Bryan R. Monte
in memory of Dawn Clements, 1958-2018
© 2019 by Bryan R. Monte. All rights reserved.
In August 2013, my partner and I were holidaying in London. Looking through a gallery guide, we saw a listing for the Saatchi Paper exhibition. We had originally planned to go to another gallery, but for some reason, probably related to time and/or distance, we decided instead to walk to the Duke of York’s HQ, just a few blocks from our hotel near Sloane Square, to see Paper.
Not expecting much from such a simple, unassuming title, some of the art didn’t disappoint. One piece was a ‘sculpture’ of brown, butcher block paper wrapped around a wooden frame with a hole torn straight through the wrapping. Others included furniture wrapped or tree trunks capped in newspaper. ‘How sublime!’ I thought sarcastically. However, in one large hall, I believe it was the first one, were panoramic drawings of modern home or flat interiors, which immediately impressed me. They reminded me of the establishing and/or travelling shots used in film, where everything is in deep focus as the camera follows the actors from one room to the next. I looked for the title of the works and also for the artist, whose work I had never seen before. One of the drawings which started with a staircase on the right and which drew the eye upwards and to the left to reveal rooms with their exterior walls removed to show their contents was entitled, Travels With Myra Hudson, 2004, by Dawn Clements. Dawn Clements. I believe there was another room of interior drawings, one which wrapped from one wall around a corner to the next, ‘Could this be the same Dawn Clements, with whom I attended film and semiotics classes at Brown?’ I thought. The artist’s bio, with birthplace and date in another gallery, confirmed it was indeed Dawn.
Dawn and I met in Professor Michael Silverman’s Berlin Alexanderplatz film class in September 1984. She immediately caught my attention just due to her unique attire. Unlike the other students standard uniform of jeans and flannel shirts that made the first week gathering on the Green look like the most recent Levis commercial, Dawn usually wore a plain blue skirt, white blouse, dark tights and flat black shoes. I also remember her straight blonde hair and big eyes, which seemed to take in everything. She usually sat quietly in the middle or back of the room during the weekly viewing and discussion of one or two episodes from Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s then-recent, but now legendary, 13-part, television series. The series was named after Alfred Döblin’s novel, which we read as we watched each instalment and compared it to Fassbinder’s film in terms of narratives or discourses and their containments, suppressions and/or erasures.
Dawn and I became friends and I remember talking with her before and after class. She was especially excited (as was Professor Silverman) when I decided to republish my class paper on the gay discourse in the fourth issue of my gay magazine, No Apologies that next spring. I also delivered a paper with video excerpts from the TV series for the Modern Language Association conference in Chicago in December 1985.
During this time I didn’t know Dawn as an artist, but rather as a film enthusiast, who later became Professor Silverman’s intro to film teaching assistant. Sometimes Dawn would roll part of that day’s film before or after class and we’d gasp at the long, establishing, tracking shots or how Technicolor made the wine in the dinner glasses a deep, glowing, cranberry-juice red. Dawn wrote me in 2014 that: ‘those teachers, those films and those readings…helped shape me into a person who “reads” the world.’
We also talked about the joys and tribulations of our past, romantic relationships and both of us quoted Eartha Kitt as we joked we ‘want(ed) a man with a big, big, big, big … yacht’ (from ‘Where is My Man’ by Bruce Vilanch with Fred Zarr and Jacques Morali from the album I Love Men, 1984). She was one of my three friends at Brown, and the only one with whom I maintained contact immediately after graduation.
I drove up to see her at the University of Albany in early September 1986, her first week of classes as a grad student and my first week as a high school writing teacher in rural Massachusetts in my new, five-speed, manual-transmission Subaru, which unfortunately, I was still learning how to shift properly. Her landlady let me in with a wink, not realizing I was gay and I would be sleeping on the floor — alone.
Appropriately enough we went to see the Rodney Dangerfield’s Back to School that weekend at the student union. Since I wasn’t so confident driving my new car, we drove around in Dawn’s late ’50s or early ’60s ‘boat’, which made people swerve out of her way if she floated just to the right or to the left in her lane. We had a good weekend, but then we both became immersed in our new worlds: Dawn at SUNY Albany’s Graduate Art Program and me, teaching writing. We exchanged letters a few times. I sent Dawn a Christmas (1986) card with a deer amorously locking its horns with a coat rack. Unfortunately, I was too poor, disorganized and a bad typist to make photocopies or carbon copies of what I sent her. I can only guess at what I wrote from Dawn’s response. Her letter, dated January 14, 1987, was handwritten in black biro on thin, yellow, translucent, unlined paper with one word in almost every other line partially obscured by a woolley, black cloud.
