Artist Profiles

The Not-So-Still Lifes of Watercolorist Dawn Clements

The Not-So-Still Lifes of Watercolorist Dawn Clements

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We were saddened to learn that artist Dawn Clements, whose large, cumulative still life works captured the joy of everyday life, passed away recently at the age of 60. According to the obituary by Neil Genzlinger for The New York Times: “Dawn Clements, whose intricate drawings and watercolors captured detailed scenes from her own life and from movie melodramas, often on a panoramic scale, died on Dec. 4, at a hospice in the Bronx … Ms. Clements’s drawings — generally in sumi ink or ballpoint pen — and her paintings often used multiple sheets of crinkled paper, stitched together into large, irregular shapes that contrasted with the technical precision of her hand.”

Clements was featured in an article by John A. Parks in the April 2018 issue of Watercolor Artist. Battling cancer at the time of the interview, Clements addressed her illness and how it had impacted her work. We dedicate the article, re-published here, to Dawn’s memory.


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A Cumulative Effect

Dawn Clements draws and paints her surroundings, moving from one viewpoint to the next with an intense eye and a sure hand over days and weeks. The works become cumulative, not only as observations but also physically, as the artist adds sheets of paper to incorporate each new area of her subject. Gradually, they grow to become very large pieces, some more than 20 feet long.

Folded, stressed from handling, and often far from true rectangles, Clements’ finished work bears witness to a long physical engagement with the world. Inevitably, this enterprise becomes autobiographical, not only as a testament to spending time in a certain place, but also in recording the objects with which the artist finds herself living.

Recently, faced with grave health issues, Clements has chosen to incorporate evidence of her ongoing treatments in the form of medication packaging. A body of work that takes on the shifting, transitory nature of perception has now broadened to become a meditation on mortality.

Far from negative, the sheer vibrance and intensity of the work affirms the artist’s joy in engaging the world, even as some of the subject matter assumes a new poignancy.


Clements began to work in her current manner back in the early ’90s when she was drawing still lifes and found herself traveling. “I was in a hotel room in Italy, drawing a telephone cord,” she recalls. “I hadn’t planned the drawing very well, and the image didn’t fit on the paper. I was disappointed until I realized that I really didn’t have to confine myself to the rectangle of the paper—that I could add on pieces to extend the image.

“Once I gave myself permission to glue on more paper, I realized that I could make large drawings from smaller modules. Once the frame of the rectangle was changed, I could think of drawing in a more sculptural way, that a drawing needn’t be a ‘window’ but could present itself as the object it is.”

Clements further discovered that she didn’t need to keep her growing drawing flat; when it got too long to manage, she could just fold it, which enabled her to make drawings on a much larger scale.

“Sometimes my drawings get torn or worn or distressed as I fold and glue them,” she says, “but then I patch and repair them. All of this is part of my process.”


Clements’ process inevitably results in images that are somewhat fractured. They incorporate various disjunctions as one day’s work is added to the next. In a sense, the work reflects the way in which we approach a comprehensive and continuous world from a patchwork of shifting viewpoints and sensory inputs. But the drawings also present a much more elaborate appreciation of the visual richness of an environment than we’d normally consider.

Clements works up close to each object, spending time observing it intensely before moving on to the next. She accepts that her process means that she’ll dispense with a complete, coherent perspectival space throughout a work. While individual objects or small groupings might have “correct” perspective, the whole work can incorporate many different viewpoints while taking on a certain flatness.

“Not only do I shift my viewpoint,” says the artist, “but I might draw at different times of day. This may result in multiple shadows or shadows that don’t conform to a single light source.” Clements’ earlier work featured a variety of media, but in recent years she has begun to work extensively in watercolor.

“Before 2012, I worked primarily in ink and gouache,” she says, “sometimes ballpoint pen, sometimes Sumi ink and brush, sometimes gouache. People often describe my work as ‘drawing.’ Even though I often use paint, there’s something in my process that makes people think my work is drawing. I don’t mind what people call it. To me, it’s work.”

At a certain point, Clements chose to use watercolor because it meshed with her sense of process as a draftsman. “When I work in ink, I generally don’t use water or white,” she says. “This makes erasure impossible. This isn’t to say that marks can’t be changed. If I really can’t live with a mark, I’ll cut it out and glue in a new piece of clean paper. Still, most of the time I try to live with the so-called mistakes I make and just move forward, accepting that it’s part of the experience of making—and ultimately of viewing—the work.

“When I decided to work in gouache,” she continues, “there was something about using it that felt like painting. What was it? As it turned out, it was the presence of the color white in the palette. Once white was available, corrections and erasures were possible. Also, the building of a form had more potential to be more traditionally painterly. Usually, oil painters work from dark to light. Even though gouache is a water-based medium, it has the potential to be opaque, so revisions can be made easily.”

