Art AND: Kyrae Dawaun

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Kyrae Dawaun first fell in love with the luminosity of oil paint. This high school crush is still evident today in his Highlandtown studio, which has an organized arrangement of Kremer pigments and binders on the same wall as a large print out of the periodic table of elements. He explains, after dabbling for a time with other painting media, “I came back to oil, my first love, because it’s how I move—it’s slow, rich, flexible and giving. I needed this generosity and consistency after so much searching.” Still, Dawaun cannot help but try to improve his paint, working with the chemistry of color to try to “dive deeper into the wonder of pigment and paint matter,” he says.

The 2021-3 Hamiltonian Fellow adores organic pigments and celebrates the very thing that many artists fear in paints that are made from materials like plant matter or soil instead of chemical compounds made in a lab—fugitive color. A fugitive pigment is one that will change with time (becoming lighter or darker in value or breaking) when exposed to common environmental factors such as sunlight, humidity, or pollution. Dawaun says, “There is something super beautiful about the fugitivity of certain colors. With organic pigments, you have a greater access to that; they’re gonna be a bit more fleeting in some way.” For the artist, materials that are ephemeral contain a looseness that is compelling, and he enjoys “calculating the spirit of things to find their own way to balance,” he relays.

Everywhere in Dawaun’s studio is a sense of play and it’s clear, even though the artist has had a steady art practice since high school and then attended two prestigious art institutions—VCU in Richmond for graduate school, the Corcoran College of Art and Design in Washington, D.C for undergrad—he still feels like he hasn’t yet put in all the time necessary to truly perfect what he is working on.

Discussing his work, Dawaun describes himself as a “a passionate student” of his process and uses active words often borrowed from the dance world to describe how he flows (or as he says, “twirls”) from one idea to another, often taking one element from a sketch and recomposing it again like a choreographer reworks a phrase of music. And yet, part of perfecting a process is knowing when a work is done, and Dawaun is absolutely resolute in recognizing completion in his work. He explains, “When I finally get to the one that I think it was supposed to be, it’s ready.”

"a sketch after Babel (for ZekeUltra)," oil on paper, 8”x10”, 2023. Image courtesy of the artist
"a convincing," oil on wood, 16”x28”x2.5", 2022. Photo by Dev Hein
Pace is a space of security; if you can tell yourself how fast you wanna move or how slow you are committed to move [in the studio] you probably can make better decisions. That's a luxury—to be able to be in control all of the time.
Kyrae Dawaun

Movement in all traditions is a clear source of jubilation for Dawaun, who enjoys watching videos of both nineties street reggae and ballet, but he says he is more fascinated by pace and tempo of dance and music than any other element of the artistry. “Pace is a space of security; if you can tell yourself how fast you wanna move or how slow you are committed to move [in the studio] you probably can make better decisions. That’s a luxury—to be able to be in control all of the time,” he says somewhat wistfully.

Currently, Dawaun is working on a project that draws inspiration from his “Sunday School career” he says with a laugh. He is exploring how the Christian church has been a support structure for the Black community through its recasting of Biblical stories. He points out the Bible has been, he says, “taken out of context” again and again as a means of communication—it’s the variation of interpretations he is interested in and studying how individuals’ styles have altered meanings and lessons over time. He considers the series, “a statement about the perversions of language” honed over the centuries, he explains. At this stage in his work he’s excited to be more critical of his subjects and also have fun with his practice.

In our conversation Dawaun and I discussed cooking as a way to show care for others, Baltimore’s dance scene, and why he’s kept his teenage self on his “board of directors.”

"an olive branching," oil on wood, 13.5”x16”x2.5," 2022. Photo by Dev Hein

PLACE: Highlandtown
AGE: 31
WEARING: A vintage wide-arm, semi button-down, striped shirt, 100% cotton; Blue workers trousers by WAX London; Addidas Ozweegos (kinda green, kinda gray); some Calvin Klein socks on their way out the dresser!

What is the most important book (or books) you’ve read or are reading?

Kathryn Yusoff’s A Billion Black Anthropocene or None. I didn’t even bring the book into the house! At the time I had been touting the need to recognize the centrality of Black Americans generating popular culture in the US, thus globally as an exploited resource as is our industrial husbandry and agricultural practices, furthermore our land use. I had just begun locating the deep situation of minerals and heavy metals in our quotidian sphere. Kathryn Yusoff, elaborating on the sure human implication in and extractionist regimes, assured me of the validity in this argument, calibrating significant vernacular for me to hone in on. There’s a real symbiosis from our dissonance from the land and our growing vulnerabilities. The Bible: (never spent the time before — I keep the holy pdf in my pocket these days).

