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'This Is Really Me: I Love Color.' Dawn Spears Is New Bedford Art Museum's First Artist-in-Residence

Enter the New Bedford Art Museum and almost immediately you may hear voices from a recorded conversation on art from the Narragansett Tribe, based in Southwestern Rhode Island.

The lead speaker, Narragansett tribe member Dawn Spears, has made a name for herself over almost 40 years of artistry; making corn husk dolls, painting clothes, magazine covers, and canvas. 

Examples of her work are on display as part of an exhibit space set aside for Spears, who in December became the museum’s first ever artist-in-residence – and the work illuminates the room in a rainbow’s worth of color.

“This is really me,” Spears explained on a recent Saturday morning at the museum. “I love color. I love sunrises. I love sunsets.” 

Spears was nominated to the residency by the Tomaquag Museum, the Narragansett Tribal museum in Exeter, Rhode Island. 

According to art museum curator Jamie Uretsky, choosing Spears for the position was an obvious decision.

“Her work’s great,” Uretsky said. “It's really exciting and colorful and we really wanted someone who can brighten up the space and bring a cool look to our Instagam.”

Uretsky added that the residency is part of a community partnership and was the result of reflection on the museum’s part.

“In the last couple of years the art museum has been really doing some internal looking and trying to figure out, like, ‘OK, who are we excluding by accident, you know?” she said. “Who are we not exhibiting? What communities are we supposed to be serving that we are just dropping the ball on?’”

As artist-in-residence, Spears has been posting weekly examples of her work to the museum’s Instagram page, as well as hosting online events aimed at encouraging public interaction with her work.

Spears sells her work online through her business, “Kitompanisha,” a Narragansett word meaning “first light” which is also her name in that language.

Many of the items she paints on are purchased at thrift shops. She said that her creativity feeds off of the opportunity to give new life to the objects.

“I’m just looking at what the possibility brings, if every day is like that cycle of giving you the opportunity to do what you can do, make your impact.” she said. “Do something every single day. This gives you the opportunity to do it.”

Among the pieces in a display case are a pink pair of high top sneakers she designed for her daughter.

“This is actually one of the first pairs of sneakers I did,” Spears said. “[My daughter] didn’t end up wearing them because high tops are just not her thing, but it was me playing and saying, ‘Ok, I like this. I want to do more of this.’”

A nearby case displays two of Spears’ corn husk dolls. The traditional craft was her first foray into the art world and was taught to her by her mother.

“My mother told me to pick an art and master it, basically,” she said. “Make that the one thing you’re known for. And she said, ‘Stick with dolls, corn husk dolls.’ So, as a result, I've been making corn husk dolls for almost 40 years now.’”

The dolls are in contemporary native attire, the smaller one holding a child in a cradle board, and the other wearing a black face mask.

Spears explained that they are a reflection on motherhood during the coronavirus pandemic.

“It was really to acknowledge mothers, and that mothers are the ones who have to handle the shift that we’re going through.”

She said the use of modern clothing as canvas is also a way to say that indigenous populations and ideas are not exclusively the product of history. 

That message was not lost on Robin Tierney, a Bridgewater resident who visited the museum with some friends as Spears spoke with CAI.

“What really stands out to me is a Liz Claiborne purse turned into a canvas,” Tierney said, pointing to a purse with a red trim surrounding a kaleidoscopic botanical design. “I think sometimes 'indigenous' is seen as 'in the past.' Using a contemporary brand like Liz Claiborne, I feel like gets rid of that idea of indigenous cultures only being historic.”

Even after almost 40 years making art, Spears said that being chosen for an exhibit like this validates her.

“I remember when I first started doing things I was, 'Meh. Is this OK? Or good enough?” she said. “The fact that it’s here is like a recognition or acknowledgement that it’s OK. I guess that means keep going, right?”

The museum said there will be three more artists-in-residence in 2021 to be nominated by the Immigrants Assistance Center, New Bedford Historical Society, as well as the museum itself along with ArtWorks!.

Spears’ residency ends on February 14.