© 2020 – 2022. 2chairs artspace

A talk with Dawn Reeves

Hi Dawn, I am so happy to have you at 2chairs and looking forward to the interesting talk. You name yourself as a creative facilitator and a story activist. Could you please explain what you mean?

Thanks so much for inviting me, I love the concept of 2chairs and the conversations it generates.

For now, I'm happy to call myself a creative facilitator. I design and deliver group processes (mostly workshops and meetings) that help people work together. Often, it's about making change, resolving conflict, innovation or planning for the future. The more creative techniques I use, the better the result.

And as a story activist I help others tell their stories. This work on narrative and the stories we tell ourselves and others, has a massive impact on how what we think, how we feel and ultimately what we choose to do as individuals and in society. It's about change so it's close to my heart. It's also political in the sense that I'm interested in the stories that don't normally get told and stories that support social justice and equity.

So, you studied business and most of your professional life you have worked helping public organisations to achieve their specific goals. But where is a place for story telling here? Is it your tool as a facilitator or another area of activities?

I see stories as being fundamental to the way humans make sense of our world. When something happens or we take in any stimulus, our brains interpret it, they make up a story and give meaning to that information. Our brains bring together both logical and emotional responses, it's a process that happens as individuals and in societies, that's why stories are so powerful.

Organisations are full of people telling different stories, sometimes these stories and patterns of thinking are helpful, and sometimes they block progress. There is lots of research that supports this. Storytelling is becoming more recognised as a leadership and management tool, so I've found a fertile space to work in.

And yes, it has led to another area of activities. I've become an independent publisher, curating and publishing collections of stories, with 15 books in the last 8years (see here).

Often the organisations I work with commission me to write and curate books, or sometimes I have an idea for a book and look for sponsorship. Having a book is a precious record, a way to honour the individual stories and see them in context, to make a wider collective sense of our worlds.
Can you please give a couple of examples of how it works? I mean projects that you made as a story activist.

My latest story activist project (book launched December 2021) was commissioned by a town called Barnsley in the north of the UK with 230,000 residents. It's a great place but it struggles economically, and the identity of the place is based on an industrial coal-mining heritage that no longer exists. The council developed a new vision for 2030 and were looking for ways to bring it to life through stories. It's full of grit and hope.

My challenge in the project was how to support people to shape their own future when so much of it seems out of their control. I ran storytelling workshops and collaborated with people to imagine in detail what was important to them, creating near future scenarios, magical moments and glimpses of a future that already partially exists. I helped write and edit 50 stories for a book.

Unusually the book is published and unfinished. We worked with an artist to handmake a beautiful super-large version of the book with empty pages so that more members of the public can add their stories. The book is now touring the libraries in the area, there's an eBook, audiobook, videos and a paperback.

Another 2021 project is titled One Story – councils, covid and better futures. This collection of 60 stories shows how public servants stepped up during the pandemic and challenges the negative narratives about the public sector in the UK. With each project I try to extend my creativity. For this book, I drew 30 original illustrations, which made me anxious. Drawing kept me sane during lockdown and drove me mad at the same time, I hate detail and felt exposed as a first-time illustrator. But it also connected me to something I used to do as a kid and had forgotten. And I was glad to work on the project during lockdown, many people found space to try new things.

Also, you wrote two novels. That looks like all your roles are quite creative. Why have you started your artistic practice? What are your main drivers to be an artist?

In my mind it's a big leap from being creative to artistic. I want to continue to evolve as a person, which for me is about learning, thinking and acting in different ways and I'm using an art practice to do that.
I've developed lots of professional skills in the realm of the known, the logical and rational. I know I can produce creative work, but I'm curious about what I don't know and what I might discover through new experiences and expressing myself in different ways. There are aspects of me and of life, that aren't easy to put into words or access.

I'm out of my comfort zone with the subconscious, emotional and embodied knowledge, the unseen and uncontrolled or rejected. But I'm increasingly drawn to it and fascinated by what might sit somewhere between all that. I'm aiming to stretch my notion of myself and see what processes and results I come up with.
Did you mean that you are exploring your identity through artistic experiments to get beyond self-limited beliefs?

