Resonance: An Interview with Dawn Lee

Dawn Lee, cover artist of the new great weather for MEDIA release, Surge by Michelle Whittaker, chats with editor Mary McLaughlin Slechta.

MMS: Resonance 1 is featured on the cover of Michelle Whittaker's poetry collection, Surge. Our editors were unanimous in the powerful fit between image and content. I'm always curious how artists find each other. Michelle is obviously a great fan of your work. Were you aware of her poetry when she approached you about the cover? 

DL: I met Michelle several years ago at a community event through the Patchogue Arts Council. I heard her read at an arts festival. We were involved in different disciplines but I think that we both value the need to bring art into public venues and to create cross discipline exposure. I remember feeling attracted to the visual and layered metaphoric qualities of her work. She had a strong presence and is a lovely person. I had not read much of her writing until recently when I requested that she send me a few poems that she felt had a strong connection to my artwork. I look forward to spending more time with this impressive collection of her work, Surge.

MMS: Would you describe your artistic process in creating the series which includes Resonance 1?

DL: From years of kayaking and looking to shore from the water, I often find interest in where the water meets land. I considered that fine edge a symbol, if not the literal source of life. And the synergetic patterns created by the vertical blades of grass and their reflections visually describe the intense energy that I sense when moving through such an environment.

I began the "Resonance" series with several drawings. The linear marks, an act of direct physicality, recorded the life force energy that I perceived. I found great satisfaction bringing that act of mark-making to my painting. After creating a few pieces, I identified the rhythmic strokes as similar to an EKG, seismograph, or visual sound recording. This made sense to me because they are all a record of energy.

MMS: You moved from Colorado to study at Pratt Institute of Art in New York. Since your work is so connected to place and natural environment, I wonder how you adjusted to the drastic differences between the two regions? What kept you here?

DL: I moved to New York to attend graduate School at Pratt and had full intention of returning to Colorado after a couple of years. I thought that NYC could provide a great art education in addition to the school program. I visit CO at least once every year, but have never returned for good. I still miss it and consider eventually settling there. I have spent the last 3 years working on images based on the Co Rocky Mountains, and I greatly valued an artist residency in Rocky Mountain National Park last summer (2016). I will return to RMNP this August to continue the work.

While the move to NY was very difficult, I did develop a deep connection with the seashore. Years of kayaking in Long Island waters, revealed an amazing beauty that I never imagined. My series of drawings and paintings, "Resonance," stemmed from these experiences. The tall grasses on the water’s edge of rivers and wetlands are a constant with subtle variations, and I was/am struck by their vitality. In 2013, I was able to focus on the complex dynamics of the seashore during an art residency at Fire Island National Seashore. I am continuing to develop work based on that source.

I also travel with friends and organizations to hike, backpack and kayak in many other wilderness areas outside NY and CO.

MMS: You have an extremely active life that includes being a professor at St. Joseph's College, private curator, coordinator of a residence program, nature enthusiast, and artist. How do you bring these different aspects of your life together? What are the challenges and rewards?

Dawn Lee

DL: Many years ago, I recognized that my interests and active nature could create a fragmented life. I examined my interests, values, and enigmatic goals. I acknowledge that both of my parents were artists and art and the act of creation has always been an integrated part of my life and that I have a profound love of the natural world and outdoor experiences. (Note: I began my college studies as a wildlife biology major at Colorado State University with the goal of working for the National Parks Service.)

I made a conscious decision to integrate the dominant aspects my life for a more holistic existence. Art and nature are the constant threads. I will make art, teach art, and support endeavors of art in my community, while spending time in inspiring places. I find these elements feed one another, and the combination has given me a rich life. The challenge is time, and I feel blessed to have more that I would like to pursue than is possible; what a wonderful problem.

MMS: You describe your work as being "metaphoric, reflecting common rhythms and analogous truths." These words could have been written by a poet and certainly reflect your contemplative approach to artmaking. Would you mind elaborating on the poetry of your art?

DL: I believe that truth lies in mystery. I find art making an act of exploration, an exploration of processes and meaning. Once I’ve taken a concept to a point of understanding, I feel the need to move on. I am much more interested in what I don’t know than common knowledge. Perhaps many poets explore with similar thoughts???

I find this question hard to respond to, so I will share a statement made about my artwork by a friend, artist Lorena Salcedo-Watson:

Dawn Lee's artwork is based on the observation of nature, in looking deeply, observing carefully, and tuning into her source material on a personal level. She examines nature to get an understanding of it physically and structurally, and then she internalizes and transforms that information, and filters it through specific experiences and sensations… In her work, I see an elegant clarity of a distilled experience expressed like a poem.

Wow, I love that!

MMS: Climate change has set life-altering changes in motion, with worst to come if we're not able to act. As someone whose art and life are attuned to the natural world, what physical changes have you witnessed and how have these changes impacted your outlook and your work?

DL: I am very concerned about many environmental issues, and particularly about climate change. My work is a record of my experiences and I try not to imprint messages onto my images, no matter how important. I have felt that historically my work has environment significance through its record of what is now. But I am finding that with rapid climate change, some environments are being altered very quickly and I am recently feeling compelled to visit those places. I would like to spend time in Glacier National Park next year and have an intimate encounter with this place that is so effected by our warming planet.

MMS:Related to the last question, I'm interested in your work as a coordinator for the Fire Island National Seashore Artist-in-Residence Program. Please describe the program's mission and why you believe it's important to have artists create within this setting?

DL: There is a long history of art and the national parks. So, respecting that tradition, the goals of this program are to provide creative and educational opportunities for artists of all disciplines to explore Fire Island and to support the mission of the NPS to promote the conservation and preservation of the park.

I believe that it is imperative for artists to create authentic works that focus on some of the most vulnerable aspects of our time. The precarious balance of our natural environment is arguably the most important issue, as it touches on so many others. The residency offers artists solitude in a compelling location. The interdependence of many micro climates in such a narrow island makes Fire Island an especially interesting ecosystem, as well as its history and dynamic social culture.

Also, as I mentioned before, the goals of my youth were to serve the preservation and conservation of natural environments, so after being the first artist in residence at FINS, I was happy to help develop the program with the NPS, and I am still honored to work with the wonderful staff.  It has been a full circle experience for me.

MMS: Thank you, Dawn. Is there anything I haven't asked that you feel is important to know about you and your work?

DL: Whew! I think that's all I got.


To find out more about Dawn Lee's work, visit her webpage at

Learn more about Surge and Michelle Whittaker