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Drawing With Thread: Dallas Artist Gabriel Dawe

by Alison Jardine 18 Sep 2014 3:50 PM

Dawe is attracting attention around the country. We tagged along to watch him install a piece here in Dallas last Spring and learn how his childhood in Mexico sparked an interest in embroidery.


Watch Gabriel Dawe create Plexus at 2100 Ross, in Dallas. 

Dallas artist Gabriel Dawe makes physically imposing and yet nebulous sculpture of thread stretched between the points on the ceiling on the floor. He creates a multifaceted geometric shape, the color changing like a rainbow as the viewer’s eye shifts around the form. Essentially a simple concept, like the nail-and-thread art that many children make, Dawe has taken this idea to its extreme, in his words “doing that same idea but in space, and pushing the boundaries of what drawing could be, putting steroids in them. “

Originally from Mexico, Dawe moved to Dallas from Canada, to transition from a career in graphic design to one in art.  He’s created installations around the U.S., in Canada, Mexico and London. Dawe is one of three Dallas artists included in the massive State of the Art exhibition at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art. Closer to home, his next show, Requiem for a Fallen Structure, comes to Conduit Gallery in October and will explore what happens to his work post-installation.

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Choosing thread. All photos: Dane Walters

We caught up with Dawe a few months ago to watch him install a piece inside 2100 Ross, just across from the Dallas Arts District. Dawe’s Plexus inhabits the building’s main stairwell, and is his tallest creation so far.

“It’s going to be a structure that is formed completely with sewing thread, a geometric structure that reaches from the ceiling to the floor, in the central staircase,” he says, as the project began. “I don’t know exactly how much thread I am going to be using, but roughly around 40 and 60 miles of thread. The thread is in 16 different shades, and it starts with blue on the outside, edges and angles, to green then yellow. “

Dawe uses large spools of regular sewing thread, that he selects in turn based on their color to create his rainbow, that fools the eye into thinking the tones fade without seam or transition into the next.

“Photographs don’t do the pieces justice,” says Dawe. “They do make beautiful photographs, but I think with my pieces you have to see them in real life to catch the subtleties. They change as you move round them; they are almost kinetic; the lines … really start messing with your depth perception, and it comes to life when you move around it.”

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Completed work.


How he does it

I asked him how he plans these works.

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Dawe’s plan.

“Every time I have a new installation, I start a dialogue with the space. I have to take into account architectural peculiarities of the space, and see where I can accommodate the hooks that the thread it attached to. It’s always a result of that dialogue that I form, what the installation will look like.

Once I know what I am going to do, there’s a lot of planning to see how much time I am going to need, and how much thread to order. Once I am in the space, I install the hooks. This is the most challenging part, the part I like the least. Using power tools is not my forte. But once they are in place, I start stretching the thread back and forth, one at a time.

I have a plan that I write on paper, so I know what precise steps to make – the plan is basically is a bunch of numbers, one row that are the hooks, then I have a series of numerical sequences – it’s a plan of the connections between the books.”

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For this particular installation, the height presented challenges. Dawe’s assistant stands in a cherry picker, and Dawe uses scaffolding to reach. With the extension pole, he reaches towards the ceiling, and his assistant takes the thread and runs it through the hook. This process continues, over and over.

“It becomes very zen-like, because you get in the zone, and I am counting in my head as I have to be aware what hook I did last. One of the challenges here is that it’s a construction site. I have to focus!

It feels like running a marathon, in that you get into that head space. The best bit is where you are close to the end, and you have only a few hooks left. Finishing a piece is really satisfying. By the end of the installation I need a massage”

It is a very labor intensive process. And it seems a little obsessive.

Yes, it is. Most of my work has a big emphasis on repetition. It’s something in my manner of being, it’s just also this desire of pattern making, and pushing a certain thing to its limit. Like, you know I used to do drawings when I was a kid where you draw a line, then you shift and draw another, and you make a curve. At some point it hit me while I was doing these installations that I was doing that same idea but in space, and pushing what drawing could be, putting some steroids on them.”

From designer to artist

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Hooks and thread.

