and money on developing work and having opportunities fall through and facing questions on when you’ll be getting a “real” job. It all circles back to having a clear direction on where I wanted to see my career and how I wanted to develop my work. It helps me to keep my eye on the larger picture. As my career evolves I’d like to be a little more self-sustaining – as it stands now, I’m still in “work almost every day” mode as I try to find a sustainable flow.
Lisa: Who are your art heroes? Who do you admire and why?
Dawline: Sometimes I get really weary of heroes, because there is always something a little problematic that creeps up (nervous laugh). But, when I think of two people whose careers in expressing themselves I deeply admire, I think of Prince and David Bowie. They aren’t visual artists in the classic sense, but in terms of exploring different avenues of sound, performance, experimentation, and visual representations of themselves, I really can’t think of anyone I admire more. They presented as two people that were always wholly themselves, and that is something I strive to emulate as an artist. In terms of visual artists, I love Jenny Holzer for her use of text and environment to make points that are bigger than the sum of their parts, Alice Neel’s unflinching portraits, Diebenkorn’s use of color to capture the incredible quality of the light in the Bay Area, and Hokusai for his “pictures of the floating world” and the fact that he changed his name more than 30 times to reflect the different periods in his life and work. I also love Jugendstil design and propaganda posters. They fall on opposite ends of the spectrum with the former being highly decorative and the latter being very strait forward in its messaging, but I love the combination of solid color and stylized portraiture.
Lisa: Where can people find you online?
Lisa: Thank you for sharing your talent and wisdom!