In my letter I had probably described my Thanksgiving weekend with my family in Cleveland, which distressed me so much I literally dislocated my right arm in my sleep. I was seen by an casualty doctor, who put my arm back into its socket and then into a sling. Unfortunately, as a result, my mother had to ride with me back to Massachusetts to help with the stick shift. In addition, just after Christmas, I broke up with my partner of two-and-a-half years.
Dawn shared news of her family holiday get together. She reported that one of her parents had just had a health scare. For the first time, she realized her parents weren’t ‘indestructible’. To underline this thought, she copied out an eight-line passage from Marcel Proust’s Swann’s Way, which her parents had given for her for Christmas, in which Swann recounts his first realization of his parents’ mortality.
She then mentioned one brother about to fly down to Australia for a job and another brother, who had announced he would be married four days later because he wanted his Australia-bound brother to be his best man. With an artist’s eye, Dawn then describes, in almost the same style as her later interior drawings, the ’60s-style, split-level, suburban home ‘with original furnishings’, where the ceremony took place. She mentions the ‘sunken living room’, with ‘a glassed-in fireplace … (where) ‘a … blue-flame “log” blazed.’ flanked by ‘two sofas next to each other’ and an extremely long ‘coffee table’.
Then Dawn mentions the Albany sights she’d discovered after my visit: ‘a U-haul truck suspended above a skyscraper’ and 21st US President’s Chester A. Arthur’s monumental gravesite statue. I must have also asked in my letter if she had met any interesting and unusual people. She had and wrote they were ‘kind, supportive and extremely talented’. She ended her letter asking about me and suggesting we meet ‘in Boston sometime.’
We never met in Boston. Unfortunately, I lost touch with Dawn due to a very bad winter, which ended with two blizzards in April that made roads impassable for days followed by a two-week heat wave the next month during which I lay on the floor of my attic apartment next to a fan and a pitcher filled with ice water. In addition, I had not met any friendly people in Massachusetts with whom I could share and develop my writing. By June, I had decided to return to California.
I did not come in contact again with Dawn, or her work for 26 years. During this time I moved back to San Francisco during the AIDS crisis, worked for an insurance company by day, and taught English and creative writing by night. Then I emigrated to the Netherlands, where I taught English, communication and computers at private schools and at a university, got a Masters in education, and taught English language and culture at a Dutch polytechnic. I also met my current partner. (Dawn told me later that she, at about the same time, had come across the copies of No Apologies I had given her at Brown).
When Winfred and I returned to the Netherlands, I tried to find Dawn’s e-mail or telephone number to get in touch. Unfortunately, her e-mail address wasn’t quite the same as her name. Fortunately, by late January or early February 2014, I had found her via LinkedIn. Dawn was happy to resume contact and she wrote that she thought it was ‘an honour’ that Saatchi had placed her work at the beginning of the exhibition. I wrote Dawn about my David Sedaris interview, which I would publish in my new magazine, Amsterdam Quarterly the next month. Dawn wrote back the same day about her recent exhibition at the ‘Bell Gallery at Brown alongside (work by) alumni Paul Ramirez Jonas and Kelly Tribe.’ In e-mails later that month, we got caught up on 26 years in two or three pages.
Dawn wrote about her graduation from SUNY Albany and teaching art from community colleges to Skidmore from the late ‘80s to the early ‘90s. Then came her ‘Cinderella moment’ when Flash Art wrote about her NYC Drawing Center show ‘and I was invited to show my work in the Venice Biennale in 1993.’ She wrote that her first years in NYC were hard. She ‘painted murals and dressed mannequins … drew the first pencil sketches for the Victoria’s Secret’s angels wings!!’, and made ‘backdrops and scenery’. However, even with shows and fellowships in the US, the UK, Belgium and Italy, she confessed, ‘I need to teach to pay my rent’.
