On Creating: A Q&A with Mixed Media Artist Gabriel Dawe

Toledo Local Features  |  By Kelly Thompson  |  10/07/2016

Mixed media and installation artist Gabriel Dawe has received international acclaim for his unique ways of presenting light, texture, and identity politics with textiles. In particular, his Plexus installations use thread to infuse geometry with gender identity, exploring what he calls “the connection between fashion and architecture.” The Mexico native’s installations have made appearances all over the world, and on November 5, the Toledo Museum of Art will join the list of institutions who have showcased Mr. Dawes’ work.  I was lucky enough to catch Mr. Dawe for a short Q&A in preview of Plexus no. 35, the TMA exhibition on view November 5, 2016 through January 22, 2017.

Can you talk a little bit about your beginnings as a visual artist? What were some of your earliest inspiring moments?

Even though I grew up very close to the arts, I never considered myself an artist until my late twenties, and even then, it was a title that was difficult to fully embrace back then. When I went to college, I was between going to art school or studying graphic design. I went with design because I was very fond of things connected to that world (mac computers, typography, poster design, and magazines—I loved magazines!) and I didn’t have a full grasp of what art could be. It was the perfect choice for me at the time and I loved doing that while it lasted. I even won a couple of awards. I then had a burnout from working too hard trying to recreate work which had been lost when our office computers were stolen, so that gave me a life crisis that made me question whether I wanted to continue doing design at all. After some time of inner turmoil, I made the decision to quit my job and pursue art full time. All the early work I made dealt with a lot of self-exploration. I think mainly I was trying to get rid of all the angst accrued in my teens and twenties. I relished the liberty of not having to deal with clients (make the logo bigger!). After experimenting with painting and collage, I had a recollection of a childhood frustration, which led me to explore embroidery. As a young boy growing up in Mexico City, embroidery was a forbidden activity reserved to girls, and that was something I really wanted to do. So as a grown man I now had the freedom to choose to do that, so I picked up needle and thread and started playing with it.

How do you think those moments have influenced your current work?

Feeling caught after the burnout, I realized that if I were to stay in that job, it was going to kill me. I decided then that there couldn’t be a plan B for me. Either I make it as an artist or I would die trying. Even when I had to get jobs to sustain my practice, my main motivation since has been to make art. When I had to take a full time job as a store clerk to pay the bills, I would draw every single day, even if it was for only 30 seconds before going to bed. They were tough years, but I was determined to make it work.  

What is it about textiles that makes them a fitting medium?

When I decided to teach myself to embroider, I was both excited by the medium, and frustrated by the time it takes. My design training was screaming it was a waste of time because I couldn’t sustain a level of production in terms of quantity to be able to make a living out of it. Luckily I was stubborn enough to make it work, and one of the best things I got from going back to grad school, was the freedom to create without having to think that you have to make something that actually sells. That began a more serious exploration of textiles as a means to challenge the notions of gender identity I grew up with. All my work stems out of this, which is why I continue to use textiles in my work.

What role does light play in your Plexus installations?

The Plexus installations started as a big experiment using the core material of my work with embroidery. Because of the material, there is a subtext of gender politics in them, albeit subtly.

Very early on, I realized that these architectural structures made out of sewing thread were very ethereal. It was almost as if they were rays of colored light frozen in space. For this reason, I made the conscious decision to work with the full spectrum, and reinforce the idea of light. Ever since, the point of departure for any installation is the full spectrum. At the same time, however, I’m not trying to imitate nature, so I take liberties with it and play with it. Sometimes use only a fraction of the spectrum; others I choose a different starting and ending point which goes against what you’d find in nature if you were to break up light with a prism. Lately, I’ve felt the desire to break it up even more, and the piece at the Toledo Museum of Art will be the first piece where I really explore the breaking up of the spectrum. What makes it even more exciting to me, is that it will be in the museum’s Grand Salon, where the installation will be in direct dialog with old master paintings. Never before has my work been shown in a museum setting like this, so I hope this brings a new layer of meaning both to the installation and the works it will be shown with.

[Above Right: Plexus no. 19, Villa Olmo, Italy, 2012. Agora+ Gütermann thread, painted wood and hooks, 23' x 23' x 23''.]


Read more about the upcoming exhibit, and visit Gabriel Dawe online for details on his past work, including a comprehensive list of Plexus installations. Photo courtesy: GabrielDawe.com.