CJ Dawson Introduction: Portals in a Pandemic

Hi everyone! My name is CJ Dawson, my pronouns are she/her, and I am a rising fifth year student majoring in History of Art and Architecture with minors in Studio Arts and Museum Studies. When I’m not in class or drawing I can be found lacing up my cleats as a player on Pitt’s Women’s Ultimate Frisbee team. 

Playing in our last tournament, in California, pre-COVID-19.

As a recipient of the Creative Arts Fellowship, I have been working this past spring with my mentor Gretchen Bender to develop my project called Portals in a Pandemic. This project was largely inspired by my own homecoming with artmaking throughout 2020 and an article by Arundhati Roy titled “The pandemic is a portal”. In this piece Roy emphasizes a desire to move through this pandemic rethinking societal and personal priorities rather than seeking a return to the baggage and injustices of “normality”. Through the medium of an artists’ book, my work aims to identify and explore spaces in our current historical moment that have transformed and can transform us as a result of altered daily behavior in a pandemic. 

Roy’s words inspired me to reflect on my own new routines and approaches to my surroundings, examining what I plan to carry with me as I move through this unfamiliar terrain. The places I inhabit have become liminal spaces as they lost previous associations and I shed the weight of my own past expectations. Untethered from these burdens, our spaces can take on new meanings and encourage growth. The mundane can become liminal. We can shape these spaces and ourselves to reflect movement through this portal and what we want to take with us.

My sketchbooks, previously discarded out of frustration and the lack of importance I assigned to them, the lack of value I believed art contributed to my life, now accompany me wherever I go. My apartment living room became a universe in itself, a space where friends communicate and heal and celebrate. My childhood bedroom became a reunion with my younger self where I sought her imagination and explored what brought her joy. Unbound, at least momentarily, from the typical flux of capitalist evaluation of productivity, academic routine, and social norms, I could occupy these spaces and beyond with larger perspectives. Building these new associations informed changes in my own identity and vice versa. I plan to use my reignited passion for artmaking as a vessel for exploring this portal and an example in itself. 

Throughout the summer I will create an artists’ book to capture and convey my project’s focus. I experimented with several book binding and folding techniques this spring, settling on a circle format in which the four panels of the circle can overlap and shift to create different scenes with seemingly disconnected visual moments and messages. I imagine portals to be a circular shape. This idea might have come from the Portal video game, or perhaps from the sci-fi trope of hovering round teleportation gateways in shows like She-Ra. Regardless of origin, this circular artists’ book shape aligns with my subject of portals while also offering a unique way to destabilize the visual content and explore liminality through unseen connections.

While I don’t know what awaits me after graduation, I would love to become an educator, possibly an art teacher, or work in a museum space in a position that encourages creativity and inclusivity. Working as a Creative Arts Fellow has given me the unique opportunity to recognize the people and avenues of support available for students across disciplines that want to pursue their artistic curiosities. Before this past year I had not planned to continue drawing or painting as a personal practice. I found myself going through the motions, drawing just to finish an assignment, uninspired to create beyond what was expected of me. But through my time in quarantine and Creative Arts Fellowship work thus far, I now can’t imagine my life without creating art.

As I move closer to graduation and step beyond the structure of college classes, nearing the other side of a portal, I hope to draw upon my past experiences in teaching roles and strengthen my voice as an artist and individual in this project to inform my future path wherever it may take me. Roy ends her essay imagining another world, one we step into lightly. I hope to use this project to explore our movements in this destabilized space, contemplating how our perspectives have changed in this moment and how they may shape the next. 

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