She continued in this missive to comment on the ‘great sets, great clothes, great colour” in North by Northwest which I happened to be watching as I wrote her my email response. She also talked about her love of Sirk’s use of colour, excess, and camera work in Written on the Wind in which:
‘… Robert Stack … flies Lauren Bacall from New York to Miami Beach to try to impress her … opens a door to … (a) hotel suite, … walks her into the bedroom, … with a ‘closet FULL of clothes …,’ and a dresser drawer ‘filled with silk underwear. Such wild and extreme melodrama.’
Dawn and I could always connect through film and I could see how its language, especially the travelling and establishing shots where everything is equally in focus and its use of melodramatic storytelling, had greatly influenced her own drawings.
We emailed and skyped each other in the months leading up to my visit to New York later in early July 2014. Dawn collected me the afternoon of 6 July as we’d agreed and we drove to her studio, which was in a long, former warehouse on a street, which ended at the East River. Her studio was large a rectangular space, longer than it was wide. I remember there were books, canvases, drawing supplies and an upright piano. I also remember the studio had a window, which looked out onto a canal. Just as Dawn mentioned this to me, a tugboat outside suddenly blew its steam whistle, which made me jump out of my chair. There were also two long drawings tacked up on opposite walls. One was actually two pieces according to my journal: ‘a ropey charcoal studio set and on the other wall, a curly-haired movie star, who I couldn’t identify and which I forgot to ask about.’ (The next morning, Dawn informed me this ‘movie star’ was Sylvia Sidney, who was part of a new watercolour work).
We sat down and had white wine and matzo crackers as we talked about our lives, teaching, writing and art. I gave her a tote bag from the Royal Academy of Art and some postcards, which Winfred and I had purchased a few weeks before.
Dawn gave me some maple sugar candies and a copy of Fence magazine from 2010. She said ‘it was only magazine that had her work in it that she could give me.’ I filled her in on the first part of my holiday in England. This included classes at the Birmingham Quaker Centre and a few days in Cumbria to visit friends with whom we walked around and photographed each other at Castlerigg Stone Circle and had lunch on Lake Windermere.
After getting caught up in her studio, we drove around scouting places for the AQ 2014 Yearbook reading that January. We visited Pete’s Candy Store, the Perogi Gallery and a few Dumbo bookstores. (The event was held at the Anne Frank Center). Then we had a roast chicken and sausage dinner at the Vinegar Hill House restaurant. Afterwards, Dawn drove me back to my hotel near Penn Station, where miraculously, we found a parking space, so she came up to my room for a few minutes. There I asked her opinion on two different background colours for the AQ 2014 Yearbook (sand v camel) and I gave her a copy of the AQ 2013 Yearbook along with a William Morris birded wallpaper blank book so she’d start keeping a journal.
From that time, Dawn and I emailed and skyped with each other, on and off every other month or so when either of us had time in our busy schedules On 5 Oct 2014, Dawn sent me a PDF of a clear glass vase holding long, greenish flowers It was part of her ‘Chrysanthemums’, 2014, watercolour that would later be part of the installation she was drawing for her Bates College show in January 2015, when she would also start teaching at Brown. Her busy autumn schedule would include helping move her mother, ‘little visiting artists jobs … that (will) help me pay the rent,’ and graduate student critiques work ‘at the Maryland Institute College of Art.’ Dawn was so busy she even apologized that her 16 January 2015 Bates opening would prevent her from attending AQ’s 2014 Yearbook reading just two days before.
Buried under work, Dawn apologized repeatedly for not answering my e-mails for weeks or sometimes even months. However, this hard work did finally deliver some results. On 20 March 2015, she wrote she’d gotten a ‘full-time position at RISD’, happy it would give her financial and health benefits. She decided to commute up to Providence from Brooklyn to teach there. I had written Dawn about trying to get together in NY in May or June, but she said she couldn’t. She had an opening in Hudson, NY around 1 June and a possible two month residency. I wrote her back congratulating her on her RISD job and told her about my recent memoir about Thom Gunn in AQ12. In July 2015, I told her to ‘take care of herself,’ reassuring her that ‘We’ll get together when things settle down for you.’
