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  • Writer's pictureJennifer Oladipo

Artist makes art. Context makes meaning.

When my friend Mike came back from a trip to New England raving about sculptor Donna Dodson and sent photos of her life-size, all-female chess set called Match of the Matriarchs, I had to know more about her. Luckily, Mike and Donna were longtime friends, so he connected us.

"Match of the Matriarchs" sculpture by Donna Dodson
"Match of the Matriarchs"

It also turned out Donna’s friend and former gallerist, Kate Fleming, had moved just an hour away from me to the perennially artsy Asheville, North Carolina. Kate had created the 38 Cameron gallery in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 2003 in direct response to an exclusive culture that, in Kate’s view, disempowered artists. It aimed to serve as a space for art that helped drive conversation around pressing social and global issues.

As happens in life, Donna and Kate had been out of touch, but they saw value in coming together for a phone chat with me to reflect on challenging art; how it’s created, presented, and functions in society; and how that function has changed over the course of their careers.

Kate had shuttered her gallery in 2008 and moved south due to family obligations, so we began by piecing together details of their last collaboration just before the 38 Cameron closed some ten years earlier.


Talk about the last collaboration that you did.

Kate: Donna, that would have been at the gallery; one of your shows, right?

Donna: I think so, yeah.

Kate: Well, on a more personal level, Donna did a commission for me, which happened right about the same time. I think your work was still up when you brought that in or when we got it.

Donna: You’re right. I saw you in 2012, and then – when was that other show? The two-person show at the gallery. Was it 38?

Kate: Yes, it was 38 Cameron.

Donna: 38 Cameron, and that was around 2008. So, that was probably ten years ago.

Kate: Yeah, and that’s right when we closed, so yes.

Donna: Yeah, and are you going to open another gallery down there?

Kate: I don’t know. It depends on the finances of it and my personal situation. I’ve been taking care of my mom. But it’s always with me, the thought of having another gallery. I would have to have the right reasons to do it.

Anyway, just to give you a little history, Jennifer, the gallery – I don’t know how much Donna’s told you, but the gallery was really about bringing together art that had an uplifting or enlightening effect on the viewer. That could be many different things, but we did reserve the right to keep it within the parameters that we felt were sort of human consciousness-positive, to put it that way.

So, we weren’t interested in sophomoric sort of suffering, artist suffering kind of art. We wanted something that’s genuine, absolutely, but not just for impact’s sake. We weren’t into shock value. We were into something that was trying for something a little more mature.

And then, of course, the skills had to be there, and the person had to put in their time and have their body of work together and all of that. But would you add anything else to that, Donna? I mean, that’s me from the inside, but how did you see it?

Donna: Yeah, I thought you always did such a nice job of pairing people and having different bodies of work sort of play off each other in unexpected ways. I feel like, as someone who does work with animals, a lot of times I get paired with other people who do animals, and it doesn’t add insight to the work. Whereas, I think you paired me with an abstract painter, so it felt like it just elevated, like people looking at the work on a more abstract level, visual, a highly visual level.

I liked that you brought people in that didn’t have that conventional style. I don’t think there was a house style of realism or abstraction. I think it was broader than that. I really like that.

Kate: Yes, we were. I worked, most of the time, with two other folks: one of whom was a painter and one of whom was a collector. And we would literally just go into people’s studios and just see what response we had, looking for a sense of mystery or depth.

Donna: Right, I remember you came with the entourage. So, it’s more of a conversation.

Kate: So, that was kind of what we were about. And also, we had a very clear mission of representing emerging and newly established New England artists, so we pared it down that way. We did have a few exceptions, in that we were showing a lot of recent graduate students. There was one woman whose parents were Indian – not Native American, but Indian – and she had gone back to England, but we were showing her work because we had met her. In that respect, she was still a New England artist.

I would have loved to work more internationally, but just the sheer logistics of it were beyond what we could do at that point.

