Dawn Chatoney has a love affair with clay. She wakes every morning longing to dig her fingers through mud. Clay stimulates her, inspires her, drives her to create. But she is deftly aware of its frailty; despite its vulnerability, she embraces a medium that can be, at times, fleeting. Clay’s mysterious characteristics seduce her, its malleable and raw qualities as alluring, she believes, as the human spirit.
“My relationship with clay has taught me that everything in life is fragile,” says Chatoney, a sculptor of beautifully functional and exquisitely inventive works of art. “There’s a danger in working with clay; you can put so much work in to a piece and if it cools too quickly, suddenly it’s gone. That’s a metaphor for life. I think we should care for our human relationships in the same way that artists care for their creations.”
Clay, Chatoney says, is the medium she uses to channel her human experiences. It enables her to feel a profound sense of purpose; it is her touchstone, her reference. She is compelled, bound, she says, to be a ceramic artist.
Her intense passion for clay, her knowledge that she is following her intended life path was something that began early in life for Chatoney. Raised by her mother in Lake Charles, La., Chatoney’s childhood experiences helped mold her devotion and enthusiasm for the world of art. Once, for Christmas, Chatoney’s twin sister Candace received an art set as a present. Coveting the gift, Chatoney longed to explore the art set but instead was left surveying her own Christmas present: a geology set. This was one of her earliest art-related memories, and one that still holds much power.
Miring in the Mud
A lot of Chatoney’s childhood was spent outside, where she connected with nature, often playing in the mud. But she was never exposed to art when she was young, never studied the subject as part of her youth curriculum. It wasn’t until college that she discovered the one meaningful element that had been missing from her young life.
At the age of 19, while attending McNeese State University in Lake Charles, Chatoney was unsure of the best course of study for herself, until, one day, she happened upon ceramics master Don Reitz, who was busy sculpting several large art pieces.
“At that time, I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life, but I did know I wanted to do something … abnormal,” Chatoney laughs. “Then when I saw Don throwing clay, it was just amazing. The whole time he was talking about the sensuality of the clay, and he really romanticized it.”
That was the very moment in which the Fates intervened. Chatoney was immediately drawn to the idea of creating art with clay, and despite her concerns about her artistic abilities, she was smitten.
“I didn’t think I would have any talent as an artist,” she admits. “So there was definitely
an element of fear there. But then I began to understand this idea of expressing myself through clay and 3-D objects, creating something outside of myself. Then I was hooked. I fell in love with clay, and it totally changed my life.”
Chatoney majored in ceramics at McNeese, learning from art professors who pushed her, nurtured her to develop her own style, and provided the kind of environment in which she could really explore her new found talents as an artist.
“That experience really changed me for the better, and I found substance
through material,” Chatoney says. “Years later, I would develop my own philosophy through clay. But I feel like I’m always a student of life, and I’m prepared to follow my dreams. The most important part is growing as an artist and pushing myself as hard as I can as an artist and in life.”
Winning an Artist’s Heart
While studying for her bachelor’s degree at McNeese, Chatoney experienced another life-changing occurrence: She met and befriended Laura Cox, who later became her partner. The couple has been together now for nearly eight years.
“She took a clay class, and I was teaching her how to trim a pot,” Chatoney says.
Cox’s version is a little different: “I was cheating,” Cox laughs. “It was hard to do and I didn’t think I was any good at it. But I loved being around Dawn. I just couldn’t take my eyes off her.”
After a whirlwind trip to Mexico that cemented the women’s relationship, Cox moved to Austin and Chatoney headed to Nacogdoches, where she would receive her master’s of art and master’s of fine art degrees in ceramics from Stephen F. Austin State University. In her last years at the school, she taught the art of ceramics to other students, an experience she truly relished.
“As a teacher, you’re very powerful. Teaching makes me feel like I’ve fulfilled myself just in the one action of inspiring other people in a positive way,” Chatoney reveals. “I think that’s my job – to make people feel, or at least to reveal feelings to others. That’s a pretty humbling experience.”