Due to her hectic schedule, however, I didn’t hear from Dawn again until March 2016. She apologized for not corresponding for a while, but indicated she had ‘been … consumed and exhausted by her very extensive schedule….’ She sent an e-mail from a train on her way to work at the Yale where she worked as a ‘critic’ in the MFA programme. She mentioned studio visits, conversations, critiques and ‘admissions interviews.’ She admitted it was a bit much — RISD plus Yale and even Cranbook Academy near Detroit) — but said she ‘enjoyed engaging in mature conversations with young artists.’ She ended her email apologizing again for her late reply and hoped I was well.
I thanked Dawn and advised her to take time every now and then to ‘pause, breathe and enjoy. Draw something on a scrap of paper as you did on that train ride in Europe that lead to your first big project. Just as then, the pieces will put themselves together later.’
Just two months later, however, Dawn’s life took an unexpected and unfortunate turn. On 29 April 2016, she wrote she had cancer. She also mentioned how ‘kind and helpful’ her mother had been caring for her in hospital. She described Bellevue as an ‘enormous factory of a hospital,’. She wrote ‘the medical show’ had ‘more colour than Amherst, Massachusetts’. Perhaps Dawn was putting a brave face on things by looking outward, because in the next paragraph she wrote ‘there’s more in store.’ In addition, she thanked me the Morris bird blank book I’d given her in July 2014 and reported:
…. it has been helpful to write,…. I thought of … what you told me to do in this book, and now, at long last, … I will start to write….
I responded the next day with my regrets about her diagnosis. I told Dawn to ‘get plenty of rest, take your medication, don’t move around too much … (and) Keep in touch where you’re feeling up to it.’ To try to take her mind off her illness, I mentioned Winfred and I had just recently bought a miniature dachshund pup called Rex, who was ‘two hands big’ when we brought him home, and was now ‘an armload and still growing’.
On 11 June 2016, I emailed Dawn asking how she was. I also mentioned it was so unusually warm in June, that, for the first time, I’d had to run a portable air conditioning unit in my flat. She wrote back the next day saying that she was ill, had just had her first round of chemo and couldn’t write much. I was sorry to hear that she had been in hospital and hoped she would soon complete her treatments. I attached three, small photos of Rex she could view on her phone with my message.
I sent Dawn another e-mail in August, but I don’t have record of having been in touch with her again until 18 November when, according to my journal, I saw her green light on my Skype panel, for the first time in months, so I decided to call her. Dawn answered right away. I asked if she was in her Brooklyn studio, since it was already dark outside the window. She told me that she was in Rome at the American Academy on a two-month fellowship. I asked her how she was doing. She told me the cancer had returned. I couldn’t say anything except, ‘I’m sorry, I’m very sorry.’ Dawn told me she was expecting another call in the next five minutes, so we kept it short. Dawn returned my skype call on the 21st. I wrote in my journal that Dawn looked a little bit better this time. She didn’t have a hat on (so I could see she still had her beautiful, blonde hair) and the dark circles around her eyes were almost gone. We talked a little about my annual AQ yearbook print production schedule, and she told me more about her health.
I asked Dawn if she’d been enjoying her stay in Rome, including the sights and the food. I mentioned the cool, ancient, underground villas with their wall murals and she said she’d been near there and that Italian food was wonderful. I asked if she was working on anything new, but she didn’t give anything away. She said her mother was coming for Thanksgiving and that they were going to see the Vatican together. I told her to make sure that one of them was in a wheelchair, so then they wouldn’t have to wait in long lines to see things. I asked if she’d like an ARC of the AQ 2016 Yearbook, and she said yes. I sent her a copy and a box of German chocolates wrapped in Dutch Sinterklaas paper.
On 20 December Dawn wrote she found ‘a happy surprise’ in her AAR mailbox. She thought the chocolates were delicious and ate the whole box in one evening. She asked about my health and said she was starting her second round of a new drug which had sometimes given her ‘heart attack symptoms.’ when walking, so she had to ‘stop and wait and go VERY slowly.’ Despite her health, however, she said her stay had been ‘very productive.’
I responded that I was very happy the box of chocolates had helped her stay up all night and create. ‘The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom,’ (William Blake) I reminded her. I also told her about the time my legs suddenly stopped working once on the Leidseplein (and I’d neglected to wear my leg braces per my doctor’s instructions). It took me a quarter hour to slowly, walk crab-like, the last 25 metres into a Central Station-bound tram.