Donna: My shipping gets very expensive once we start thinking about international.

So, are you looking to open another gallery down here?

Kate: I would love to at some point, but I feel that I need to enter into some really – not to be pretentious – deep and open conversations about the relevance of an art gallery right now, with everything that’s going on in the world. It feels like old-style art galleries – even the one we had – would be tunnel vision right now, and it would have to really serve a bigger purpose than just selling art.

The thing that I have thought of has been trying to set up a non-profit or a business that would offer workspace and a one-month or two-month period of time when an artist could work/create a body of work and then have a show, and in that time also use the gallery space for lectures and community discussions about wherever they’re coming from. I’m envisioning this as being more international. So, it would be fostering a chance for people to meet and understand the viewpoint of someone who’s coming from outside of the U.S., which I think is a real issue in this country.

But again, I have no idea where the money for this would come from at this point. But much more of a work, study, and community space that is also a gallery, rather than just paintings on the wall. And I know that’s not original, necessarily, by any means.

Donna, what are the functions of galleries right now for somebody like you?

Donna: I’m part of a gallery in Boston, Boston Sculptors Gallery, that functions as a commercial gallery space. It’s an artist co-op, so it’s artist-run by about forty member artists. We have a gallery director who works one day a week to coordinate things.

I guess I feel like galleries have always been engaged in what’s going on and not just removed from it or making sunsets or sailboats or some regional, commercial imagery that’s sell-able to tourists. I think galleries are a hub for debate and certainly community engagement and sometimes bringing the wider world in and sometimes reflecting a really unique personal vision out into the community.

As an artist, if you don’t sell your work, you don’t survive.

Kate: Or get grants.

Donna: So, I’m not against the commercialism of art; I feel like it’s necessary. We have to be entrepreneurial and act as a small business, whether it’s selling stuff or acting like a non-profit or writing grants, like Kate was saying.

Commercialism or economy has to be there in some form... but do you want to just be catering to the one percent? At my level, I’m not selling to the one percent. I’m selling to people who have some extra money, and I think that’s kind of different.

I have commercial representation in Alaska. I’ve shown with Kate. I’ve shown with galleries in Florida. I think it’s quirky why people buy art or who can sell your art. I’ve had a lot of people admire my work, but maybe not be able to sell it, so I think that whole question is.... I don’t have an answer to, “Why does it sell here and not there?” “Why would it work here?”

I had a show in Atlantic City this summer with the museum, and they bought a piece for their collection, which is really cool. I feel like there’s so many layers of the art world. There are the ones you read about in the papers – millions and billions of dollars – and there’s everyone else doing lots of things.

Kate: Are you interested in expanding more into the South or just more getting a little bit further beyond your market?

Donna: Definitely. Through public art, we’ve worked in a lot of different communities. And also through public art, we’ve had museum shows, like Michigan and Maryland, Florida, and New Jersey.

With my most recent body of work, the nice thing about Boston Sculptors Gallery is you have a lot of freedom, so I brought in two younger women. One was a chess champion who also makes conceptual art, and the other was a weightlifter who also does performance art. And it really gave my own body of work a much more overtly feminist context.

I just wonder, what if you took the show to North Carolina, or South Carolina? What would the conversations be around feminism? What does “feminism” mean? And that’s just one example. Let’s say feminism, but you could say whatever the context is – mythology or empowerment, in my work. I would have loved to have those conversations regionally, because I feel like they might be different. How New Englanders or whatever think about feminism, it just might be different in different communities, and I feel like I’m so hungry for that kind of engagement around my work. That really interests me.

Kate: I really agree with you. I suppose part of it, for me, about being here in Asheville, means partly it just hasn’t been practical, but I also feel like it would be highly presumptuous of me to just walk in and make a gallery. I feel like I want to get to know the context down here and understand how I want to align with it or differentiate myself. It’s an interesting question, context – you know, the context of your conversation or of the vessel, as well as the art.

