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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Sunday, April 24, 2005

Painter's images inspired by dreams

Editor's Note: This week, we begin a monthly series of interviews with artists whose work is on display around the Islands.

By Victoria Gail-White
Special to The Advertiser

Dorothy Faison's paintings have been described as contemplative, complex and shamanistic. For the first time, in "Under Currents: Recent Work by Dorothy Faison" at the Contemporary Museum at First Hawaiian Center, she shows a body of work — 32 enigmatic paintings on canvas, paper and copper.

Dorothy Faison describes her paintings as a personal vocabulary of images within a continual narrative, allowing viewers to enter at any point. Left, "Portable Security Jars #1"; right, "sub quandum aeternitatis."

Photos by Rebecca Breyer • The Honolulu Advertiser

It is here, surrounded by Faison's organically expressionistic painted narratives, that we are given a clearer sense of what her work is about.

Q. Your paintings are mystifying. Do you ever paint images from your dreams?

A. I think dreams, in a way, are things I am always thinking about. Sometimes, I will solve (painting) problems when I am sleeping. But there aren't any images in my paintings that I don't understand.

Q. Can you explain the strange images you use — the rats, cards, holes, boxes, rabbits, jars and boats?

A. When I explain my work to people, I try to use a bigger context. I have developed a vocabulary, a layered vocabulary, which began when I finished graduate school. It has evolved and become more complex now. But basically, I am still speaking the same visual language. It is like a novel, where you have all the narratives going on simultaneously. The cool thing that you can do in painting, that you can't do in film, is have this continuous running narrative that a person can come in on at any place they want. The work is intuitive once you build that vocabulary.

Q. Are you saying that the viewer can derive any meaning they want to from your paintings?

A. Well, yes. What I try to do is give clues, although the images I use are layered and have multiple meanings. Otherwise, I don't use them. I really try to keep my work from being in one moment in time. I want it to be timeless and, I guess, like most artists, I want it to be immortal. So if you look at the idea of protection in my work, the box image is a critical piece. We put special things in boxes — things we want to protect. The "Portable Security Jars" series on copper is about preserving and containing. It's important to understand the context I'm working in. A lot of this work is strictly autobiographical, but most of it goes beyond that. The viewer brings his or her own feelings to it, and that adds another dimension.

Q. You were drawing an analogy between your paintings and a novel with a continuous narrative. If you were a novelist what kind of novelist would you be?

A. I would say I was a poet. I've written poetry, and it's very visual.

Q. Is poetry the reason you titled all these works in Latin and English?

A. Not really. I studied medieval French and found this idiomatic phrase book. I thought the sayings were so amazing. My day job is in statistics, and it revolves around random events — that is where the cards in my paintings come from. I am amazed at how people are always ascribing meaning to everything that happens when much of it is random. As humans, we want to be able to control things. So if you add meaning to it, you are assuming there is control when we actually don't have control. That's the dichotomy. I figured I could take any phrase in the book and it would be perfect, and it is. I added the English translation so it wouldn't be obnoxious.

Dorothy Faison's "Housing the humble chicken," oil and mixed media on paper, at First Hawaiian Bank's Contemporary Museum Gallery.

Q. At what time of day do you paint and how do you begin a painting?

A. I'm a night painter. The paintings always start with images that I find compelling — powerful images, like rats. Rats are so tied to humans throughout history, and there are so many ways of looking at them. I get into this obsessive nature collecting, like the old curiosity cabinet. I even have a drawer full of teeth. All cultures have this weird thing about collecting, obsessing and thinking that some things are magical and need to be preserved.

Q. Your palette has a lot of natural-pigment colors. Is there some intrinsic meaning to your choice of darker colors?

A. In the Congo, they only use three colors with specific meanings, black for fertile ground, white for heaven and death, and red for blood, sex and emotion. I narrowed the colors in my own work to be more specific. There are certain natural pigments that I am in love with. When I use a color, like red, I have 15 to 20 reds on my palette. I want the work to be powerful, and brighter colors seem temporal.

Q. Anything else planned after this?

A. I just shipped a large copper painting to the U.S. Embassy in Athens as part of a three-year exhibit called "Art in the Embassy's Program."

Faison's paintings are in the permanent collections of the Contemporary Museum, the Honolulu Academy of Arts, the State Foundation for Culture and the Arts, and the City and County of Honolulu, as well as in many private collections. The Advertiser's review of Dorothy

Faison's exhibit was published April 17. Go to www.honoluluadvertiser.com and check "back issues" for that date.