One day—Clements doesn’t remember why—she decided to work in watercolor instead of gouache, and it felt very different. “Even though it was paint, it felt like I was drawing again,” she says. “I realized that in watercolor I didn’t use opaque white and that the paints were always translucent. Somehow I could never cover my ‘mistakes.’ This felt like drawing again. The viewer had access to my search and struggle.

“I love how watercolor can reveal a change of mind or a shift in position, a direction considered and redirected.”


The way in which Clements builds a drawing by a process of accretion means that the paper often undergoes considerable handling—and that the eventual work can achieve a very large scale. These are features that both contribute to the nature and power of the work, but also present challenges in terms of longevity.

The finished works are exhibited unframed, extending out across the walls of a gallery, and exposed to accidents. “I do worry about the longevity of my work, but I guess I’m more interested in the search itself,” says Clements. “I often make large works in small spaces, for instance, a large drawing of my kitchen table.”

To do this, she may start small, add paper with glue as she progresses and then fold the paper to accommodate her reach. Clements almost always works on a flat surface parallel to the floor, such as a table, and almost never works on the wall. “This keeps me close to the objects I’m drawing and puts me right there at the kitchen table,” she says. “I hope that even though the work can become very large in size that it’s never ‘monumental.’ ”

Clements strives to convey an intimacy in her work, even when it’s a large format. “I want the work to reflect my life and what I see—both the love and the mess,” she says. “Maybe the distress that happens to the work is part of it.”


While Clements’ work always has been somewhat autobiographical in recording the spaces in which she has lived and worked, it has taken on new meaning since the artist has found herself facing serious health challenges.

“In April 2016, I was diagnosed with early-stage breast cancer,” Clement says. “It was devastating, but from what I understood, surgery, chemotherapy and radiation therapy might very well rid the cancer from my body. Unfortunately, my cancer didn’t respond to treatment. In late-October 2016, it was revealed to me that it had spread to other parts of my body and that I had a very advanced stage [Stage IV] metastatic cancer. There was no role for surgery, and my prognosis was very grave. This came as a terrible shock to me.”

The day after receiving this news, Clements traveled to Rome for a scheduled two-month residency at the American Academy. “Assuring me that I could receive the same medical treatment in Rome, my oncologist encouraged me to go,” the artist says. “An oncologist in Rome communicated with mine in New York so that I could begin a treatment. It was a pretty crazy time, adjusting to a new place and a different health system while trying to wrap my brain around the gravity of my new condition.

“As you can imagine, this was a very confusing time for me. But there I was in this extraordinary place, with a glorious studio in a community of accomplished and brilliant artists and scholars. It was a very strange time, dreamlike in many ways,” she says.


Remarkably, Clements launched into a very large watercolor. “For my Rome project [Three Tables in Rome, below] I wanted to experiment with some ideas having to do with whether or not different levels of definition or resolution could coexist successfully in a single work,” she says. “To do this, I created some rules for myself. I decided that I’d draw what I observed across several tabletops. Instead of staying fixed in one position, I’d move along the edge of the table so I’d always be close to the objects I was observing, interpreting them much the way a video or film camera might slowly travel and scan a space.”

Clements began each day by cutting a piece of paper from a large roll, choosing a size that she thought she could fill that day. “For instance, on day one, I planned to paint a pine twig, so the paper was about the size of the pine twig, not much larger,” she says. “On day two, I cut another smallish piece of paper and attached it to the left of the first day’s work.” She then painted an olive branch on it. “On each subsequent day, I’d add just enough paper for that day,” she says, “and this is how the work grew [eventually reaching 22 feet in width].”

Clements added another rule to her process; she vowed never to return to the previous day’s work. She’d only move forward. “I could add any size or shaped paper I wished, and the completed work could be any size or shape I wanted within the boundaries of the eight weeks of the residency. I was only limited by time, not size,” she says.

Clements’ self-imposed rules did indeed allow her to understand how different levels of resolution might operate within a single work. “Usually, I’d have worked on the image of an object until I felt it was complete, often with a fairly high level of definition,” she says. “Sometimes this would take hours, even days. In my previous works, certain temporal and physical changes often prevented me from resolving an image in the way in which I had intended.

“For example, a flower would wilt or drop its petals; a hyacinth would bloom; a piece of fruit gradually would decay; or a residency would come to an end. I always tried to respond to these changes and incorporate them into the work. The impact of time passage and physical change affected the way I composed and resolved work. Rather than controlling my environment, I tried to partner with it.

