The Dandenong Ranges are a haven for artists. When you drive; winding through the tall eucalyptus trees ribboned with European beech and weeping Japanese maples, studios; including converted garages, attics and cottages poke their quirky noses out from among the foliage.
The StoneShadows Studio is located in the very heart of the Dandenongs, enveloped by big patterned branches that twist and embrace the purpose-built studio; with artist Dawna Richardson-Hyde busily making art inside. The ever-changing environment; the moving leaves, the wandering mist and the silvery shafts of light that enter through the large windows influence her every brush stroke, stitch and print. “This environment affects me deeply. My husband and I chose this area because, for me in particular, it was a little bit of home. The leaves change in the winter. I’m very affected by colour and mood. It’s important for me to be in an environment that feeds me. The whole sense of motion and line infiltrates my work”.
Australian pronunciation has softened her Canadian accent. Dawna met her Australian husband in Britain and moved to Australia in 1980, a place she now considers home. In Canada she trained and worked as a graphic designer and ceramic artist; where she exhibited and was collected. To this day Dawna carries on those practices, including others like textiles. The StoneShadows Studio is adjoined to the house above it; a place where for 33 years Dawna and her husband, lived, worked and raised a family. Throughout motherhood Dawna taught design, textiles & ceramics at various institutes including Swinburne, Box Hill, The Australian Academy of Design, and involved herself in community art projects. “I love to nurture other people and to see them develop. However, working and bringing up a family doesn’t leave much room for focusing on your work”, Dawna acknowledged. This all changed in 2010 with the completion of her studio.
“I knew that if I was to ever take myself seriously as an artist I would need a good studio, but first I needed to accumulate a nest egg of money to put my plan into action”, Dawna eluded. 2006 gave her exactly that. A Princess in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia was opening an art and fashion school. Having constructed a number of educational programs in Australia; Dawna was the perfect candidate when the opportunity arose to teach, train and develop the curriculum for the first Arts and Fashion Institute in Riyadh. “You can stay here in a very safe, coddled and insular life, or you can work outside your comfort zone. I’m a born coward but I like to be challenged. I needed to blow the cobwebs out but I also needed to earn an income to help fund the habit”, Dawna laughed. Dawna’s fascination with the Middle East inspired her while her dream studio drove her.
For one year Dawna lived in a compound surrounded by razor wire and taught young women visual arts and design. Dawna enthused, “They were hungry, and they were smart”. She often had to meet her students in the middle to find common ground, working within the boundaries of the culture she had dove head first into. Dawna introduced her students to Encaustic Painting; a hot wax painting technique; none of who knew was indigenous to the Middle East. Saudi Arabia delivered the challenge Dawna had hoped for. Complications with work visas, passports, arguments with drivers and cultural differences gave her more than enough material to internalise and to express. Dawna enlightens, “It was constantly challenging. When I stopped trying to control everything; stepped back and went with the flow I realised the power I had within to meet every challenge”. Work, including the series ‘Driving with Nasar’ came out of her near misses on the road. “We thought we were going to die. There is a Middle Eastern saying – ‘Inshalla’, God willing!”
Dawna’s experience gave her the strength and clarity to plan exactly how she wanted her studio. “I had no social life. It gave me the distance I needed without the distractions. I had the time to make art and to think about the different disciplines that I wanted to work in and connect”, Dawna explained. She designed the studio three times over; needing a fluid space where she could combine textile, print, a teaching space, natural light, a painting area and an outdoor working space. Her planning allowed her to build almost as soon as she returned. “I knew what I wanted, and I had a brilliant and intuitive builder”, Dawna smiled. Teaching part-time and coordinating workshops during construction helped to fund the completion of the studio.
In 2013 Dawna stripped back her teaching workload and focused solely on her art. “I don’t need to go away on a trip to see beautiful scenery to interpret it; it’s inside”. She creates what she calls ‘interior landscapes’. Dawna looks at each of her pieces as a problem to resolve. Her work ‘Mood Lines’ began as lines and ‘gestures’, then became mono prints on fabric. “I printed them with two colours. Black fabric, then white on black and then black on white.”, Dawna explains, “Each piece is a building block. It’s laborious work; including dying, printing, and hand stitching”. Many pieces are separately framed but shown together as one piece.
The William Ricketts Sanctuary borders Dawna’s property. “When William was still alive he would run shouting at the sound of a chainsaw. He believed the trees had spirits”, Dawna reminisces. “Artists by nature work in a fairly isolated way, and those that work in the hills have a response to their environment. It’s a beautiful and peaceful place to work. I am very rooted here”, Dawna maintains, “I have a need to be in one place and to be quiet”. Dawna has what she calls Practice Rituals. She will spend at least three consecutive days working in the studio, following a work-type framework. After dinner is a time of contemplation; stitching pieces until midnight. “It’s a type of meditation”.
Here you are not constantly bombarded by the ‘scene’. You have to step outside of it to make your own work and to make the work truly yours”. Dawna’s upcoming exhibitions have kept her busy. “It’s an ache; I’ve got 20 good years to make art. I take my tools and then respond at each stage in my journey. That is why this work is so engaging; because I never know what it’s going to be. My work is about being in the moment. That’s my way of being in the world. The more I do it (art) everyday; the more it becomes like breathing”.