We skyped a few days later and I told her about my pillbox, which I drybrushed in Photoshop to illustrate my poem ‘The Rattle’ that would appear in AQ18 that spring. She directed her camera down quickly to show several opened foil medicine holders on a burlap background on a table, which she was drawing and which would later become part of ‘Three Tables in Rome’ (the table farthest to the right), watercolour, 2017.
The next time we corresponded was on 15 February. Dawn wrote that her reply would ‘be brief’ because she would be going to teach at RISD for a few days and that was worried about her ‘stamina’ and hoped her time at RISD would ‘be healing.’ She added that RISD had given her twice as many TA’s and that her health was ‘mixed, but hopeful’, since she was trying to get treatment with a new drug. She also mentioned she had joined a support group. Dawn thanked me for sending her photos of Rex in various outfits and poses: ‘GQ Rex’, wearing a new hand-knitted winter jacket; ‘après-ski Rex’ wearing the jacket on a leash in the snow; ‘GQ Rex’ reclining on a leather sofa displaying his family jewels; and ‘Cheshire Cat Rex’ with a ball, with large, white teeth painted on it, in his mouth.
On 1 April, I sent a bouquet of mixed flowers to her Tables and Pills and Things show at the Pierogi Gallery on Suffolk Street in Manhattan. She wrote me back on 3 April thanking me for the flowers with photos of them in a vase in her flat. On the 23 June, I sent Dawn a postcard of Gerrit Rietveld’s, Harrenstein Bedroom, 1926, while waiting for the monthly AQ writers’ group to begin. I wrote that I’d just attended the press showing of the Edward Krasinki retrospective at the Amsterdam Stedelijk. I wrote that the show had just been at the Tate Liverpool and ‘they could have kept it there. This guy’s signature move is to put blue electric tape on the wall’ (and sometimes through other people’s artwork) ‘to break it into two planes — a sort of minimalist constructivism.’ Stealing a line from Bill Sherwood’s film Part Glances, I continued: ‘There’s more art in one square inch of your panoramic interiors than in this entire show!’
Dawn contacted me at the end of June, when she was at Yaddo in a room with a large window that looked out onto a dense wood. (She had asked me if she should continue to apply to programmes, and if she should mention her illness. I advised her to keep applying, to not mention her illness, to take her drugs with her and to arrange transport to nearby hospitals for treatments, if necessary). She reported ‘no real progression of her disease’ which was good news.
In later emails we joked about and discussed what she could draw at Yaddo. I suggested a reflection of the window in front of her with a scene from Rear Window on the TV or PC, or from the window, have a view of the iconic, criminals’ lair in North by Northwest, or draw a picture of the project she working on and have its reflection and that of the room behind it in the big window with or without herself at the table.
Dawn listed three drawings she might attempt. The first in ‘black ink’ … ‘of objects on a table with the woods in the background.’ The second in colour, she’d ‘do at night.’ to take advantage of the big window’s mirror effect. She’d ‘split the image between (the) directly observed table top and the mirror image of the table top.’ The last would be in a ‘limited black palette and vermillion Sumi inks.’ with ‘surface graphics of the objects. No shadows.’
In late September, I travelled to the Communal Studies Association conference in Zoar, Ohio, where I would read a paper. Just before I left, however, I sent Dawn a Sophia Loren biography, which included photos of Loren as a young woman with friends and handwritten correspondence in Italian. On 15 October 2017, she thanked me for the book ‘chock-full of information!!!!’ and said she was ‘inspired by my energy and spirit.’ She referred to her Yaddo experience as ‘tremendously productive.’ Unfortunately, she wrote her cancer therapy ‘wasn’t working’ … and that she was ‘quite depressed, but pressing on all the same.’ She added she was ‘crazy busy now with teaching,’ but was looking forward to ‘mid-December’ when she would have a two-month holiday to work on her art. She ended her letter with ‘you inspire me’ and her love. Around the beginning of December, I again posted Dawn an ARC of the AQ 2017 Yearbook.