While Chatoney honed her ceramics and teaching skills at school, she and Cox visited each other on weekends, both driving long distances for the chance to spend just a few days together. In fact, for some four years, the couple was only able to spend about five months out of each year together. But eventually, Chatoney made the move to Austin, where she and Cox now live, in a cozy home filled with character – and complete with a garage-turned-art-studio- situated amongst the woods off Redbud Trail.
Chatoney now operates Venturella Pottery (www.venturel- lapottery.com), an outlet through which she promotes her art. Throughout her career Chatoney has participated in a number of art contests and ceramic exhibitions including the Texas National Juried Exhibition, a well-respected competition that attracts artists from across the country. And after only six months in Austin, Chatoney landed two gallery showings, one at the Ariodante Gallery in New Orleans, and one at the Wally Workman Gallery in downtown Austin. At these events, Chatoney tends to sell nearly every piece of her shown art. She continues to feature her ceramics at various galleries, and is gaining a faithful following of fans.
But as is the case with many artists, Chatoney holds down a full-time job that has little to do with her life’s passion. However, as a cashier at Whole Foods Market – a job she’s had for nearly two years – Chatoney says she is able to connect with people, and has even used the job as an outlet to sell her art. One of the biggest advantages of the job, she says, is the benefits package; a company with progressive business practices, Whole Foods provides employees with domestic-partner benefits.
A Labor of Love
Of course, nearly every moment that she’s not working at Whole Foods, Chatoney can be found spending time creating art in one of her two studio spaces. (In addition to her home studio, she’s also part of a studio cooperative in downtown Austin called Cone 10.)
To say that Chatoney is passionate about art is a radical understatement. She is pursuing a life in art and is wholly dedicated. Indeed, her devotion is apparent in her sculptures: striking pieces that seem to come alive with every glimpse, their vibrant energy virtually transmitting a sense of history and experience to the viewer. Chatoney often works with the circle form in her art, a shape she describes as life affirming, all encompassing, uniform and infinite.
“What has really spoken to me the most over the past couple of years is the circle,” Chatoney says. “I decided I wanted to take that shape and push it as far as it could
go: defy gravity and transcend the medium so that when you look at one of my pieces, you can’t tell it’s clay. The circle is just such a good representation of life. A sculpture involving a circle in some way speaks of history and of how I created it on the wheel. I don’t know that I’ll ever really get away from that shape.”
Chatoney says she gains artistic inspiration from a variety of sources: nature, history, people, her deep love for Cox – all elements that are evident in her work. Her functional teapot series, for instance, gives the impression of bygone cultures in each piece, with an air of the whimsical providing an eccentric and fanciful aspect. Her more sculptural pieces – some glazed with vivacious colors, others marked by a matte white that’s reminiscent of the ancient churches scattering the Greek islands or of dried whale bones – are awe-inspiring, and it’s often difficult to tear one’s eyes away.
“Some of my pieces are kind of lyrical, and move as if they’re music or water,” Chatoney explains. “Sometimes I’ll just dream of a piece and have to work at the form until it becomes the piece I dreamed about. Until I look at it and it’s done, I keep pushing. That takes a lot of patience, but I like the challenge.”
Chatoney’s latest series of sculptures – a line of delightfully imaginative lamps – was inspired by the marriage of fine art and functionality.
“As an artist, I want to be constantly growing and developing new ideas,” Chatoney says. “I’m constantly learning from the world around me, and it’s all about the process. I have fallen in love with the process of creation.”
As she grows and develops as an artist, Chatoney says she finds her muse in nearly every aspect of life.
“I want to be able to allow everything around me to touch me, to move me and inspire me. Inspiration evolves. Now that I’m out of school, I’m not so pressured to be inspired; it just comes organically, and I find inspiration in so many places. Art is my divine purpose. Everybody has a divine purpose, and if you deny it, you go crazy. For myself,” Chatoney giggles, “I’m just trying not to go crazy!”