Laura Dawe has been making artwork for longer than she has identified as an artist. While completing a degree in history at Dalhousie University in Halifax, where she moved from London, Ontario, she financed her first feature film, Light Is the Day (2010), by selling her paintings, and has long used her creative skills to her advantage, trading a drawing for a drink, or a sketch for a snip at the hair salon.
Her artmaking has supported her throughout her life emotionally, too—she has used it as a way to form precious bonds with the people in her life. Visit the homes of her close friends, and you’ll find hordes of personalized gifts she’s made for them: handmade cookbooks, painted planters, ceramic ashtrays, colourful commissioned portraits—even delicate stick-and-poke tattoos embedded in their skin.
Portraiture figures heavily in Dawe’s practice. She uses her friends as models, and the women in her life serve as her foremost inspiration. She often drapes them in languid configurations over bolts of floral-patterned fabric. “My middle name is Ashley,” Dawe reveals, “which makes my name Laura Ashley,” the same as the textile designer whose floral motifs have been beloved since Audrey Hepburn’s headscarf moment in Roman Holiday (1953). “It feels appropriate, doesn’t it?”
Without a formal art education, Dawe started out by looking to the masters for inspiration. She adored Klimt and Matisse, whom she discovered through a board game she played in childhood called Masterpiece. Their romantic influence is still evident in her work. Women with odalisque backs and Modigliani necks lounge on sofas in vintage kimonos, with hair that looks like it’s been tousled by Egon Schiele himself. Dawe’s works are situated in the domestic sphere mostly, but also extend into dream worlds.
Dawe is now completing a master’s degree at OCAD University. On top of maintaining a “constant” painting practice, and writing, directing and making videos (she wrote and directed the short Dreemer in 2012, hosted Akimbo TV’s ArtLand and has self-produced an ongoing series of tongue-in-cheek how-to videos called Poetic Mixology, all available to view online), she’s also started experimenting with performance and installation. You can keep up with all of her art-related activities on Instagram at @daweski.
Her friends have always known Dawe as an artist. Once, she foraged in the recycling for scraps of board, borrowed a pot of acrylic from a friend’s desk and left a party early to go home and paint. As she has developed over the years as an artist and as a woman, she has caught up to identifying herself that way, too. “Being an artist means your work and your life are not separate,” Dawe says in this video.
In this studio visit by Canadian Art’s video intern, Brittany Shepherd, Dawe shows us around her spacious studio in Toronto’s Kensington Market.—Rosie Prata, managing editor