On a cold and rainy Sunday last autumn, I visited Dawn Clements’s studio in Greenpoint. Before it was converted into art studios, the building was a fabric factory; the windows are big, the wood floors have deep brown pockmarks spread across them. Her studio tables were cluttered with a chandelier, paper ephemera, and other trinkets, like a deconstructed carousel of baubles.
“I make my drawings by sort of crawling across the page,” said Clements, as we looked at a series of recent oversized watercolors she’d pinned up to the studio wall. “What I draw depends on what I find or what I have.”
Clements has round eyes and pale gray hair cropped close to her head a result of chemotherapy. She holds herself still and seems serious but not somber. She chooses her words carefully. In college in New England, she studied film theory and semiotics. Many of Clements’s drawings are drawn frame by frame from classic film melodramas. She reconstructs the rooms in which the characters live, leaving blank spaces where the actors obscured the set on the screen. These drawings have quotes from the films and time signatures noted in the corner (“3:06” or “2:53” or “wish I was there”).
“These aren’t real rooms,” said Clements about her reconstructions. “I can only draw what they give me.” In one drawing, a train dining compartment is rendered around ghostly blank spaces where actors briefly stood. In another, the cushions of a plush sofa, rendered faintly in ballpoint pen, fade into the white of the page. The room appears to be without boundaries. The blank moments in the drawing don’t signify disinterest with humanity, they make it feel too bright to capture. Clements said, “I think it’s interesting how in real life, everyone has these strong feelings but we rarely express them.” It’s as if, overwhelmed with emotion, we’ve had to study the drapes and the floorboards.
The first time I ever saw Dawn Clements’s drawings, it was the peonies. A college drawing professor showed me a picture of the still life online, and I couldn’t stop looking.
The flowers portrayed in Clements’s Peonies (2014) are white-pink and flesh colored, or else reddish mauve seeping into bloodred. They don’t look fresh. They must have been drawn on their fourth or fifth day, the day when the vase water gets cloudy and the leaves slump downward in pale greens and lake blues. The vase itself, a precise glass cylinder, holds a bundle of mottled brown stems. Another bunch of peonies rest to the right to first bunch, these second blooms definitely dead, their leaves brittle and gray. Beneath the vases, a pale yellow table fades into the white of the page, drawing attention to its physicality. The paper looks heavy. It has been folded, creased into squares, and spread out again for display. On the right-hand side of the page, a grayscale drawing of young girl’s face hovers, an afterthought. In contrast to the flowers, the face appears lifeless, as if it were only a texture. It’s the flowers that feel real; the human face that seems to be an ornament.
Clements’s peonies don’t look right. Or rather, they don’t look photographically correct. But there’s a kind of truth about the flowers that stems from their wrongness, from the fact that the drawing doesn’t quite track. Far from appearing still, Clements’s drawing pulses with compressed motion. When I look at the peonies, I experience a kind of playback effect. I’m sent in different directions, toward innumerous focal points. I look in the same way Clements has looked, her gaze darting moment to moment over the scene.
That careful, active looking is what draws me to Clements’s work. There’s nothing memorized about her drawings. When she is not working from film stills, she works exclusively from life. There is a strong element of time. A chrysanthemum or a coffee cup pour out onto the page as a collection of lived moments. It’s as if in order to translate the thing to the page, she has to forget its platonic boundaries of “flower” or “vase.” She forgets, she watches it move through time, and what emerges on the page is all the more clear for it.
The second piece by Clements that I saw is called Kitchen and Bathroom. It is a massive, roughly the real scale of her actual New York kitchen and bathroom. The drawing sprawls across multiple, stitched together sheets of paper. Drawn in sumi ink, a stove, fridge, wooden ladder, and slatted blinds groan into each other. Light falls through a window and across a chair. The light is, indirectly, everywhere—even the most opaque objects in the scene seem to carry some sort of internal reflective quality. Clements made the drawing before she had a studio. She kept it rolled up in a corner of her apartment, working on it there piece by piece. When she wanted to unroll it fully, she had to use the basketball court at her neighborhood high school. When she showed the work to gallerists, she brought along a ladder so that they could view the drawing at a distance and experience it at scale.
Kitchen and Bathroom is a drawing made in the dead spaces of the day. It feels peculiar and feminine, passive rather than active, as if made by someone attempting to fill a period of waiting. What, besides midafternoon light, lies outside the walls of Kitchen and Bathroom? We don’t want to find out. We’d rather lose ourselves in the hyperpronounced wood grain of the cabinets.
Clements is wary of nature. When she draws it, it is often through a window. A drawing made at the MacDowell Colony shows the woods in blotted black ink, an impenetrable whorl of branches and leaves. She’s rendered individual blades of grass in almost perverse detail, but with hesitancy: “I hate drawing nature because I get lost,” said Clements. “I always try to create boundaries for myself.” Without a frame, such as a window or a screen, the drawing might go on forever.
For Clements, her drawings are not about a specific moment or a certain object but are, rather, a way for her to “string my days together.” Clements keeps folded sheets of heavy paper in her purse, tied with string, to pull out and draw when she is waiting. Since getting sick, she spends a lot of her time in waiting rooms.
To me, Clements’s drawings feel familiar. But it’s more than that. They make me feel recognized, in that I feel as if they somehow draw out the quiet corners of my own days. When I see Clements’s work, I think, I understand this because I also wait. I wait, and the world passes through me and around me, a series of unbound moments. How could I ever explain that feeling to someone? It’s irreproducible; it defies focus. But Dawn Clements draws it.
Eileen Townsend lives in the Adirondack Mountains, where she edits The Northern Logger and Timber Processor magazine. She also writes about art.