Kate, what are you seeing as the differences? Donna’s thinking theoretically about how they might be different conversations.

Kate: Yes, there were some quite practical ones for us. One is, when we were in Cambridge, a big part of the platform that we built the gallery on was – I wouldn’t say “anti” or “in opposition to,” but in response to the Newbury Street structure, which was very, very proprietary. If you worked with a gallery on Newbury Street, you couldn’t sell your art anywhere else, either personally or with any other gallery or in any other situation, primarily. And it was a seventy/thirty split, or if you were lucky, a sixty/forty split, which really, excuse my language, sucks for the artist. We wanted to create much more a collaborative situation, though we weren’t a cooperative – I was running the gallery.

So, we wanted to create a situation that was completely non-proprietary, one that we would be pleased if an artist that we wanted to work with, worked with us. Not saying, “How lucky are you to work with us, and by the way, you can’t sell your art anywhere else.” I mean, I understand the financial motivations, but we disagreed with the power structure of it. So, we made a very conscious change there. And we also changed our structure, so that we split any profits fifty/fifty with the artists. We had to put money, obviously, into creating the shows, advertising, and hosting openings and all of that. So, that was something that we took on.

How are things in the Asheville area?

Kate: You’ve got a very different history here. You’ve got the whole Black Mountain art school zeitgeist. It’s a very deep art-and-craft vein here, and that’s wonderful. But what’s resulted is that you have a lot of local craft galleries, which are wonderful. I would be delighted to work with local artists, but I wouldn’t be framing it in quite that way.

Historically, the economy and every other thing is tourists coming to see Biltmore and coming to the area, so people have traditionally tried to tap into that market, which makes total sense. And it obviously would not be a market that you would want to turn your back on, but it also wouldn’t be a market that I personally would want to aim the business at exclusively. It would be much more – not only immediately community-focused, but I would also somehow want to bring the question of, “How do we fit into the larger world/community here, and how can that conversation be supported by art and artists?”

I don’t claim to have the answer here, but it feels like a knot that I’m trying to tease apart: “Right now, at this time, what makes art relevant?”

And when you’re talking about feminism – and I think that there has been some work that is questioning current societal struggles that we’re going through. And I think that is very important. There was a photographer – whose name I’m just not remembering right now – whom we very much wanted to have, but he was way too big for us; he wouldn’t have even answered my emails, I’m sure. He was doing these incredible large-format studies. He would go into China, and he did a whole series on the Yangtze [Three Gorges] Dam as it was being built and the cultural and ecological impact that it was having.

For me, it felt like an amazing intersection of both art, craft, and bringing a very big picture in at the same time. And also being an education. I mean, you couldn’t look at these pictures without being impacted and being informed about something that was happening.

Donna, you’re creating a kind of work that Kate’s talking about. What’s your process for deciding, “This is an issue that I’m going to tackle, and this is how”?

Donna: It’s a good question. I would say people that I meet, or things that I don’t understand. “What if all the chess pieces on the board were women?” Or, “What if I tried to do all the figures of the zodiac?” Some are things like, “What would sculpture lend itself to?” Maybe in a historic sense or in a traditional sense, but then, “What has it not done yet that I could do with it?” I think some of those things really interest me.

I spent a lot of time making this huge sculpture called Madam President, and it was presented at Chesterwood, which is the historic home of Daniel Chester French, who made the Lincoln Memorial, the big presidential monument. It was in a group show with Boston Sculptors Gallery, and I thought, “Oh, I want to make a presidential monument for the first female president of the United States, that we haven’t had yet.”

"Madam President" sculpture by Donna Dodson
"Madam President"

This was just a conceptual model, and this was even before Hillary Clinton announced she was running. This was just me being really obsessed with the idea of, “Why haven’t we had a woman president, and what would it look like? What would we need to be able to imagine – as women, or as a society – in order to elect this woman president?” And I got into a lot of conversations with this Canadian journalist who had a whole database of women prime ministers and women leaders and how did they get the throne.