You spent some of your childhood here in Baltimore and then moved away to D.C for undergrad and Richmond for grad school. You relocated back here with a partner during the pandemic and it’s been a bit of a homecoming for you. But Baltimore moves quickly and I wonder if you could speak to the ways it’s a really different city now than when you were a child. Are you feeling like you’re getting to know the city all over again?

I’m not sure if I immersed myself deep enough in the first place to recognize the crevasses I see today. I don’t think I even wanted to be here in the first place [when I was a kid]. I wasn’t really Viva la Baltimore. Today it is my choice to be here, and I have been braced to see Baltimore. The coupled experience, adolescent and adult perspective has enhanced my appreciation for life here now.

Maybe as far as the mythologies of Baltimore and being aware of them, they do muster a sense of pride. I’m proud of the dancing that’s always been here, I’ve always recognize the distinguished accent here, and am proud of the culinary championing of crab eating here. It isn’t quite a myth when you’ve seen such beauty.

There are obvious regional differences [between Maryland and Virginia] and tensions and hardships that are just as rich and somewhat unattainable. I am proud of Baltimore because I’ve been here for so long, but it’s new for me to say “I’m from Baltimore.” It is a home of mine, though as an adult, I hadn’t had a community awaiting my return. When I got here, as a child, the resistance was due to my deep longing for my birthplace. Richmond is much smaller, quaint, more tame. It was also during a time of luxury in the position of a student.

Can you say more about the mythologies of Baltimore you’re describing?

High school dance crews have impressed the entire nation, and beyond. House music has its global meccas, Baltimore club is one of those regional aspects. Leaving allowed me to see [more clearly these regional specialities].

Coming back in the time of the pandemic was a convenient choice personally in the midst of this devastating era upon today’s generations. This is a place that has had to be resilient in some form after the depths of depression it has endured. I think about what resilience looks like today. Coming to Baltimore has felt like a space to really feel that. It’s a hard time for everybody, and sharing the time here, witnessing how Baltimore rises above, out of this time [of the pandemic] would be a barometer to confide in.

I’m actually just warming up here, and now that I know how to bike the city I’ve come closer to diversifying my reach.

"limp edifice [to be inspired]" (detail), 4.5” x42” x 24,” Copper tinted gypsum atop pine furniture, satin finish cover, 2022. Photo by Dev Hein
I believe argument can be gentle, and is a necessary duty.
Kyrae Dawaun

You’re working at Paradise Labs, a fabrication studio, to support your own studio practice. What has been the most beneficial aspect of that work, in addition to the paycheck?

These gentlemen have been steeped in Baltimore a couple decades now, and I was introduced to them by a good friend in Richmond—their old friend! In turn, these were the first people I was developing new relationships with in Baltimore [social distancing, etc.]—my boss-friends. They have particular industry experiences separate from my own, naturally, and they were likewise art-bred. My alignment with this studio is an appropriate pairing. A regular practice with more technology awareness, adeptness, and access couldn’t go unmentioned!

It seems like some of the mold making you do at your day job has spilled over into your studio practice, can you talk a bit about the differences and commonalities between the two ways of working with molds for you?

In Richmond, prior to joining this studio, I had been focused in developing my niche mold-making habits. I had no interest in amassing a mold library. Everything needed to be of little waste. I’ve been so fortunate to gain such proficiency in the vast range of industry standards of mold making, entailing silicones, urethanes, and epoxy. Ironically enough, my efficiencies, and excesses have also been illuminated, up for scrutiny.

In my studio today, organic material has been an exciting new focus, aside from my mineral based studies, that has furthered the practice of chemistry in my work. There’s so much mystique to organic materials. For example, the chlorophyll green captured from your bruised and spoiled spinach relays access to real color!

My impression of your studio is that it is the studio of a person who’s interested in the process of making. Is art making for you about trying things and seeing what resonates?

I think trying things is for building some sort of readiness to make the thing. Then otherwise it’s just a plain craftsmanship thing. But I’m pretty determined with the outcome of certain things in foresight. I’m either going to embrace the outcome, or I bail on paintings that didn’t work in the end. I think my projection of what a work needs to do and look like is actually pitched pretty far out. It is necessary as I am casting the positions to activate the arrangement I am proposing. There are independent and dependent variables to the hypothesis, so naturally, processes will illuminate new elements to be introduced or edited.