I wrote Dawn again just after Christmas. I mentioned switching on the holidays lights to chase away the winter blues, and that I could call her whenever she wanted to talk. Unfortunately, I didn’t hear from Dawn again until 11 February 2018 when she emailed her health ‘had taken a serious turn from the worse.’ She had just begun a new drug trial and was on painkillers, so it was sometimes difficult for her to ‘do anything.’ Despite her situation, however, she expressed concern for me and hoped I was ‘feeling better than … last December.’ Six weeks later on 24 March she wrote with good news after I had telephoned and left a message. Her ‘cancer makers were down,’ and she was off ‘the pain killers.’
On 22 June, I wrote her with my US itinerary for October/November, so we could try to meet. I mentioned the Wayne Thiebaud cakes postcard I’d sent her from his European retrospective at the Van Linden Museum in The Hague with a link to my review in AQ22. Dawn emailed a week later saying it was ‘pretty awful’ that Thiebaud and some of his paintings (there were three or four empty spaces on the walls) didn’t make it for his show’s opening. She had recently sent out a group email stating how she was doing because she didn’t have time to write everyone separately. In her next missive, she confided ‘between you and me, I am losing some hope.’ The trial drug had stopped working and then ‘the rate of growth was dramatic.’
She also wrote that gone to Angels in America on Broadway. ‘It may seem strange to attend … in the midst of all this bad health news, but it was great and I’m glad I went … with a very good friend, Judy.’ Dawn reported that after she left the theatre, she ‘sobbed. … glad to express … my extreme sadness.’ She then wrote that she ‘had started of book of drawings’ and wanted to do ‘at least a page per day.’ She ended her email with news that she’d been invited to MacDowell from Sept. 5 to Oct. 15, and hoped she would ‘be well enough to go.’
I told Dawn I would have a lot to share with her when I saw her in New York. I would have just visited my paternal grandmother’s father’s village in Banco, Trentino, Italy the month previously. In the meantime, I would try to post another box of inspirational chocolates to her at MacDowell.
There were a few mails in between, mostly with regard to making an appointment to meet in Manhattan. On 9 August, Dawn let me know she had received the chocolates.
On 25 October 2018, Judy brought Dawn to meet with me in an Italian café in Koreatown near Herald Square. During our meeting, Dawn told me that her doctor had begun to discuss hospice care and said he hadn’t given her longer than the end of the next month to live. From my experience with at least a two dozen people with AIDS (including two partners), I knew what talk to about at a last meeting — the weather, college, hobbies or music, a pleasant mix of the present and the past, but not the future, and certainly nothing about drugs or treatments.
I had also brought two gag gifts — faux Delfts blauw teabag and spoon caddies in the shape of a teapot and a wooden shoe respectively. These made Dawn giggle and laugh as she carefully extracted them from their protective cardboard and blue-and-white wrapping paper. I hoped it made her forget, at least for a few moments, the gravity of her situation. I showed her the earliest pre-production copy of the Amsterdam Quarterly 2018 Yearbook. She said she especially liked Peter E. Murphy’s ‘Open’ photo on the back cover, which showed a valve with the word ‘OPEN’ stamped on it, rusted shut. I told her I would send her an ARC as soon as they were ready.
I also showed Dawn my photo book of my paternal Italian-America grandmother’s family’s village, including the font where my great-grandfather, one great-uncle and one great aunt were baptised, and the location of their flat, with its view of apple orchards and the Dolomites. Upon my returned from the toilet, I noticed Dawn taking photos with her phone of the pre-production copy. She said she had done that so she’d ‘have something to read later.’ Dawn also noticed a picture of Rex on my phone, sitting on a dark blue pillow and she asked for a copy, which I emailed to her that evening.
Saying goodbye to Dawn for the last time was not only emotionally, but physically draining. As I rolled to the Herald Square taxi stand with her, I suddenly discovered the last three fingers of my right hand wouldn’t work, so I had to work hard to propel myself with just my thumb and index finger on that hand. I said a last goodbye to Dawn and gave her a hug.
Whilst on the road in the US, I sent her a postcard of the 1954 Kalamazoo Gal, sitting on the hood of a blue and white Chevrolet Bel Air, with news of my readings, which I hoped would make her laugh. As promised, on 4 December, I posted the AQ 2018 Yearbook ARC with a box of chocolates. The next day, however, I received the news Dawn had passed.
There’s a saying in Dutch, Wie schrijft, blijft — S/he who writes, remains (forever). I hope that also applies to artists, and that Dawn knew what an indelible mark she had left in my heart, in the art world, and on paper. AQ