Dawe’s shift from pens to thread has been a lifelong transition. “You know you grow out of your childhood drawings, and then the way life leads you, you suddenly realize that you are coming full circle to something.”

He worked for a while in Montreal in Canada as a graphic designer, work he initially enjoyed until one day, it was too restrictive, and he felt the need for creative freedom. He quit his job and decided to be an artist.

“Very naively, I thought I could make a living right away. After a year of doing this, I realized it would take a little longer. I was experimenting with collage and painting, and one day I decided I would explore embroidery. “

What prompted that leap?

“When I was a kid in Mexico, my grandmother would teach my sister to embroider, and I never asked her to teach me because I knew it wasn’t allowed for boys. So in my mid twenties, I decided to explore that.

Then I went to grad school and everything started leading me to creating bigger stuff. Embroidery can be very small, and so I wanted to make something bigger than I could do with just a needle and thread. It all came together during my residency at CentralTrak, (University of Texas at Dallas), when Charissa Terranova asked me to do a collaboration with an architect to create a piece. The aim was to explore the relationship between fashion and architecture.

At first my process was a bit crazy. It took me several months, probably five weeks of the actual process of installation. But then, for the next project, I had only one week to install at Conduit. It forced me to look at the process. I came up with a tool that I use so I don’t have to go up ladders, it holds the thread and extends my reach. The tool has had several incarnations but has remained pretty much the same. ”

When I asked for more details, Dawe said it would be like giving away trade secrets.


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Detail from Plexus.

Roots in Mexico, home in Dallas

Dawe felt constricted as a child, and began to search for a new home with more room to experiment and grow.

 “Growing up in Mexico I always felt like an outsider. My family was outside the norm. My father’s family is English, and my mom was the black sheep of her family, and so that combination made me feel I couldn’t fit in. I guess that same feeling is what made me really sensitive to that environment that was limiting. Very restricted in what gender norms are, like with the embroidery. It really affected me. These restrictions were prohibiting me from being myself. Part of that feeling was what lead to me to explore life outside of Mexico.

My first opportunity to leave was when I lived in the UK for one year during college, and that really reinforced my desire to travel. After I graduated I went to Montreal as a designer. I guess one of the things that I really liked about Montreal was the freedom of spirit that town has; it wasn’t so much culture shock, but it really helped me with that feeling of not being an outsider anymore. I think I even have that feeling even more here in the US. That I fit in.

I really felt at home here in Dallas. Texas has this reputation of being this “Red” state, not progressive, and particularly coming from Montreal, which is a very progressive place, people would ask why I chose Texas. I like it, people are really welcoming in my experience. The art scene here is really exciting, and I’ve seen it grow in the last six years. It has offered me a back entry into the artworld at large. Especially being part of CentralTrak and from there having opportunities to show here in Dallas with Conduit Gallery; it started pulling me to the art world.”

As an artist, his influences include light artist James Turrell – he saw a piece of his work in Mexico City as a kid – as well as Anish Kapoor, a British sculptor who “captures what can’t be touched, and makes the infinite visible.” Dawe’s description of Kapoor’s work is strikingly similar to how I would describe Dawe’s own work.

But his two main influences are perhaps less obvious: Vaserely, an influential Op Artist (Optical Art gives the viewer the illusion of movement in still images through color or pattern), and Dawe’s mother, who “loved handicrafts, and had a pretty nice collection of handicraft fabrics, really colorful, so I think that really influences me in my use of color.”

Examining the breathtakingly beautiful Plexus series – the word Plexus describes a network of nerves in the body – it would be easy to conclude it is a cleverly realized exercise in materials and perception alone; what I discovered in talking to him is the extent to which the artist’s life is expressed in every part of it. In every thread is woven his heritage, his mother and grandmother with their handicrafts and embroidery in Mexico, through to his desire to experience something bigger and more challenging than his upbringing allowed.

In a very real sense, Dawe’s work is a visual biography of the artist.

Alison Jardine is an artist from the UK, now based in Dallas. She is a painter in both old and new media and explores the human experience of nature. She’s currently studying for her MFA.

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