“But in Rome, I created even stricter parameters to acknowledge nature’s role in change, growth, decay and time,” Clements says. “In my mind, this forced time constraint gave the varieties of resolutions purpose.” Along with the distressed paper and the folds, the levels of resolution became an integral part of the process.


While pursuing this focused and thoughtful project, the artist acknowledges that the whole enterprise was complicated by her physical and emotional state as she grappled with her medical condition.

“My new regimen of treatment, having to manage it in Italy, and trying to grasp my feelings about the progress of my disease and mortality was difficult,” she recalls. “And the work itself was demanding and exciting for me. It took a lot of focus.”

As she moved across and painted the tabletops, Clements added objects such as fruits, scraps of paper and other things that she encountered in her daily life. “In the last weeks of working on this piece, I kept taking chemotherapy pills and looking at the box, saving the used blisterpacks of the pills I had consumed. I wanted to include them in the work, but I didn’t immediately do so.”

She wondered if their presence would overwhelm the work and create a narrative that was too strong and maybe even too sentimental. But ultimately, she decided to include the big box of medication (Xeloda) and the empty blisterpacks.

“In a way, it became a calendar, a way of counting days,” Clements says. “And I just decided that, for me, it would be dishonest not to include these objects that had become such an essential part of my life. They became as significant and as ordinary as any of the objects on the table.

“But of course,” she continues, “the text on the pill box package is very legible, and text in a visual work can be an area of focus. People see it and read it. It has a potential to drive and emphasize a narrative.”

Yet the final narrative of Three Tables in Rome turns out to be much broader than the story of an illness. Incorporated within the image are fruits, foliage and a variety of Italian packaging displaying colorful, stylish type. A lamp and a telephone are joined by the worn woodgrain of a table top, and a glimpse of lawn and light in the view through a window.

Life is continuing in all its aspects of growth and decay. Sophisticated electronic artifacts take their place alongside natural forms; a certain taste for pleasure and lightness inhabits the piece. The whole richness of life is here. If some of its aspects are necessarily darker than others, the artist manages to give us a look at the whole with considerable relish and joy.

A Square Foot of Lawn

One of Clements’ most unusual watercolors—Grass— represents a small area of lawn viewed from directly above, in which each blade of grass and wildflower is explored with an almost-obsessive eye.

“A lot of times, I describe it as a kind of climbing-in,” Clements says, referring to taking up a state of intense observation. Acknowledging the heavy detail, she points out that with some subjects, detail is just unavoidable.

“If we’re drawing an interior of an ornate church, we might be considered obsessive if we draw all the details,” she says, “but really, that’s the subject.” Clements says her interest in a minute drawing of a patch of lawn was influenced by certain works of Fra Angelico (Italian; 1395-1455), in which sections of lawn, thick with various flowers, appear alongside figures.

“I was struck by the revelation of just how much European lawns resemble the Fra Angelico lawn and that Fra Angelico’s lawns may have come from an observed experience of his environment,” she says. “Because Fra Angelico’s paintings are so ethereal, I never quite thought of them as being of this world. To see this Fra Angelico lawn in life outside my studio door in Umbria struck me in a powerful way. The very process of drawing it every morning made it a more meditative than obsessive focus.”

To paint the lawn, Clements decided she’d spend just an hour each day of her six-week residency in Umbria painting a section of about one square foot of lawn. She did this over 23 consecutive days. “What interested me was that a lawn is always growing,” she says. “Sometimes even over the course of 24 hours, it would be difficult to find my place again.

“I’m not a botanist, and I’m a terrible gardener, but it was fascinating just to spend that time with a square foot of lawn.”

About Dawn Clements

Dawn Clements (d. 2018) grew up in Chelmsford, Mass., where her father was an artist. Some of her earliest memories were drawing with him in his studio. In college, she studied film before eventually embracing a career in art. “I know music and film influenced my work and encouraged me to consider how we move and constantly frame, interpret and present our experiences as we move through our lives,” she said. “I came to think of observation as looking closely, but also listening and touching. I came to appreciate points of view that move and shift.”

Clements’ work has been exhibited widely over many years, including at the Whitney Biennial 2010. It’s also included in the permanent collections of the Museum of Modern Art; the Whitney Museum of American Art; The Tang Museum, in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.; The Deutsche Bank Collection; The Saatchi Collection, in London; The Henry Art Gallery; the University of Washington, in Seattle, Wash.; and Colecção Madeira Corporate Services, in Portugal.

Clements made her home in New York City and was a member of the faculty of the Rhode Island School of Design.

Article written by John A. Parks, a painter, a writer and a member of the faculty of the School of Visual Arts in New York.

Watch the video: Albert Oehlen: Home and Garden, Contemporary Painting SymposiumPanel I: Contemporary Abstraction (August 2022).