Then I talked to this guy who worked at the White House, and there was a chunk of marble in the basement that was supposed to be used as a monument to the first female president. So, I got into all these tangents around, or someone saying, “Well, they would have to be a governor or senator, and then they could be elected….”

I got into political science and all these other logistical tangents related to the way people would think about this hypothetical question, that I felt like art could do. Art isn’t dependent on language. Art makes you look at things visually, or to scale, or the material. Art presents those puzzles and challenges differently to people. Maybe it’s more egalitarian, in a sense that it isn’t dependent on language to look at something and have it affect you.

That one became super tied to what’s going on in the United States. That whole thing was on view during the whole election and the guy who put it up is a Trump supporter. He put it on his property for several different rotations. He was like, “I don’t really like that sculpture.” Yeah, but he supported it. He supported the platform for it.

So, what does art do? Does it allow people to be open? Does it allow people to consider things that perhaps do not yet exist? How do we take a concept and make it real? I feel like art has that power of a prototype: let’s just imagine it in this concrete form, and it’s sort of limited, because it may not represent everybody’s idea, right? It may represent my ideas, or several ideas, but maybe not all the ideas that could be represented. But I love that about art, that some of the thinking process that drives the making process is in my work.

Kate: That’s true. That’s very true. The question of relevance, it’s very interesting. I was struck as you were talking about your Madam President: again, this whole question of context and what people see. This goes back to the DAR (Daughters of the American Revolution) statuary. They were putting stuff in people’s faces to frame and create people’s mental reality.

And on the other side, I was so struck when Obama became president. Also, as a white person waking up to the fact that, “Oh, people don’t imagine that an African-American person could be president, because that’s not in the realm of what they’ve seen. All they’ve ever seen are old white guys, so that’s who can be president, is an old white guy.” Because no one’s ever seen anything different until it happened. And then the power of knowing it would never be the same after that, because the reality had shifted. And that is partly... this is how you get into propaganda. It’s certainly not an area that hasn’t been well explored by every major culture.

I was just watching something the other day about Egyptian art and the pharaoh who put up Luxor. He not only created more images of himself than any other pharaoh, but he also went back and reclaimed other people’s images and put his name on them, so there would be more of him than anybody else. So, it’s been going on for a while. Image as creating reality is no small thing.

So, what is that for us now? What would art be in a life-centric, positive, humanist fashion that wasn’t just a power grab, that wasn’t just trying to ram revisionist history down people’s throats? What would a truly uplifting form of that be, because we know it’s powerful?

Donna: What would it be now? Imagine a woman president. I gave her a lion’s head for the queen of the jungle and long pink gloves and elegant.... What would it be now, in terms of public art, as a tool of propaganda? With the president, I think of it as a symbol or icon.

Or, like Kate was saying about an African-American president, just a representation. This person’s supposed to represent a majority of people in this country, so why can’t women get their act together, so we can have representation at the highest level? I guess with making this chess set with all female figures, I came back to thinking on that line Kate’s talking about: we couldn’t imagine an African-American president until it happened, and then, now it’s normal.

And thinking about – as women, you grow up with the man as the president, and he owns the car store, and he’s at the bank, and it’s normal for everybody in power to be a man.

And I think that making this chess set was like, “What if it was normal if everybody in power was female?” At the bank, and as the president of the United States. Just how profound this idea is, I think, about it just being normal that everybody’s something. And trying to shift that to be more representative of our current reality. Certainly, it comes from a place of needing, I think, to validate my own experience and my own existence. And hopefully others: hopefully, it speaks to other people, which was my first point of.... When you present art, I think – I hope – I’m instigating these conversations that I need to have, and I want to have.

And regionally, because I feel like every regional place has its own stories and its own culture, and you want to be part of that, or I want to be part of that with my work.

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