Live Unchained had the pleasure of interviewing the talented Dawn Okoro about her paintings and process. As seen in her work above, her pieces are strikingly vibrant, highlighting bold colors and embracing femininity and beauty. Using oil, acrylic, pencil and other mediums, she incorporates photography, collage, and ideas from popular culture. Dawn holds a Bachelor’s degree in psychology from the University of Texas at Austin and a law degree from Texas Southern University. Her work has been exhibited at the World Financial Center in New York City; RFA Gallery in Harlem; Texas Southern University Museum; Rice University, and the Texas Biennial.
Do you find that people who first know you as an artist are surprised to learn that you are also licensed to practice law? Is the practice of law and creation of art as distinct as some might imagine?
I do find that many people are surprised that I’m an artist, yet I studied law. I have known that I wanted to be an artist for as long as I can remember, but I was afraid that I would become a “starving artist.” I thought that maybe I could work as a lawyer by day and as an artist at night.
My paintings actually helped me survive my law school years– financially and mentally. To create and study law at the same time I felt that I had to reach into two very distant parts of my brain. Law felt very cold, rigid and rule-oriented, but when I painted I felt free and relaxed.
By the time I graduated from law school I knew that practicing law wasn’t for me. I decided to hold off on taking the bar exam and focused on my artwork.
You say self-reflexivity is important to your work. Why is it so meaningful?
I like to people watch. Even since I was a child I was shy but very observant of people. I also have a psychology degree, so you could say that I am very interested in what goes on in the human mind. This curiosity comes out in my art.
Art can be about anything or nothing at all. It’s not for me to say whether other painters demonstrate enough self-reflexivity because art can be about something unrelated to human psychology or sociology and yet still be very beautiful and important.
Many of your paintings are of black women. What do you find interesting about painting black women? Is there something specific that you hope your audience to gain from your paintings?
I have painted women of color because I can relate to those images because of my experiences growing up. I try to incorporate a narrative and try to tell stories that I feel closely connected to. I want people to connect to my work on an aesthetic level and I also hope to spark conversation with my narratives. I don’t create my work with a specific audience in mind. I just make the work and let the audience find me.
You use a lot of bold colors in your work. I found it interesting that you use color as accents and backgrounds and also as part of the main theme. What role does color play in your work?
Colors help me create the mood of a painting. For example red is one of my favorite colors to use because it is bold and eye-catching. Red can also represent strength.
What is your creative process like?
Since my work is born from lived experiences, certain recurring phenomena inspire me to make a series of paintings. I will photograph a model in poses related to whatever idea I have. We arrange the clothing and props in advance and sometimes I will have a hair and make up artist help with the look.
Then I paint using the photographs as reference. What I love about painting is its organic nature– mixing colors and pushing them around on the canvas until I get the look that I want.
Your beautiful paintings have been featured in several shows as well as commissioned. How would you describe the journey to get to where you are now?
My journey has been a very slow one requiring lots of patience and I feel that I am still at the very beginning. One lesson I have learned is not to rush things– be persistent and progress one step at a time. I see myself creating new work more often than I have been and hopefully that work will be on view for a larger audience in the future.
Finally, what does living unchained mean to you?
To me, unchained means living mentally and emotionally liberated