What mundane thing do you hope you’re remembered for by your friends?

‘Oh em gee, Kyrae always takes care with the best treats and snacks, the best breakfast, just delicious, nourishing food! And he always asks me the most genuine, mystic questions in response to my sharing!’

You’ve been interested in science and architecture since you were a teenager, but decided on art school by the time you were wrapping up high school and proceeded to prestigious institutions for undergraduate and graduate school. Yet you describe yourself as getting a late start on your art career, can you explain why you feel that way?

That’s interesting you picked up on that. For example, this is in the mentality of ballerinas—they started at freaking four years old, or violinists, [they take lessons from a young age]. So, if you value a particular level of render, finish, or something like that [in your drawing], that sort of thing will take a good deal of practice.

If you want to be comfortable in this type of craft, that’s gonna take a good deal of practice. That feeling of needing more practice just kept spilling over into everything. It has happened with carpentry too! I feel like I was supposed to learn some handyman skills in my youth, so now I try to keep that building arm well trained for the task.

"wean vignette," lead-dioxide, lsead, gypsum, homemade bran flakes (packaged) on wood furniture, laminate flooring ground cover stage, 12’x11’x3’, figurine 4”x6”x3”, 2020. Photo by Dev Hein

Would you say that you’re somebody who fails at hobbies? By that I mean, does your new hobby then become part of your practice?

I wouldn’t deny that I would be prone to such a thing! Cooking is the greatest example. I think cooking and my closeness to a good food experience has tremendously inspired my practice, period. I appreciate the dutiful nature of it. [I think about that] I’m honoring a good, to carefully craft as to be delivered to you. I anticipate the movement in a shared space, and the result is that you’re gonna feel great because of it. So basically, I just can’t afford hobbies.

Do you have a favorite local restaurant or a go-to order? What is it?

Plant-based options can be kind of over played, unpopular, and uncommitted. So I mostly cook it up myself! I’ve had a life in the service industry, and run quite high standards. There are some treats like a good Indian meal, Chinese takeout, and a pizza pie here or there. I used to have—still in my heart— a favorite tempeh burger at a small, tuned-in restaurant shop called Larder [Editor’s note: Larder has since closed]. Never had a better tempeh in my life. Everything they cooked had that loving hand in it, the fun of a searching soul, and the clean taste rooted in a closeness to the source. Otherwise, I’m a bad boy at Clavel!

What’s the best career advice you received? How about the worst?

Advice is always up for digesting, and I’m quite skeptical with my considerations, so I’m unsure if I’ve ever taken advice directly. In turn, I couldn’t devalue any attempt of imparted wisdom. I have always appreciated the skill of my elders, always paying my interest in their stories. I love to learn, glean, and appreciate.

The current project you’re working on deals with the theme of Christianity, you mentioned, as a way for you to feel close to the lessons you learned in Sunday School growing up. Can you take our readers through the general themes you’re addressing with this work?

I wish I could recall lessons from Sunday School. One point [of the work] is I’m so far removed, yet undoubtedly implicated in the cultural rule [of Christianity]. It’s U.S. pop culture. I have enjoyed digging into the scripture and history to calibrate with the healthy tenets shared in it, as these lessons can be found in neighboring schools and faiths deemed less worthy, or improper. I believe good societal cooperation is the mission, so I work to celebrate these crossroads. Humor and irony may deliver just the right sort of astonishment to wake up to what we prescribe to and dismiss.

Do you believe in astrology and if so, what insights can your signs give our readers into your personality and mindset?

I always love the riddle style answer for this one. Probably got that from my dearest. I may challenge your position, perhaps mine alike, or ungrounded in my own, not to your dismay, but for the precision of a thorough assessment, sometimes impossible—regarding normal conversation or debate. I believe argument can be gentle, and is a necessary duty. This is of my Sun, and sure I mind the intangibility of my moon, and sensitivity of my rising.

What are the last three emojis you used? Have you given up emojis?

Hand smashed to face, the ancient Teletubbies’ sun, and the Black pixie boy.

What would your teenage self think about the direction of your life so far?

My teenage self has remained on my board of directors. That self isn’t able to command change in retrospect, so we just share good inner conversations. We are sure to honor old lessons, missed or redundant, in our steps forward.


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