Yes, I'm interested in who I could be through art. I want to see if an art practice helps me to evolve and to shift some of my self-limiting learned patterns of behaviour. Even at 58yrs gendered models of the "good girl behaviour" still influence how I think and work. I find it hard to prioritise spending time on art because it's not externally validated, or it doesn't have any monetary value, or it's purely for me with no obvious wider social good.

I've found it hard to develop an art practice, the amount of time I spend on art is increasing but it's sporadic. I haven't got a community of artists or a formal structure like an art college that could hold my work.

So I've been experimenting with alter-egos for a couple of years now, it's an ongoing project. The work has given me a focus. My alter-egos have helped me produce visual images and keep going somehow.

I hope it will bring me new insights and ways of working and that the resulting artworks will form evidence of what else might be possible.

Could you please describe your alter egos? Who are these personalities that are guiding you on the artistic journey?

Donna is an angry, physical (and occasionally violent,) coercive, loyal and funny 19yr old. Doris is in her 70's, a German speaking artist, she's fluid, fearless, opportunistic, reflective, a bon-viver with many intimate friends and lovers. Little D is my child-self, playful and naughty, clumsy and curious.

My other alter-ego Tatiana Bogdanova is less developed, and I am keeping her firmly in the cupboard now! She's a Russian rhythmic gymnast, a perfectionist who is controlled and determined – but also a people pleaser which is a tough contradiction. Her head is a scary place of judgment.

That sounds very intriguing. Could you please say a few words about the show? What is the idea behind your artwork?

Dazwischen – the between. In this series of work, my alter-ego Doris is in the driving seat. She encourages me to throw paint as a way to explore ideas of release and control, it's really energising. She also challenges me to let go of the idea of what the final artwork should look like. This is both tricky and illuminating, I want to feel free but keep discovering ways in choice, constraints or safety barriers are present. As I've made more work with this method, the physicality and gesture of throwing and the way the paint moves has become more important. I see the possibilities of painting in the sky and there's a performance element which I haven't understood yet.

It's still a work in progress so it felt important to show a film of the process. The video is a sketchbook that documents what I've been doing but also acts as a map for where I go next. And looking at it now, I see how my other alter-egos are in the work, making their marks. I don't know what will happen next, that's the exciting bit.

You mentioned that you were involved in the feministic movement in the UK. How do you use a feministic lens in your artistic practice? What does it bring into your life in general?

I see the world through a feminist lens. It's a part of my identity that is rock solid since I was a teenager in the 1980's wave of feminism. It's bought me great solidarity with other women and pro-feminist men, a critical perspective that helps me to see and challenge power relations and a confidence that it's not all about me, the society and culture matters and the personal is still political. That point of view is always in my art practice, my alter-egos are feminists of diverse kinds (some I disagree with!)

I'm currently collaborating on a feminist tv writing project that asks, "what is a feminist life now?" Patriarchal societies are hard to live in, navigate and change. As someone who's white western middle-class (she/her), I know I'm fortunate but I'm constantly checking where I'm at. There aren't any easy answers but I'm active in the debates, trying to keep my thinking open and relevant as discrimination and oppression evolve and the backlash against women's self-determination continues. I see wider solidarity, intersectionality and progressive commonality as ways forward.

What do you try to achieve as an artist? Do you consider "being an artist" as your next career or an element of self-therapy or a tool of self-development in your main profession?

Big question! I don't know yet what exactly I want to achieve as an artist. The idea is that engaging in an artistic practice can help me access better versions of myself so in that sense it is a tool of self-development. It has a potentially therapeutic outcome but isn't not explicitly an art therapy process I am working on. And I don't really know what my main profession will be in the future. I plan to make more art and see what emerges.

Dawn, many thanks for such a great conversation! I would love to see how your alter egos will continue to reveal themselves and to interact with each other and the environment. All the best!

Thanks again. I'm going to interview my alter-egos and see what they come up with.